Category Archives: Science

Nature Deficit Disorder

hunting for tadpoles is an important part of a balanced childhood.

So the first thing you need to learn about Nature Deficit Disorder is that it’s not real, but, like Ann Douglas‘s Maternal Distraction Disorder, it should be. The effects are real. The cause is real. But the diagnosis and all of the potentially expensive pharmaceutical treatments are not real.

What is Nature Deficit Disorder?

It is Richard Louv’s attempt to turn our typical thinking about the health effects of non-human nature on its head. All too often we think and act as if the baseline, default state of humanity is to live on concrete islands which we need to expend considerable financial and physical effort to leave in order to have contact with some mythical and highly idealized Nature that brings us above ourselves, elevates us. Whereas, in truth, our baseline and default state is to live in continual contact with non-human nature, and our concrete islands debase us, rob us of physical and emotional health, stunt our thinking, exhaust our spirits, and rob us of peace.

It isn’t that being in nature makes us healthy.

It’s that being OUT of nature makes us SICK.

Hence–Nature Deficit Disorder, or what happens to people when they grow up with asphalt and rubber and html and jingles instead of wood and stone and stories and birdcalls. It ain’t pretty.

Yet we keep choosing the concrete islands. They make us physically, emotionally and psychologically ill, and yet we cling to them as if a little bit of mud is the real threat. A mosquito bite.

Non-human nature isn’t a luxury or an add-on, like a nice pair of shoes or a new TV. It’s more like Vitamin C. You can try to live without it but don’t come to me for sympathy when your gums start bleeding. It doesn’t take much. Even an urban viewscape including trees or a houseplant indoors will make a difference.

You can improve your attention, your focus, your mood, your recovery from illness, your fitness level, your ethics and your decision-making ability all by remaining connected to non-human nature. It’s cheap: no one has yet figured out a way to market the sight of trees on a busy street or put a garden in a bottle. It hasn’t yet been licensed or copyrighted or patented. According to one recent meta-analysis it takes as little as five minutes–five minutes!–to be outside and active for long enough to make a cognitive and emotional difference.

Five minutes. That’s barely longer than it takes to buy a coffee, and you’ll get more from it. And it’s free. And there’s nothing to stop you from buying the coffee and taking it with you. There; I have officially eliminated all of your excuses.

Most importantly, for the parents among you, outdoor activity had especially strong effects on children.

Kids need to play outside.

Greed Stinks: why using self-interest to motivate environmental change backfires

This bee isn't actually greedy, he just looks like it.

If you go to enough environmental activist group meetings, you are bound to hear, at some point, “What we need is more education”; the assumption being that the general public is too ill-informed to know that their behaviours are causing Issue X (biodiversity loss, climate change, smog, ozone depletion, mountain-top removal, whatever), and that if only they knew better, true and correct behaviours would flow forth naturally from their hands and hearts forevermore.

This is bunk.

It’s interest and passion that drive the need to be well-informed, not vice-versa. Pouring knowledge, statistics and information into the cranium of an otherwise unmotivated person is precisely like pouring boiling water into a candle-mold: it won’t stick, and you’ll get them all steamed up.

More importantly, education does not transform behaviour without a great deal of forethought, planning, audience-targeting, message-crafting and follow-up–and even then, Dear Readers, it’s a tough slog. The general public is already overwhelmed with information that they perceive to be irrelevant to their lives, overly complicated or technical, outside of their control, or too frightening to be entertained. Your educational efforts on Issue X when directed towards someone who is uninterested or frightened will almost certainly go to waste, and may be perceived as harassing or worse.

Environmental psychologists have been puzzling over the interesting quandary of what exactly gets people to adopt pro-environmental behaviours (PEB–I do love good jargon) with increasing alarm over the past several decades. Are you ready? It’s not what you think.

It’s values.

OK, it’s not just values; but values count.

Researchers have divided value systemsinto three broad categories: egoistic (concerned mostly with the self), altruistic (concerned mostly with humanity) and biospheric (concerned with living things generally). Those with biospheric values were the ones most likely to adopt PEB even when it cost them in time or money; those with altruistic values could adopt PEB when they learned about how it affected human beings, and preferably human beings close to home; those with egoistic value systems would only adopt PEB when a specific environmental issue threatened them personally.*

But! Researchers also learned that they could manipulate a person’s value system: for example, by “priming” someone with exposure to nature, either through images or through going to natural settings, a person’s value system notably shifted towards biospheric orientations. Whereas priming someone with a message about how adopting PEB X–let’s say, compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, programmable thermostats and fuel-efficient cars–benefited them, their values shifted towards egoistic and they became less likely to adopt PEB in other areas, where it might cost them.

Your kindergarten teacher was right, and the geniuses in charge of Wall Street are wrong: greed is not good. Sharing is good. Greed is bad. Greed is the end of human civilization: the rampant and uncaring destruction of any ecosystem we personally can’t live in where we can derive temporary and short-term economic benefit by such destruction; the devil-may-care extinction of 50-150 species per day on the basis that we personally can’t miss what we never knew; the theft of a viable future from our grandchildren by wanton disregard for atmospheric physics today; the insatiable modern consumer appetite for stuff over any thing that might actually matter (more on that one next time); greed kills. Those who promote greed as an answer to any significant problem ought to be tarred, feathered, and lit on fire in a public square.

OK, not really (I’m too nice for that–I have a biospheric values orientation). But greed is not the answer. When you appeal to people on the basis of greed, you teach them to be greedy. I’m not claiming that greed has never motivated the development of a system or technology with the capacity to be a solution to our environmental problems; it has. But greed prevents us from adopting those systems and technologies in any useful way by encouraging us to spend our savings instead of saving it, as per the Rebound Effect. The Rebound Effect is greed in action.

Selling pro-environmental behaviours on the basis of perceived self-interest backfires, and it backfires spectacularly. Stop doing it.

If you want to save the world–or, if you’d like to move the general public a little bit closer towards a sustainable society on Issue X–move your audience closer to a biospheric values orientation.** The farther they shift towards caring about living things in a global sense, the more receptive they will be to your educational efforts and the more likely they are to adopt pro-environmental behaviours even when expensive or inconvenient.

Whereas when you sell the public on a pro-environmental behaviour on the basis of self-interest, that is exactly what they will do. And that is all they will do. When it’s easy. When it’s cheap. When it affects them personally. And nothing else.


Next up: why modern greed is the biggest shill ever devised, and how shifting towards biospheric values not only opens up space for rainforests, endangered species of frogs and impoverished third-world villages, but for happiness too.


*I’ve posted an annotated bibliography on my favourite papers on this subspecies of environmental psychology for the viewing pleasure of anyone interested in where to go for more information or to track down sources and statistics. Enjoy.

**What that means and how it works is a post for another day, but as a first step: encourage connections and identifications with non-human nature; talk about values–the kind of people we want to be, the kind of world we want to live in, the dreams we have for our children.

Moral High Ground: Claimed

Looking at this picture may make you a better person.

Once upon a time, a boy hit on me on a dating site because I’m an environmentalist. “Environmentalists are usually nice people,” he explained, and I think he still believes that. Now there’s scientific evidence for his anecdotal claim: exposure to nature makes people more generous, caring, and altruistic.*

See? I am better than you. No, wait…

Maybe it’s not that nice people care about the world and get involved in issues like environmentalism. Maybe it’s that people who spend time outside grow both to become more altruistic and more attached to the environment, and express both of those values through activism and in their personal lives.

Or maybe other recent studies are right and people who do the right green thing often offset that by screwing other people over. Of course, that study did nothing to differentiate those who act on environmental issues out of guilt vs. love, or obligation vs. desire. My guess is that those who buy recycled paper products because they love nature will not show the same behavioural patterns as those who buy them because they’re sick to death of the kids haranguing them. Much like someone who eats fruit because they like fruit will probably not eat as much cake later as someone who eats fruit because the kids are watching and the doctor’s been bugging them to lose twenty pounds. Of course this is entirely speculative.

But evidence from environmental psychology has been piling up for a few decades now: exposure to nature is good for us; or, phrased in a more evolutionarily-correct way, nature-deprivation is very very bad for us. People in hospital rooms with a view of a tree heal faster. Walking in nature is more restorative and restful than walking on a city street. No, never mind, just go read Richard Louv’s Last Child In the Woods, and if that doesn’t convince you that adults and children both need non-human nature in their lives on a regular basis, nothing ever will.

And then maybe stop trying to goad your children into behaving better by surrounding them with Proper Moral Messages in book and television form, and supplement that with a few trees and flowers. You’ve got to admit that’s more appealing than yet another half-hour show with a Very Important Lesson learned in the last ninety seconds and delivered at super-human pitch. Trees and flowers: prettier, quieter, and they make you a better parent, too.


*By the way, the author of the SciAm blog post, P. Wesley Schultz, is one of the major researchers in environmental psychology. He knows whereof he speaks.

Wind Energy and YOU

I may be a bit quieter for the next couple of weeks while I work on a new article about wind power, this one about the issues around siting wind turbines or wind farms in and near Toronto. We have one (at the Ex) and if Toronto Hydro gets the results they want from the anemometer off the Scarborough Bluffs, we could have a bunch more. This ruffles all of the usual feathers.

But where exactly are we supposed to build them? Everyone likes renewable energy–and every opponent of any given wind project I’ve interviewed has said that at least once, so it must be true–but somewhere else, apparently. The technical siting constraints are considerable: you need to have enough wind; you need to have enough space; you don’t want to build it in a migratory zone for birds or bats, and you don’t want to chop down significant habitats to construct them. So you might think empty country is better–but then how do you connect them to the grid? Miles and miles of transmission cable aren’t exactly environmentally friendly, plus you lose more electricity in the lines the farther it has to travel. From an economic perspective and from certain environmental perspectives, producing electricity where it will be consumed makes sense. Just like growing food where it’s going to be eaten.

I have no answers yet, and twenty-five days to come up with some and put them in a well-written and persuasive article. Wish me luck.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue of mixing wind turbines and cities. Would you want one in your backyard? Close enough to see it in the distance from your kitchen window? Are they modern works of art or eyesores? If you live in Toronto, what do you think about the WindShare turbine at the Ex and Toronto Hydro’s hoped-for plans off the Scarborough Bluffs? Where should they go, and why?

Pop Quiz: how being connected to nature makes us happy

Want to have an easier time acting on environmental issues? Find a(nother) source of meaning or purpose? Be happier? There’s one simple thing you can do to achieve all three: go for a walk.

Mayer and McPherson Frantz of Oberlin College developed a fourteen-question Connectedness With Nature scale that measures whether someone believes that they are a part of or separate from the rest of nature, and they found that respondents with higher scores were not only more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours (everything from daily lifestyle choices to career) but were also significantly happier. “The magnitude of this correlation [between a connection with nature and happiness],” they write, “is similar to the magnitude for variables like marriage … education … and income within countries.”

In other words, nothing to sneeze at. But how do you go about increasing your sense of connection to nature? It’s as simple as going outside. Subsequent studies have shown that spending even small amounts of time in non-human environments–even wild-animal parks or, in some cases, watching nature videos (though the effects were not as large)–increases a person’s sense of connection to nature.

Which probably explains why this running-biking-park walking-gardening nature-lover can get a tank of gas to last for three months and is spending her work-life and her free time on environmental issues (my score on the scale was about 4.99/5; the mean was about 3.6 and most people fell between 3 and 4.2. I’d post it here but I’m cautious about copyright infringement). It might also be why as a type 1 diabetic single mom of a little girl with an undiagnosable genetic form of dwarfism I am, most of the time, pretty happy, even though I spend a couple of hours every day steeped in climate catastrophe, mass extinction and ecosystem collapse.

Anecdotal evidence, I know. But what do you have to lose? Go for a walk.


Schultz, Wesley P. & Jennifer Tabanico. “Self, Identity and the Natural Environment: Exploring Implicit Connections with Nature.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology (2007) 37: 6.

Mayer, F. Stephan & Cynthia McPherson Frantz, “The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 24 (2004) 503-515

Mayer, F. Stephan et. al. “Why is Nature Beneficial?” Environment and Behaviour (2008).

A changing climate and our feathered friends

This chickadee will probably cope with global warming all right, but not so with migratory songbirds
This chickadee will probably cope with global warming all right, but not so with migratory songbirds

Climate change often sounds like it’s something that happens somewhere else: the ice at the poles melts, island nations (and manhattan) go under water, more Category 5 hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. But what about Toronto? OK, summer’s hotter, winter’s warmer, especially at night–does that sound so bad? (Though keep in mind that more heat means more smog, and smog kills about 1,700 people each year in Toronto.) A longer growing season? More shorts weather? We’re going to complain?

Well, yes. For one thing, those catastrophic weather events will hit here too; in fact, that thunderstorm a couple weeks ago with winds so strong they ripped the heating and cooling equipment off the roof of my office building is exactly the kind of thing that climate change predicts for Toronto. But forget about that. Humans are actually not the only living things in the city. Let’s take one example: birds.

Bird species that over-winter, such as chickadees, may increase. Winter will not be as deadly; food will arrive earlier in the spring. But migratory songbirds (whose populations have already declined by over 50% over the last four decades as a result of habitat fragmentation, pesticides, lighted office towers and tropical/boreal deforestation) will not fare so well. Their migration is frequently driven by hours of sunlight; but the appearance of their food sources (plants, insects, etc.) is often driven by temperature. As climate change progresses and spring arrives earlier, the overlap of the migration routes and food sources will shrink, meaning that by the time the migratory songbirds get to Toronto their favourite tasty caterpillars will already have metamorphosed into butterflies and flown away.

This effect is more pronounced among bird species that migrate over longer distances. Experts hypothesize that its easier for birds to respond to changing climates by changing the timing of migration when the distance is short–say, the mid-US to South Canada–because the climates are not as different, and the mid-US winter will offer clues about the onset of spring in South Canada. But birds that winter in the tropics and fly each spring to Canada’s northern boreal forests have no such clues, and their migration timing is not shifting in response to the changing climate. Sadly, those are the very species whose populations are most suffering already from the issues listed above. For all these reasons combined, experts estimate that 30% of migratory songbirds may go extinct with a change in temperature of 2.0 degrees Celsius (which we have now already committed to, thanks to carbon already released to the atmosphere).

Hooded Warblers and Acadian Flycatchers are two songbird species that migrate to southern Ontario each year from the neotropics; thanks to the disappearance of their preferred Carolinian forest summer habitat locally, Acadian Flycatchers are listed as endangered and Hooded Warblers as threatened; both species are already shifting their habitat northward in response to warming, though how far north they can go when Carolinian forests only exist in southern Ontario is anyone’s guess. The American Bird Conservancy projects that a doubling of CO2 levels will see American Goldfinches move north of Toronto; we are already nearly there.

So say goodbye to goldfinches, Hooded Warblers and Acadian Flycatchers; but you might be able to say hello to the Bobolink, a migratory songbird that currently lives only south of the Great Lakes but, due to warming, will soon be found, experts predict, only in Canada.

Spring may not be silent in a few decades, but it sure won’t sound the same.


There are lots of things you can do to help out migratory songbirds in your community, no matter how urban it is, including:

1. use native plants in your yard and garden to give local wildlife a place to live

2. fight for conservation of local natural areas (birds can use these small areas as stopping grounds on their migration, giving them a chance to rest and eat before flying on northward)

3. build backyard and park habitat like nesting boxes

4. don’t use pesticides or herbicides; these little birds are extra vulnerable

5. join Ontario Nature’s campaign to save the Boreal forest for breeding birds

6. volunteer for initiatives such as the annual Rouge Park bird count to give scientists the information they need to measure population and distribution trends



Warming Climate Outpaces Long-Distance Migratory Songbirds

Birds and Climate Change: Ecological Disruption in Motion

The Effects of Climate Change on Migratory Birds: an annotated bibliography

Climate Change and Birds (Nature Canada)

 Global Warming Threatens Many Bird Species

Skeptical of the skeptics

My google alert on climate change in Canada has been faithfully telling me now for several days about an emerging global consensus that climate change is all a hoax. It’s all over the papers, apparently: all the scientists at the Heartland conference on climate change would like to assure the global public that there is no need for alarm and we can go on burning fossil fuels indefinitely (or at least until we run out–separate problem).

There’s only one little problem: they’re wrong. Rather than reproduce the already-existing and excellent pieces of investigative journalism into this conference, I’ll merely point you to DeSmogBlog (start with this post on the Heartland Institute’s storied past as a mouthpiece for the tobacco industry) and Island of Doubt, the latter of which recently stated:

Here’s the thing: If Will [conservative American columnist known largely for getting climate science embarassingly wrong and refusing to apologize] is right, and there is no global warming, then much of what we think we know about chemistry and biology and ecology and thermodynamics and geology and physics is wrong. If Will is right, then thousands of climatologists are not only wrong, but participating in a global conspiracy to conceal the truth about the state of the planet’s ecosystem. The climatologists have nothing to gain from perpetuating the “lie” of anthropogenic global warming, but they’re doing it anyway, just to be mean.


New article

Not that I have enough readers who don’t know me on other media to justify including the same link in yet another venue, but:

A mighty controversy: do windfarm opponents have their facts straight?

An article on wind energy by yours truly.

I was, frankly, surprised at how poor the case of windfarm opponents was when I dug into it. The problem is, again, that the high-quality research is locked behind a number of firewalls in academic databases and the like. There has to be a way of protecting intellectual property while allowing access to necessary information by the public.

The Geography of Hope

The Geography of Hope had an odd genesis: writer Chris Turner, contemplating his daughter’s future in Canada’s oil capital of Calgary, was driven to find some reason to believe that her life would not be defined by climatic cataclysm.

I think I could teach her to face war, poverty, famine–human problems with practicible solutions, however complex. I could explain to her that life, as wonderful as it can be, is sometimes far from carefree. But I can’t even tell her with any confidence that there is a future with sufficient durability to serve as a drawing board for her lifelong dreams. There’s a legitimate possibility that she’ll face calamity on a scale I can’t imagine, on a scale beyond anything humanity’s ever seen. This is a prospect that makes it hard to think, makes my vision blur with angry, impotent tears. It terrifies me.

Me too.

Turner spent the following year touring the planet, finding examples of sustainability and solutions to the climate change crisis in villages in Thailand, cities in India, eco-communes in Scotland, institutes in America, and a dozen other places beside. As he repeats throughout, “anything that exists is possible”: we already have the knowledge, skills and technology to solve climate change. We just need to get off our asses and do it.

(It’s a salty book, by the way, dropping f-bombs with a far greater frequency than I’m used to in scientific texts.)

Consider the tech revolution, he argues; if someone had told you, in 1992, that one day you’d have a phone you could fit in your pocket that could read newspapers and letters from people all over the world, that could play your favourite songs, take photos, even video, and that you could buy one of these phones relatively cheap in any shopping mall in the western world (and, according to a recent story in the Star, that social-rights activists in the States would argue that having such a phone was a fundamental human right conferring access to potentially life-saving services for poor people), you would have told them they were nuts. It only took ten years to go from a world in which computers were relatively bulky and expensive desktop beasts useful for printing out term papers or keeping track of budgets to little lap-sized miracle gadgets that provide access to the world’s entire stored knowledge-base–and what it took to go from A to B was a whole lot of foolhardy investment in technologies and ideas that no one thought would work.

We’ve done it before, we can do it again. That’s his argument. And hey, this time it might save our collective lives, so supposedly there’s an additional incentive in there somewhere. The world can change on a dime.

Another example? Consider this quote, from near the book’s conclusion, about the futility of waiting for meaningful governmental action on climate change:

Who really expects anymore that dramatic, positive change will come into their lives from the current round of trade talks, the next stage of Kyoto negotiations, the coming election cycle or the one after that?

That was published in 2007.

Remember, on Tuesday, how impossible Obama’s victory seemed just one and a half years ago.