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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

The Great Habitat Conundrum

It's taken a long time for me to overcome my techno-optimism.

I was born in the mid-1960s, dropped headfirst into the age of revolutions and techno-utopian dreaming, the child of a computer hardware engineer who built packet switching networks and constructed mechanical neurons for the first neural networks. We were the first family in our neighborhood with a personal computer in 1978. The future was bathed in perpetual blue light, following the ever-rising slope of Moore's Law. Computers would solve every problem, ushering in a golden age of life-changing efficiencies and scientific discovery. 

I began to question these fantasies only as late as 2009 with the advent of the iPad, the device upon which I am currently composing this essay. I was debating with a friend about whether the device would be used primarily to create content or consume it? At the time, I was just beginning to understand how Big Tech was using the internet to hijack our attention, turning us all into pliant, sedentary consumers of media, cynically turning our mundane thoughts and actions into a form of entertainment on social media platforms so they could run ads over it, all the while gathering massive amounts of data on us. In the U.S., we had already been "amusing ourselves to death" for decades, to borrow from the title of Neil Postman's 1984 book about the American obsession with entertainment, but something new was brewing in the culture, the way everyone was bending over their phones in public places, staring into screens.  

In 2021, The Pew Research Center revealed that 31% of Americans claim to be online "almost constantly." Business Insider Magazine recently reported that 70% of internet traffic in North America is dedicated to streaming music and videos. The transformation of billions of people into full-time screen-facing entertainment junkies is historically significant and probably should be counted with other great mass addictions such as China during the Opium Wars, American cities at the height of the crack epidemic, and the current opioid crisis.

Setting aside for the moment the physical and mental health problems associated with too much screen time, the screen-facing society is enabling a massive decoupling of humans from direct knowledge of the natural world. Americans are spending far more time indoors than ever before--walking less, socializing less, and engaging in civic life at a far lower level. In the three decades before the pandemic, polls showed that Americans were already spending up to 90% of their time indoors, but this percentage has increased since 2020. The downstream consequences of these trends will be significant.  

One seldom-discussed consequence of living online and indoors is what I call the habitat conundrum. The more time humans spend indoors connected to WI-FI, the more we acclimate ourselves to the idea that it is desirable to live this way and the less we know or even care about the natural world. By making our habitats so comfortable, convenient, perfectly temperature controlled, decked out, and brimming with entertainment and internet connectivity--a sphere for our domestic and social and work lives--we are disrupting the capacity for human beings to be engaged with nature at a time when the natural world is under dire assault from human activity.  

It isn't simply a question of how much time humans are spending indoors passively engaged with media. This activity---or inactivity---disrupts our natural biological rhythms and turns nature into an abstraction that is mediated through data rather than our senses. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived in small hunter gatherer or agricultural communities where intimate knowledge of the natural world was a condition for survival. Religion, mythology, and even dreams reflected this intense focus on flora, fauna, geological, meteorological, and astrological phenomena. This engagement with the physical world did not always yield correct assumptions, and the scientific method would prove to be a far better tool for inquiry than shamans, priests, or astrologers had been. But pre-scientific age humans were nevertheless far more attuned to the natural world than most of their cellphone-obsessed descendants.  

Consider the Douglas fir tree. Most Americans have one use for this tree, to adorn it with Christmas decorations for a few weeks every year and then haul its desiccated carcass out to the curb to taken away. But long before Europeans arrived in North America, indigenous people had already gathered encyclopedic knowledge of this tree through simple observation and experimentation. In California, The Shasta turned the resin into a poultice to heal cuts, the Yuki used the spring buds to treat venereal diseases, and the Sinkyone brewed a tea from the bark to ease colds and stomach pain. The Kayenta Navajo used parts of the tree to treat headaches and stomach pain. The Pueblo people used the wood for construction, twigs to adorn ceremonial costumes, and needles to brew tea. Prayer sticks, baskets, a natural sealant for wooden jugs---all of these were fashioned from this ubiquitous tree. The creativity and pragmatism evidenced by this list can only come from societies that carefully observe the natural world and have internalized species interdependence at a fundamental level.  

If there is a polar opposite attitude towards the natural world, I see it evidenced in my students. In a first-week warmup assignment in my environmental writing class, I ask students to choose from assignment prompts that are designed to get them thinking about their bioregion: What is the composition of the soil in your backyard? Name three species of tree in your area. Trace the origins of the water that comes from your tap, etc. I deliberately do not put conditions on the assignment so that I can learn how each student approaches it. What path of inquiry will they take, I wonder? Most students will simply pick up their phones and immediately begin googling for information. For example, one student recently chose the phases of the moon as a topic, and she gave me a fully accurate summary of the moon's cycle, using all the correct terminology she had just learned from a website. After she handed in the assignment, I asked her what phase the moon was currently in. She stared back bewildered. "Did you consider going outside and looking?" I asked. She looked genuinely embarrassed that she hadn't thought to do this on her own.  

I wasn't trying to embarrass her. I wanted her to understand how important it is for people to cultivate their own empiricalv understanding of the universe and not constantly rely on the mediation of physical reality by third parties. The student isn't stupid, but she is a pretty typical example of a digital native who has been "living online" at the expense of her basic education as a human being on this planet.  

Another assignment prompt asks students to investigate what happens to their garbage after it is picked up at the curb every week. Nearly every student who chooses this prompt gives me a generic description of what happens to garbage in general rather than tracing the path of their trash to the local dump. A few students always choose the tap water prompt, but again, the responses are predictable. I want them to trace the origins to a local river or reservoir, or better yet, the top of a particular mountaintop where snow melts and flows downhill, but they go to Google and immediately begin tapping in the words 'where does tap water come from'?  

I suppose some of this can be attributed to laziness. It takes another minute of googling and some natural curiosity to discover the location of the local dump or water processing facility, but again, the results are telling. Digital natives float in a comfortable, easily accessible layer of abstraction that shelters them from having to know anything tangible about the natural world.  

This disconnection from the natural world is not necessarily generational, and to be fair, it had been building for decades before COVID herded most of us indoors for a year or more. Suburban life is more sedentary and "indoors" than the more active lives lived by our ancestors in America. Building an entire society around automobiles and then putting a television set in every living room was the foundational precursor to our current condition.  

One final thought: Polling clearly shows that young people are more concerned about the environment than previous generations, and this fact is sometimes touted as a hopeful sign that humans will be able to re-engineer society to make it more sustainable in the long term. I question this logic. I am skeptical that people who have not cultivated a real connection with nature will be reliable allies for the policy and lifestyle changes that are necessary to save us all from extinction. 


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