small dog jumping in the air

The irony of naturalness

We are so far removed from nature we cannot touch, see or smell it—but we still prefer the nature-friendly option

Everyone loves a cute cat video or a Tic Toc of the neighbour’s dog jumping up to see over the fence. 

Nature documentaries from Sir David Attenborough remain as popular as ever, and surveys tell us that most people will agree that the planet is valuable to them.

At some level, most likely buried deep in our lizard brain stem, we resonate with these animal antics because we recognise ourselves as part of nature.

So here is some ironic evidence from research that looked into what people preferred among options to mitigate climate change, in particular actions that would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so-called CDR strategies.

When people were asked to choose between technology fixes like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage or direct air capture and the more nature-friendly options like growing trees or putting carbon into the soil, they preferred actions perceived to tamper less with nature.

The survey also asked respondents, “Do you believe climate change is really happening?” and 92% said “Yes, definitely,” or “Yes, somewhat,” rather than “No.” 

Almost all the respondents thought climate change was real and preferred natural solutions over technological fixes. 

Pause on this for a moment.

Climate is changing, and we prefer to fix it with actions that don’t mess with nature.

Pause again for the irony to sink in.


Unnatural lifestyles

Keen to understand more, the researchers applied some multivariate regression to the survey data and concluded that ‘perceptions of naturalness emerged as a significant predictor of support for every CDR strategy in the survey’.

If it’s natural, we like it. 

But here is the thing.

Modern lifestyles, at least in the mature economies of North America, Europe and ever greater parts of Asia, are the most unnatural the planet has ever seen. 

Sir David could have told you that.

Nature is exploited for its energy and resources, including land to grow food, and the environment is expected to absorb the waste from energy and resource use. 

There is a disjunct between what we say we want and what we have and have allowed—many have or aspire to a living room like this one. 

picture of a modern living room in jersey city

Not a lot is natural in this Jersey City living room. Photo by Spacejoy on Unsplash

No more hanging out under the shade of banyan trees.


What sustainably FED suggests

At sustainably FED we used to rant at human contradictions like the one highlighted in this post. 

The energy and resources used to build our living rooms and make them separate from nature is a massive contribution to the climate problem and the bigger one of sustainability. But when asked, people say they want to fix these problems gently without harming the butterflies.

The irony makes us scream. But then we also know this.

People always do one thing and then desire another. 

What we say we want is often a million miles away from what we do, even when we are forced to think about it.

The biggest irony is how good we would all feel if we gave in to nature instead of trying to fix it.


Science source

Sweet, S. K., Schuldt, J. P., Lehmann, J., Bossio, D. A., & Woolf, D. (2021). Perceptions of naturalness predict US public support for Soil Carbon Storage as a climate solution. Climatic Change, 166(1), 1-15.


Hero image from photo by Ron Fung on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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