the Internet Reconnect Humans with the Environment?

Rastraraj Bhandari | Aug. 18, 2020

If you grew up watching Animal Planet in the early 2000s, you would fondly remember the words of the late Steve Irwin. Steve was a wildlife warrior and one of the greatest conservationists of his generation. A blond Aussie with an exuberant accent would soon become a role-model to my younger self growing up in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.

At the age of 11, I became the President of a children’s eco club where we used to plant trees and collect trash from the streets. At age 14, I was old enough to attempt to follow the footsteps of Steve and was awarded a membership to feed gharial crocodiles at the national zoo in Kathmandu. A few years later, I had my first encounter with climate change at the foothills of Mt. Everest after the 2015 earthquake. During my stay, I noticed that the hotel staff left behind the hotel guests and hiked uphill for 2 hours every night seeking shelter due to fear of a potential glacial flooding triggered by the recent earthquake. Their fear became my catalyst to be a steward for the environment.

Over the years, working, studying, and lobbying for the climate movement has lent a pragmatic focus to my idealism. From advising government clients on legislative reform to working with other clients on broader corporate transactions in environmental markets, my outlook on climate change expanded from a naive, sophomoric activism to an appreciation for the need for serious study, considerable reflection, and concrete action. I saw how my journey, which began in spending time with nature, had somehow brought me into a world where negotiations are rampant, cost-benefit analysis is the norm, and many of the warriors of the global environment are fighting from their office desks.

In looking back at my younger self, I think of how much my interactions with nature shaped my desire to become an environmental steward. With that, I cannot help but wonder about today’s young generation and their interactions with and understanding of nature. Do young people today have the same opportunities to interact with nature as the previous generations? What does our interaction with nature look like in the age of the internet and social media? And finally, what does that mean for us, the climate action movement, and our collective future?

Young People and Our Interaction with Nature

The pursuit of economic growth has come at the expense of human interaction with nature as the global notion of development is increasingly in conflict with natural ecosystems. Additionally, with the rise of modern day technology, children are increasingly spending more time in the virtual world than outside. A survey of more than 2000 eight– to twelve-year-olds in the UK showed these results:

Figure 1. How much do children engage with nature?

The American writer Richard Louv, author of the bestselling book “Last Child in the Woods,” defines the phenomenon of spending less time in nature as the “nature deficit disorder.” While it is not recognized as a medical disorder, Louv claims it is a problem because spending time outside is integral to increasing learning ability and creativity as well as fostering better mental, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. Students find that some emotional benefits of spending time outside include better self-awareness, reduced aggression, and increased happiness.

In addition to health and wellbeing, the act of being in nature certainly leads to a greater understanding of and familiarity with our natural environment. This familiarity is the first step in a possible appreciation of nature as such knowledge of nature and its importance can be the catalyst for fighting to preserve it. After all, this is how I, and many others, ended up fighting for the climate movement.

There is then an element of “attachment” to nature which, despite its benefits, is often ignored in discourse surrounding the human interaction with nature. Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist and anthropologist, who changed the way we think about chimpanzees by giving individuals human names in the 1960s, argues that we should use a similar approach to name and protect trees. This practice was also performed by researcher Dian Fossey who, by assigning names to mountain gorillas in East Africa, was able to connect thousands of people to these gentle giants and form a constituency of supporters for their conservation. Although the implications of such anthropomorphism of wild beings is still greatly debated in scientific circles, there is no doubt that these acts were able to make the general public feel more connected to and care more deeply about these animals and their protection. Such emotional connections to nature provide children with another avenue to joining the environmental movement, an approach that can be self-perpetuating and long-lasting.

Nature, Technology, and the Climate Action Movement

Studies suggest that only 21% of today's kids regularly play outside, compared with 71% of their parents. The ability to interact with nature is even more challenging for children who grow up in households with a low socio-economic status or in conflict-ridden areas and slums. Both our relationship with nature and the risk of climate change disproportionately impact underserved communities, making this an issue of racial injustice and economic inequality as well. Environmental racism has been increasingly coming to light in recent times. A study suggests that children from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) households in England were less likely (56%) to visit natural environments compared to non-BAME households (76%).

While the younger generation may have fewer opportunities to interact with nature compared to previous generations, we are still at the forefront of the environmental movement worldwide. For example, first initiated by Greta Thunberg and other young activists to protest the lack of action on the climate crisis, “Fridays For Future” has emerged as a global movement spanning more than 7,500 cities and 13 million young people. The desire for a common future that protects the environment is the driving force behind these youth movements.

Fridays for Future - Kathmandu, Nepal

While the advent of technology and the internet can be partially blamed for reducing young people’s interactions with nature, technology, primarily in the form of the internet, has also proven to be highly effective in rallying young people for a common cause, like “Fridays For Future,” and providing alternative ways to experience unattainable realities. Against this backdrop, I explore the role of technology, mainly the internet, in providing alternatives for interacting with nature and in impacting the climate action movement.

Changing Landscapes and the Way Forward

Technology can provide the short-term alternative to being in nature for young people, especially when health-driven physical distancing measures make it more difficult. Yet, it undoubtedly cannot and should not ever replace actual interactions with nature or de-incentivize our fight for a better future. That being said, in areas where access to nature is not a feasible option, technology can be used to provide people with alternative means to interact with it.

This particular application of technology is not a new thing. Research on haptic technology, which recreates the experiences of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user, has emerged in recent years. Virtual Reality and simulated nature labs are another example of emerging immersive technologies. Recent years have also seen the development of the recreation of nature in an artificial setting. For instance, the rainforest canopy, The Green Planet, in Dubai is an artificial natural reserve built indoors to tackle this problem.

However, albeit promising for the future, these technologies are expensive, making them mostly available to wealthier countries and regions, which can further exacerbate the inequality that already exists in terms of access to nature.

As an alternative to these technologies, there is an increased possibility of leveraging the internet to replicate experiences with nature. This is not only cost-effective but also largely scalable given the penetration of the internet is already quite high around the world. Of course, despite its global usage, accessing the internet is still a privilege that many communities cannot afford. Furthermore, the environmental costs of the internet including the increase in emissions caused by data storage cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, the internet does provide some promising avenues for climate action.

An example of this comes in the form of virtual tours on the internet. In 2015, Google launched a largely successful virtual tour of Nepal’s Everest region giving people the opportunity to see the world’s tallest peak up-close. The idea of virtual tours has gained increased momentum following the COVID-19 outbreak. Jane Patterson, who was compelled by Louv’s book on nature deficit fifteen years ago to organize bird-watching sessions for kids, has now launched a weekly virtual group. According to Google Keyword Planner data, the number of times the phrase “virtual tour” was searched on the internet increased seven times, from 1,300 in February to almost 10,000 in March. Consequently, Forbes has created a list of 15 of the most popular virtual tours in the world at this moment which range from a tour of the San Diego Zoo to a tour of a 3D replica of the surface of Mars built by Google and NASA. In many ways, virtual tours seem to be an expanded and much more decorated version of a nature documentary. In addition, compared to static nature documentaries, these tours focus on a visitor-centric approach which makes them a particularly memorable experience.

Google Maps Everest Virtual Tour

An equally important question is the manner through which such internet-based resources can be provided to young people. This can be done either in direct ways by mainstreaming virtual tours in educational curriculums and pedagogy or indirectly through incentivizing children to partake in such activities voluntarily. What such approaches entail should be left to educators, environmental experts, and children health experts to design.

Of course, the internet has also been valuable in mobilizing young people around the climate movement. The best case for the internet’s power can be seen by presenting its counterfactual: it is unlikely that the environmental movement would have gained such attraction in the absence of the internet. The access to a global repository of information (whether it be on climate change, environmental injustices, local resistance, or innovative solutions) alongside the ability to mobilize at relatively little financial and personal safety costs has made the internet an extremely important and reliable tool for the environmental movement. This repository of information is also a constant source of visual imagery and visual narratives that have the power of giving accessibility to these environmental realities.

As young people are seeing the living environment deteriorated by government action and inaction leading to a lack of opportunities to interact with nature, we are increasingly expressing our anger on the streets and so are at the forefront of climate action.

The internet may prove to be a great asset to aid this cause in two ways: (1) By allowing those of us with limited access to nature the ability to see it and interact with it through a screen, and (2) by allowing those of us who care about nature and our future environment to rally and organize to fight for it.

It is imperative for young people to spend time in nature not just for our mental and physical health but also to ensure that we have our personal stories with nature. However, one must remember that it is only a band-aid to the problem. If decisive actions are not taken immediately, it is only likely that our connectedness to nature will deteriorate moving forward.

We believe in furthering the conversation on nature & the internet beyond this article. Here are a few resources from Rastraraj to get that started:

1. The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge | Ingrid Burrington

2. Can the Internet Survive Climate Change? | Kevin Lozano

3. Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think | Sarah Griffiths

4. Kids do not spend nearly enough time outside. Here’s how (and why) to change that. | Colin O'Mara

5. Why our children need to get outside and engage with nature | Jon Henley


Chart credits to Sohail Bagheri