Recently I was with my girlfriend while she was touring an apartment in a densely urban part of Los Angeles, California. At one point, the woman who owned the apartment looked out a window toward the east and said that one of her favorite features of the space was its great view of the sunset. Surprised, we turned to see what she was talking about. As we did, we saw the setting sun reflected in the west-facing windows of a nearby high-rise building. It was a sunset alright, though one that was visible only because of the neighboring structure’s hundreds of panes of mirrored glass jutting out of the concrete into the sky above Los Angeles.
My initial reaction to this exchange was one of quiet amazement. It was hard to believe someone could seriously think that a bent and distorted mirror-image of the setting sun was a selling feature of an apartment, let alone a “beautiful sunset.” It might as well have been streaming through on her television. The comment seemed to be just another indicator of the aesthetic blight of urbanized city-scapes, and the skewed sensibilities about nature that over-exposure to them produces.
After a while, however, I started thinking it might be an example of the yearning for relationships with nature that many people express, and that may be a very real need of human beings. Indeed, some researchers believe that humans are “bio-philic” at heart—meaning that deep down we love to be around nature, that we need to be around nature, and that ultimately we suffer if we aren’t. Many studies, in fact, have revealed the physical and mental benefits of contact with the natural world. These include everything from the stress-reducing effects of having potted plants and natural light in office buildings, to the increased critical thinking and problem-solving skills that come from spending time in natural areas. Some studies have even found that simply being able to see pictures or abstract representations of nature in our work and home spaces has positive impacts on our well-being. In light of such findings, an urbanite’s fondness for refracted sunsets appears not only understandable, but perhaps even normal and healthy.
“Simulated nature,” though, is only a simulation, and not as good as living nature itself. This is the conclusion one psychologist drew after conducting multiple experiments in this area. The problem, of course, is that many of us are convinced that, no matter what quantity or quality of contact with nature we have, we can get by just fine. So, absent any obvious signs of “nature deficit disorder,” we tell ourselves we’re alright without sunsets as long as we can see their reflections, or that we’re fine without their reflections as long as we can watch videos of them on our computers. Surely many of us believe we don’t need such trivial things at all, and that if more development means less nature, then so be it. Fortunately, as powerful as our rationalizations on this issue can be, the research has started to show that they’re false. Without nature we’re diminished in subtle but significant ways.
I once read of a study where the goal was to determine the value of the singing of a particular species of bird. Researchers first measured the “relaxing” effect its vocalizations had on people, then calculated how much valium it would take to produce the same feeling in an average adult. In the end, the melodic chirping proved to be worth about $15 per year. Is the moral here that we should willingly let go of more nature knowing we can medicate ourselves once it’s gone? Surely that wouldn’t do justice to birds. Given what we said above, it also seems to reflect a misunderstanding of ourselves. Maybe the conclusion, then, is that we’re only just beginning to appreciate both the deeper value of nature and of its presence in our lives, and that confusing the value of birds with the cost of valium is a sign of just how far off our value calculations can be.
If another group of researchers is correct, it appears that many of us also miscalculate the role nature plays in our developing attachments to the places where we live. Studies of the phenomenon of “place attachment” suggest that, very commonly, our initial sense of connection to a locale is facilitated by its natural features more so than its social or cultural ones. Not surprisingly, it also turns out that when we have these attachments, we respond by taking care of what we love and encouraging others to do the same.
Ultimately, the fact that Los Angelenos (or Chicagoans, or Stevens Pointers, etc.) can find a sense of happiness and natural beauty in their surroundings is a good thing. But this doesn’t mean we should be asking developers to erect more mirrored buildings to reflect more sunsets, or for city planners to institute valium distribution programs after they greenlight the paving of prairies and forests. What we should be doing, rather, is working for more and better green space where we can encounter a natural world that is bigger and more mysterious than ourselves—a nature “for real” that is verdant, vibrant, and alive. Hopefully in doing so, we’ll also put ourselves back into place.
Chris Diehm teaches philosophy and specializes in environmental ethics. When not doing academic work, Chris enjoys kayaking, canoeing, hiking, wildlife watching and, whenever he can get to an ocean, surfing.