The Greatest Show IS Earth

Greatest ShowScientists Oliver Pergams and Patty Zaradic have coined the term “videophilia” to describe “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media”.1 So humans now seem to suffer from an ailment involving a craze for nature as delivered through various media–TV shows, movies, magazines, pictures, etc. Rather than getting out and getting dirty, many folks are “experiencing” the natural world from the comfort of their couch, remote in hand, HDTV set to “stunning,” sound system at full blast, and snacks and drinks within arm’s reach. Lights! Camera! Action!

Having received the Planet Earth complete series on DVD as a birthday gift this year, I have witnessed just how fascinating and enlightening these presentations of the Earth can be. After watching the series (I was hooked after the very first episode), I felt a newfound respect for the Earth; equally powerful was a sense of dedication to preserving all of those wonderful things that the show explored. And there is no way I would have been able to go to the Himalayas, to the African deserts, to the depths of the oceans, to both poles, or to so many other places. Simply put, this birthday gift was one of the best I have ever gotten. (THANKS MOM!)

Through secondhand knowledge (I do not own a television myself), I understand just how popular nature-related programs have become on TV. Thanks to channels like Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, the Earth has become quite a “celebrity” on the small (and, in some cases, big) screen. Like me with Planet Earth, then, millions of people across the planet are gaining new insights about the planet they live and depend upon; perhaps they are gaining newfound respect and love for that planet, too.

So I commend all of these media outlets for what they have done in making the Earth a modern-day pop star. At their best, they provide knowledge that would never be acquired (or even pursued?) otherwise.

But, skeptic and pessimist and Luddite that I am, I have to agree with Pergams and Zaradic in their concerns about this outbreak of videophilia. Those same HDTV screens can be double-edged swords, since the comfort and convenience of nature-on-the-screen all too easily makes the real natural world dispensable, as it were. Why go outside and look at the same old trees and flowers and birds and critters when you can see exotic species, faraway landscapes, and unsolved mysteries in a climate-controlled, hi-def, fully snacked world inside your house? Why bother preserving nature if it is already “preserved” on a DVD or TV reruns?

You may see where I am going with this. Doctors and teachers and parents and so many other concerned individuals are warning us about spending too much time in front of various technological screens–from computers to iPods to cell phones. Whether it be obesity, ADD, or broken familial/social bonds, the drawbacks of a “wired” culture are ample and fully evident in virtually every culture today.

As a result, a “lazy-man’s” nature is only one more method for being a spectator rather than a participant. Instead of burning calories and building muscle weeding the garden, climbing a hill, or maneuvering a kayak, people who are exclusively spectators of nature-on-the-screen gain none of the health benefits that being active in nature provides.

Even worse, they gain none of the HEART benefits that being active in nature provides.

After all, we humans are in truth “animals” ourselves (though whether we are “higher animals” is open to question, I think). We are an integral chain in the food chain, a living member of the planetary body, an irreplaceable element of the holistic homeostasis that is nature. Without us, nature is not fully nature, Earth is not fully Earth. As William Blake said, “Where man is not nature is barren.”2

This “tuning out” of Nature in order to “tune in” to nature-on-the-screen is a tragedy.

Having gotten a PhD, I honestly believe I have learned more from being out in the garden, taking a walk every day (rain or shine!), and putting up bird feeders than I did in all those years of schooling.

Having experienced the ability that nature has literally to save a person, if he or she opens up and tunes in to the power and glory available in every single tiny little pixel in the Earth’s big screen, I honestly believe that nature is at its best when we are out participating in/with it.

Having dedicated myself to helping preserve nature so that others may experience the same magic that I have, I honestly believe that nature-on-the-screen may become too “virtual” for people to feel as dedicated to preserving it, since they might not gain the same direct, firsthand experience of nature’s powers.

By all means, then, let the screens be set aglow with images of lions chasing wildebeest, snow blanketing Mt. Everest, humpback whales plumbing the oceanic depths…. Lights! Camera! Action!

But please, oh please oh please, at least go outside and roll around in the grass during commercials!

Image credit: Belinda Hankins Miller via Flickr.
1. Pergams, Oliver R. W., and Patricia A. Zaradic. “Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16-year downtrend in national park visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices.” Journal of Environmental Management 80 (2006): 387.
2. Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. With commentary by Harold Bloom. Newly rev. ed. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1998. 38.

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