We are biologically wired to have an affinity for things that are alive, vital, and optimal for our survival. An attraction to flowers makes evolutionary sense as flowers often become fruit and can provide a later food source. We keep pets and plants in and around the house and derive pleasure from assisting living things in need of help. We are universally attracted to the features of babies across various mammal species. We prefer a living forest over a perfectly replicated plastic one. We prefer entities that are complex, growing, and sufficiently unpredictable to be interesting. Our natural love of life helps to sustain life.
Biophilia, which literally means ‘love of life’, is a term first coined by Erich Fromm, and later popularized by Edward O. Wilson. Wilson defined Biophilia as the instinct we possess to seek connection with nature and other living beings. His book Biophilia is a collection of essays that intimately explores this concept.
In the chapter The Right Place Wilson discusses how living things have an innate instinct to seek out their optimal habitat for the best chance of survival. Humans, as living creatures, do this too. Our optimal habitat statistically looks like the plains of Africa with relatively clear and mostly flat expanses, abundant and varied vegetation, scattered clumps of trees sheltering pools of drinking water, some hills, ridges and cliffs, and shorelines on larger bodies of water.
You may recognize this landscape in many of the formal gardens and parks of our modern society. Given the free choice of sufficient money and power, most people tend to set up their homes higher up overlooking bodies of water, in exactly these types of natural landscapes.
Besides locating homes in idyllic places and creating maximally appealing outdoor gardens, biophilic principles of design can be applied to buildings and interior spaces as well. Understanding our inmate preference for natural elements and patterns, architects and designers can better create spaces for us to live, play, and work in that include views of nature, fresh air, natural light, and natural patterns. One particularly rigorously researched area of biophilic design is in the hospitals setting, where access to natural elements (like natural light, greenery, blue sky, fresh air, etc.) has been repeatedly proven to speed healing and decrease stress.
Aside from helping us to optimize our surroundings, the biophilia hypothesis also warns us that we are facing serious consequences to our physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing the further estranged we become from the natural world. Only in our most recent evolution have we been isolating ourselves from nature. The rest of our time we had been living fully intertwined with nature. We are very much a part of the network of life on the planet and everything that we need to survive makes us still utterly dependent on nature.
In the chapter The Conservation Ethic, Wilson reasons that the timespan affected by ecological changes – considering generations of the future and not the next hour or week or year, which is where our mind tends to exist – has an intellectual impact, but not sufficient emotional impact. He suggests that only through extensive education and/or reflective thought do people become emotionally invested in longterm consequences.
He uses the example of a tyrant leader preserving ecological diversity for his own benefit that may well keep his people in poverty to do so, but inadvertently bequeaths a rich, healthy natural world to future generations. Alternatively, a leader bringing prosperity to his people may simultaneously devastate the world available to future generations.
“To choose what is best for the near future is easy. To choose what is best for the distant future is also easy. But to choose what is best for both the near and distant futures is a hard task, often internally contradictory, and requiring ethical codes yet to be formulated.” – Edward O. Wilson
Unfortunately there is a critical conflict happening between our need for nature and the way in which we destroy it. There are few among us who do not feel an ache at the sight of environmental destruction. We intuitively sense the connection to all that is (or was) alive. Of deepest concern is the projected significant loss of biodiversity in the near future. But loving something, even fiercely, does not guarantee our ability to save it.