31 January, 2011Issue 15.2InterviewsThe Arts

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An Interview with Robert Bateman

Joel Krupa

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Robert Bateman is one of the world’s premier wildlife artists, naturalists, and environmentalists. His works have been presented at venues including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the Tryon Gallery in London, and the Russian State Museum in St Petersburg, and he has the distinction of holding the longest running exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution for any living artist. Bateman, an officer of the Order of Canada, has won countless awards and has received a dozen honorary doctorates. A passionate conservationist, he sat down with Joel Krupa to discuss tips for would-be environmental advocates and how to bridge the growing disconnect between the modern and the natural world.

You are generally regarded as a leading international voice for biodiversity preservation and climate change advocacy. What role do you envision for artists of all persuasions—visual, writing, film, fashion, and others—in creating a more environmentally conscious society and, in particular, a more environmentally conscious next generation of youth?

I think that all of the arts have a place to play in this transition. Of the arts, film is perhaps the most important. Films like Sir David Attenborough’s Life and Planet Earth are the most valuable and are educating millions, while current environmental affairs documentaries by people like David Suzuki are also extremely important for keeping people apprised of ongoing situations. However, all the arts are essential and each will need to find a unique niche in an increasingly nature deficient society.

Nature-deficit disorder is one of your favourite causes. First coined by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods, it describes the various behavioural problems among young people that result from limited engagement with the outdoors. It is an increasingly popular term among educators and others that interact with children on a day-to-day basis and see the disorder’s pervasive symptoms. Do you think kids’ disinterest in the natural world is as serious as Louv contends?

I consider this epidemic even more serious than Richard Louv states. In fact, it could have serious implications for the future of humankind. I know this sounds unnecessarily dire, but humankind’s fate is inextricably linked with nature. I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw of two young boys sitting on a step. One says to the other, “What are you going to be, if you grow up?” Obviously this is amusing, but it is not funny. That young boy may not live to a ripe old age for a variety of reasons, including depression, suicide, drug abuse, early onset diabetes, or self-inflicted accidents. Even if he does reach senior age, his brain will have been rewired through endless hours staring mindlessly at screens. He might be in his 50s, but his brain will be much younger. The questions begin to pile up. What kind of parent will he be? What kind of voter will be, especially when it comes to environmental issues? Will he even care about natural places, now that his sense of place is virtual? What sorts of stories will he tell his grandchildren—Grand Theft Auto ones? This technologically obsessed environment for young people is a juggernaut rolling over an entire generation.

So is time spent in nature during one’s formative years key to personal development?

Absolutely. An accumulating body of research in America, Britain, and continental Europe points to the fact that playing outside in nature during children’s formative years has a salutatory effect on all of the issues I mentioned in the previous question.

You have said that “My life has always been immersed in nature. It has been inspiring, adventurous and fun. I have been thrilled by everything from gorillas in the rainforests of the Congo to the penguins of the Antarctic. But none of these spectacular experiences has been any more enchanting than the nature I discovered as a young boy in the ravine below our backyard [in Toronto].” How can we make seemingly routine natural settings as engaging to individuals as some of the aforementioned breathtaking environs?

That is the most serious problem facing us. The idea that nature can be very exciting and cool only in certain areas is flawed. The appreciation of nature is slow, gradual, and subtle. It has very little sizzle. We seem to be increasingly producing a species of young people that requires sizzle and instant gratification, which is quite literally the antithesis of nature. Their world is louder, faster, and flashier. They are engrained into this world from the earliest childhood stages, starting with seemingly innocuous daily cartoons. It makes it much more difficult for them to do these subtle things without getting bored. Learning about nature doesn’t take skill or practice—it is completely natural—but if the brain has been rewired for high speed, individuals cannot get excited about it. We need to teach kids to enjoy the subtle.

A recent New York Times article stated that “Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning. Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.” What implications does this rewiring have for future environmental efforts, and how can it be reversed?

I should start by saying that there are marked advantages to being able to think and react quickly. Most of the skills can likely be harnessed for good causes. However, true and deep appreciation takes time and patience. My experience has shown that when children are exposed to experiential learning, they will naturally achieve a deeper understanding. So I believe that we just need to provide the right opportunities and facilities to make this switch happen. We also need to consider pedagogical shifts. For example, a PhD candidate recently asked me if we should be teaching environmental problems to young people. But I say absolutely not. This will get in the way of teaching about the sheer beauty of nature. We need to get away from a situation in which children know more about the Amazonian rainforest than they do about a nearby park or street—children need to learn about the natural elements of their neighbourhood in the same way in which they would grow to know the names of their friends.

Interestingly, the aforementioned New York Times article also mentions that educators, including organizations like your Get to Know programme, are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access, and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory. Is it possible to use technology effectively to reconnect kids with the natural world?

It has been said that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” This argument has merit in that sense. It is definitely better than nothing and these efforts are key. Still, experiential learning in the field and living with nature in the real world is still of utmost importance. Developing that heart-based connection is essential.

Given the seemingly endless array of problems facing young people’s environmental future, what would you say to those who feel that it is tempting to give up and simply despair?

Nothing is ever final. Worry and despair about these issues, or any other world problem for that matter, is unproductive and senseless. I like to look to the future and I believe that there are more terrific young people nowadays than I have ever seen. They are not part of this growing majority of electronic device addicts and they are accomplishing many positive things. In fact, they use new-fangled things like social networking to achieve their admirable ends. In addition, nature-deficit disorder is such a huge problem that we need to extend beyond schools and tackle it from all angles—parks, governments, and especially parents. This stuff isn’t rocket science—going for a hike in nature every weekend just makes sense. Invite the friends. Invite the friend’s parents. Everyone can benefit. The average 14 year old in North America spends almost 7.5 hours per day, 7 per week, looking at an electronic screen. Surely, taking a hike for a few hours is not a big problem.

Any advice for up-and-coming or current environmental advocates?

In his book Biophilia, E.O. Wilson says that we should “fall in love with other living things”. If people develop a place for nature, all else will follow. Once you have this love, it is easy to begin a lifetime of being immersed in the natural world. If you can do something, do it. After you are done, step back and enjoy this wonderful world.

Joel Krupa graduated in 2010 with an MSc in Environmental Policy from Mansfield College, Oxford.