What is biophilia?

Very early on, That Blog wrote about how people are inherently drawn towards other living things, including plants and animals. The English language (via Greek) has helpfully provided us with a word for this: the term biophilia, which literally means love of life.

Not to be confused with joie de vivre – happiness about everything that’s good in our own lives – biophilia describes the care we feel towards all the other living beings we share our planet with. In particular, it refers to a kind of empathy for the non-human.

Biophilia is why we enjoy watching animals. It’s why we like walking among plants. Biophilia makes us wants to nurture flowers in our yards, adopt a cat, and pass laws to protect endangered species.

Importantly, biophilia is a normal part of the human condition. Most people experience it. Though some people try to cast wildlife lovers and treehuggers as strange, or even as unhealthily concerned about “useless” plants and animals, we should not be intimidated by this. Instead, we should ask those people why they don’t have normal feelings of respect and care towards other inhabitants of our world.

Normal, healthy people also experience feelings of intense distress, even grief, when we witness other life being harmed or destroyed – when we hear about how animals on factory farms are treated, when we see pictures of trophy hunters showing off their kills, when forests are destroyed by wildfires, and when healthy urban trees are “removed” – a frighteningly euphemistic term – to make more space for buildings and cars. Then, normal, healthy people experience a strong urge to do something to help offset this destruction of life. They may feel a desire to donate to a wildlife charity, or to sign a petition telling major restaurants to get animal abuse out of their supply chains. But most particularly, people feel compelled to do something hands-on: to plant trees in local parks, to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, or to tear out their barren lawns and fill the space with a thriving plant community. All of these feelings and actions are collectively known as urgent biophilia.

If you or someone you know is suffering from urgent biophilia, don’t dismiss it as being odd, or as being overly sentimental. Act on it. As our world moves deeper into a crisis of diminishing wildlife populations, disappearing forests, polluted oceans, and a dangerously unstable climate, people acting on their natural instinct to repair our only home may be our best hope of minimizing the damage.

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What is biophilia?

Is global warming good for plants?

Some people deny that global warming is happening. Others agree that it is happening, but claim it isn’t a bad thing. People in this second group often say that global warming isn’t bad because all that extra carbon in the air will promote plant growth, which will benefit agriculture and the environment. Is this true?

Not really.

As described in the last post, plants do need carbon to grow, and they like having more of it around. But, they like extra carbon a little too much.

Let’s explore why by looking at humans and sugar.

Humans like sugar. We generally think of sugar as a bad and unnecessary thing that makes us fat. But, in fact, humans need sugar. In the past, sugar was rare and hard to find. Because sugar was important for human nutrition but difficult to get, evolution fitted us with a sugar craving that drives us to search energetically for this nutrient, and consume it whenever possible. This worked great until the modern age, when sugar became abundant and readily available in our dietary environment. Our biology hasn’t yet learned that it should tell us to eat a certain amount of sugar and then stop. And so, unless we manage to exert a lot of willpower, we end up eating too much sugar, and we get sick from it.

A similar mechanism is at work in plants. A plant’s biology tells the plant to absorb as much carbon as possible. This is very good for the plant as long as the amount of carbon the plant can realistically absorb is not greater than the amount of carbon the plant really needs. However, if a plant was able to absorb more carbon than it needed – for example, due to rising carbon levels in the atmosphere related to global warming – then the plant would happily gorge itself on the extra carbon. In a classic case of too much of a good thing, the plant would then become sick.

This is not just theoretical. Studies have found that plants that binge on carbon really do become unhealthy. Just like humans who eat too much sugar produce body fat that isn’t good for them, plants that absorb too much carbon produce abnormally high levels of starch. And while these plants are getting vegetatively flabby, they store less protein in their pollen.

This means that the plants are not healthy, their pollen does not contain the nutrients that pollen-eating animals need to be healthy, and the parts of the plants that humans eat are similarly lacking in nutrients that humans need to be healthy. Far from being a boon to agriculture, global warming puts plants on a junk food diet that is bad for everyone.

And that part isn’t theoretical either. Studies on how plants react to excess carbon haven’t just been done in the lab. In the US, plants living in the wild have shown a marked decrease in the protein content of their pollen since America began industrializing in the 1840s. That decline has been most severe over the past six decades, when America’s carbon emissions were increasing dramatically.

Global warming is a serious problem that we are running out of time to solve. At this point, we cannot decrease our emissions steeply enough to avoid disastrous warming on our planet. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to not only reduce our emissions, but also actively work to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have not yet invented technology that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, nature has. We call that technology plants.

Global warming will not benefit either humans or plants. But if humans and plants work together, we still may be able to solve this urgent problem.

Is global warming good for plants?

Why is That Blog necessary?

That Blog has now been active for three years, and currently has nearly 200 posts. Those posts document numerous benefits of natural yards, and also report on clear signals that the era of the lawn is rapidly coming to a close.

During that same three-year period, however, the acreage of lawn in the United States has continued to increase, alongside ongoing suburban sprawl, as lawn remains a default landscaping choice in many parts of the country. And, studies still find that many people do not understand or value the many crucial services that urban nature provides for us.

A fascinating report from 2015 – just after That Blog was launched – investigates why experts on the importance of urban nature struggle to communicate what they know to laypeople. The fundamental finding of this report is that while experts recognize that nearby nature is absolutely critical to human health and wellbeing, the average person views nature as a sort of bonus amenity that is nice to have around if there is any space left after inserting houses, schools, workplaces, roads, parking lots, and all the other manmade infrastructure a community needs.

The report finds that many people also struggle with the basic idea of nature in cities. Urban dwellers often don’t view their local parks as nature, despite the presence of trees and other plants. To many Americans, “nature” means someplace vast and far away, the kind of place we visit occasionally on vacation.

In other words, the average person thinks that nature only counts if it’s big, and that we can “stock up” nature to sustain our wellbeing throughout the year. In contrast, experts understand that people benefit from nature as small as a pocket park or a residential yard, and that we need daily exposure to nature to really be at our best.

After comparing the views of laypeople to the knowledge of experts, and examining the communications gap between the two groups, the report concludes that people would value and support urban nature more if they understood that:

  • nature benefits us even when it is small.
  • we benefit from experiencing nature, rather than simply using it as a place to take a walk and get exercise.
  • nature benefits us in specific ways, via mechanisms science can explain.
  • nature is an essential component of urban design; we cannot live without it.
  • we can choose to have more nature in our cities!

For three years, That Blog has examined how even a small planting provides a wide variety of benefits, explored how we feel when we look at naturally-growing plants, explained how plants support our physical and mental health, expressed that natural yards are a great choice for our neighborhoods, and encouraged everyone to garden sustainably with nature!

Until public understanding and acceptance of urban nature is in line with what experts have long known, That Blog is still necessary. In the coming months, That Blog will cover the impacts of global warming, how to be a good neighbor to plants, and what happens to people’s wellbeing when nearby nature is destroyed. But first, That Blog will tackle head-on the key question: How can one yard make a difference?

Why is That Blog necessary?

Why are lawns seen as safe?

If lawns are so dangerous, why do so many people believe they are safe? One reason is that advertisers have spent decades telling us that lawns are safe.

In the post-war period, lawns actually were marketed to women. Advertisements persistently positioned lawns as a kind of outdoor extension of the living room. (This is why lawns are so often compared to carpets.) Lawns were depicted as safe, clean places for children to play, and women were told that not having a nicely-mowed lawn was akin to letting garbage pile up inside their homes or failing to cook dinner for their families. So, wives nagged their husbands to mow their lawns, and lawns continued to serve as a visual symbol, without regard to what they actually did to people and the environment.

As described before, people tend to perceive familiar things as safe. At one time, lawns were not common, and most people didn’t know why they would want one – lawns took a lot of work to maintain, and didn’t seem to provide anything in exchange. But as lawns became more common – driven by social pressure, which in turn was driven by images and meanings created by advertising – lawns and their accompanying equipment became normal parts of the suburban scene. People forgot that these things were dangerous, and stopped following safety precautions. More recent generations, who grew up with lawns, may have never been aware of the hazards just outside their home.

But industries haven’t forgotten. Pesticide manufacturers know that their products are dangerous. Lawnmower manufacturers know that their products are dangerous. These industries quietly lobby against bans and regulations on their products, while investing heavily in advertising to tell us that it is insects and tall grass that are the real dangers. In fact, there is very little evidence to support those claims.

Our brains have evolved shortcuts for assessing risk – shortcuts that don’t always work in the modern world, and that can be manipulated by what special interest groups tell us. By paying attention to where information is coming from, and by looking at the real facts regarding risk, we can make intelligent decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe.

Why are lawns seen as safe?

How do lawnmowers compare to guns?

Gun regulation is a topic of constant debate in America. Lawnmower regulation, in contrast, is not discussed much – although restrictions on lawns and lawnmowers continue to be passed in cities and towns around the country, apparently without much opposition.

Similarly, we hear a lot about gun violence, but rarely see lawnmower injuries reported on the news. Just because we don’t hear about something, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. How do these numbers really stack up?

About 74,000 Americans a year show up in emergency rooms with lawnmower-related injuries. Fascinatingly, the number of Americans non-fatally injured by guns is almost exactly the same: a reported 73,505 in 2013.

Guns are, however, far more deadly than lawnmowers. The 2013 figures report 33,636 deaths due to firearms. Only about 60 deaths a year are attributed to lawnmowers.

When looking at these kinds of numbers, it’s important to consider how much opportunity a person has to be killed by various things. That is, do guns kill more people than lawnmowers because guns are more common?

In 2009, there were an estimated 310 million guns in the United States, not counting those belonging to the military. The number of lawnmowers in the United States is estimated to be closer to 200 million.

So guns are more common, which could account for the higher rate of fatal injuries. However, lawnmowers are more widespread. Approximately two-thirds of Americans own at least one item of powered garden equipment, such as a lawnmower, leafblower, or edger. Only 30% of Americans own at least one gun.

Looking even more closely at the numbers, approximately 9% of Americans own at least five guns. So guns are concentrated in the ownership of a relatively few people, while lawnmowers are more evenly distributed. This likely means that the average person will encounter lawnmowers more often than they encounter guns – and guns are still responsible for far more deaths in America.

Does this mean that lawnmowers are off the hook? The answer depends on what level of risk you’re willing to accept in order to have a conventional lawn. But as we compare risks, it’s worth remembering that the average American is much more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than by a terrorist.

 

How do lawnmowers compare to guns?

Why are lawnmowers so dangerous?

Previous posts on That Blog have explained how lawnmowers are known to injure their operators, nearby children, and uninvolved bystanders. It has been known for a long time that lawnmowers endanger users and passersby. In 1971, the US government rated lawnmowers as the second-most-dangerous product in the average household, and in 1955, the New York Times wrote that power mowers were the number-one hazard for fathers.

Why, then, do lawnmowers remain so dangerous? As in the previous post, it isn’t because it’s impossible to make them safer. Over the years, the government and other organizations have pushed for simple, easy-to-implement safety improvements.

In 1972, Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the new body quickly took on the lawnmower industry. Working with Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports), the Safety Commission produced a set of recommendations.

First, the Commission recommended implementing some safeguards against objects being launched by the mower blades – the number-one cause of lawnmower-related injury. Second, the Commission recommended limiting the noise levels of lawnmowers.

Third, the Commission recommended producing mowers with a dead-man’s switch that would stop the mower if something happened to the operator. The lawnmower industry replied that this feature would be worthless, as people would circumvent the mechanism (for example, by taping down the switch) to avoid the annoyance of restarting the mower every time they walked away from it. The Commission responded that the switch could be made to stop the blades, not the engine – but the industry still objected. Similarly, the industry did not like a proposal that ride-on mowers should be configured so that the blades do not spin when the mower is operated in reverse, a maneuver that is unnecessary for mowing grass but known to result in severe injury to children.

Finally, the Commission suggested that the warning sticker on lawnmowers – which  bore an icon suggesting that a person who sticks their hand under a lawnmower’s blades might receive a minor poke in the finger – should be replaced with a symbol that more accurately conveys the extent of injury that could occur to a person who does not exercise caution around lawnmowers.

It was this suggestion that made it clear that the industry was not opposed to safety standards because they were expensive to implement, or because consumers would simply circumvent them: it was because to implement safety features would essentially be to admit that lawnmowers are dangerous. Instead of making the proposed improvements, lawnmower manufacturers fought every regulation.

The misleading safety sticker can still be seen on lawnmowers today, and lawnmower-related injuries continue to happen to thousands of Americans every year.

safety sticker

Why are lawnmowers so dangerous?

What do lawnmowers do?

Many may remember the frightening scene from the 1971 version of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in which Charlie and his grandfather are pulled towards a huge fan which they fear will chop them to bits.

This is essentially what lawnmowers do.

The rapidly-spinning blades of a powered lawnmower create a vacuum that pulls grass plants in, only to chop off their vital body parts. And, contrary to common belief, the lawnmower does not quickly and cleanly cut the grass. Rather, the fast-moving but not-especially-sharp blades tear the grass, resulting in more severe damage to the plants.

As an earlier post described, grass plants may be aware that this danger is approaching – but, having no effective defense against it, they are subjected to this harmful experience over and over again.

Lawnmowers indiscriminately shred everything they come in contact with – including grass plants, baby trees, small animals, and people’s toes. As we learn about how tall grass causes no identifiable hazards and short grass provides few, if any, benefits, we might also consider how an act of lawnmowing is terrifying and painful for those who have no control over it and no protection against it. Nowadays, awareness is growing that our own survival and wellbeing depend upon having flourishing nature around us, and more and more people believe that they are not entitled to harm other beings simply to satisfy their own aesthetic preferences.

What do lawnmowers do?