Op-Ed: Seriously, Will Nature-Deficit Disorder Turn Fatal?

by on May 3, 2012

Remember nature-deficit disorder? As a former nature boy who spent an inordinate amount of time ankle-deep in creeks, I recall reading Richard Louv‘s Last Child in the Woods with a great deal of interest. That’s the book where journalist Louv put his finger on the thready pulse of kids who have never been allowed to meet nature on its own terms. If they go outside, unplugged, at all, it’s to a denatured, “stay on the trail” environment.

With that in mind, watch this video of a lionness at the Oregon Zoo trying to eat a baby dressed in a zebra hoodie. She can’t, of course, because we’ve invented Plexiglass. But the sense that this video is hilarious is also fascinating. Wherever it’s posted, strident arguments break out between people who respond viscerally to the lion, and people who don’t.

On NPR’s blog, Eyder Peralta has filed the video under “fun,” and says:

You may remember that we’ve written about this genre of YouTube videos before. The last time we touched on it was in January, when Mark wrote about 3-year-old Sofia who courageously stood her ground against a lion at New Zealand’s Wellington Zoo.

Is it courageous for a 3-year-old to stand her ground against a lion? Is it brave for the boy in this video to say “kitty kitty”? It seems a fairly culturally specific reaction. As an adult, knowing what I do about both Plexiglass and lions, I’d probably still step back from this lionness because I recognize this behavior is (in other, non-Plexiglassed circumstances) very dangerous. It’s a pre-rational response, and a pretty good one, even though I have never faced a live lion. (Ill-tempered poodles, yes. Where was Plexiglass when I needed it.)

These kids don’t display that. (I don’t want to make a federal case out of two instances. Probably parents who film their kids freaking out when a lion surprises them don’t post those videos to YouTube.) They do display an astonishing (to me) adaptation to this environment, where nature lives on the other side of the glass or screen, and can’t get to you. And so do plenty of commenters, who dismiss the possibility of anything going wrong.

I know most of us don’t worry about lion attacks in daily life. But there are other animals that merit a fight-or-flight (mostly flight) response.

The other day I was watching a really gorgeous IMAX 3D film at Pacific Science Center, To the Arctic. Not all IMAX nature films are geared at younger kids, but this one clearly was. It’s a G-rated nature adventure that follows a mother polar bear and her twin seven-month-old cubs as they try to navigate a depleted habitat, harassed at one point by a male bear in the mood for a cub-sized amuse-bouche.

Wonderful footage, but narrator Meryl Streep is given an enormous amount of not-terribly-important narration, and when she is not talking, Paul McCartney is reaching a brand-new audience with some of his music. At moments, you suspect the cubs are going to discover a Coca-Cola bottle. The immersive benefits of IMAX and 3D are here marshaled into placing you into a made-up Arctic full of music and pre-school lessons about how a mother polar will sacrifice her own life for her cubs. That last point is made three separate times.

I don’t see any point in alarming the kids, but I think it’s probably just as likely that, if engaged in a fight she can’t win, the mother might sacrifice a cub instead so one might live.

The film assumes you’re on these particular polar bears’ “side,” not the male interloper, and certainly not any of the seals whose mothers I imagine do not fight polar bears to the death for their pups. (Cowardly seal moms!) These are not really the lessons of nature, even second-hand.

Denatured nature films for kids aren’t new–the irreality is just heightened when it’s seven stories high in high definition. So much attention given to capturing Arctic reality as it is, while the narration opts for warm and fuzzy reassurance–as much as is possible in a film that asks whether the Arctic habitat is doomed.

These two instances, together, remind me, firstly, that nature teaches us lessons we don’t necessarily want (Anyone else chased by territorial dogs through the neighborhood?) and that we may not have even realized we’ve learned. People who spend attentive time with animals respond to cues they might have trouble articulating–it’s not telepathy, it’s lived experience, and it’s strongest firsthand.

Secondly, there’s no beating nature as a primary source because it doesn’t exist to tell you a story with a moral at the end. Watching To the Arctic highlights our struggle to tell the “right” story about nature to kids. Somewhere there is an Arctic where cute bear cubs die, but that is not G-rated. That is not the story we’re going to tell today. It is almost never the story we tell. But this is the story that nature tells, that we do not control the narrative. We barely understand it.

One thought on “Op-Ed: Seriously, Will Nature-Deficit Disorder Turn Fatal?

  1. Wow. The comments on that video are horrible. They hurt my brain.

    That kid is obviously completely oblivious to the world around him, far more entertained with the humans in his environment’s reaction than to whatever is behind him. But he’s a baby, and that’s kinda their whole shtick.

    I agree with your point; kids need to be exposed to nature, plants and animals. I did and that’s why I don’t get chased by territorial dogs.