Living with Nature, Recognising Biophobia
Written by Dr Shawn Lum, President of Nature Society (Singapore)
When Earth Day was organised as a national teach-in in the U.S. in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson and coordinator Denis Hayes could scarcely have imagined how Earth Day would become a global phenomenon, one of the most widely observed events around the world.
Earth Day continues to be a rallying point for people in nearly 200 countries, and we need to heed its call for urgent and decisive action to heal our ailing planet and the environment that sustains life on earth as we know it.
Writing this during a holy time for so many people in Singapore and around the world – Hari Raya Aidilfitri coincides with Earth Day 2023; and we are not yet halfway into the Easter Season – it makes me wonder how many of us see earth, the environment, and the living things we share this planet with, as sacred. If we did, might this be a way to allow us to tread more lightly on the earth and to derive more meaning and wonderment from the things around us? I was blessed to have grown up surrounded by people who loved animals and nature.
My family loved animals and we also spent a lot of time outdoors (mostly at the beach). My parents, my sisters and I all looked after pets, and our home was a menagerie of dogs, budgies, lovebirds, rabbits, tropical fish, homing pigeons, and injured animals that had been rescued (my grandparents kept dogs, horses, chickens, and ducks, so maybe this love for animals and ran through the family). The animals could make a lot of noise, especially a basset hound whose howl could echo across the neighbourhood, and the 30-plus pigeons that would start to coo uncomfortably loudly at night every time the bathroom lights were turned on. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but our neighbours never complained about the noise. I took their understanding and tolerance for granted.
Singapore is now my home, and I am excited and proud to live in a City in Nature. I have seen an amazing increase in the number and in the diversity of people who enjoy green spaces and wild nature. Nature photographers today are legion. We routinely think of and consciously design Singapore as a Biophilic City, but I sometimes wonder if I take biophilia for granted or assume that a love for nature and wildlife is a universal trait.
Professor E.O. Wilson’s book Biophilia has given a name and an idea to something that so many of us experience, the emotional connection we have with nature and animals. The strong affinity to nature and other living things he described in his book was something I could relate to, but what I found interesting was Professor Wilson’s observation that there is a flipside to biophilia, that many people have or develop strong negative feelings toward living things. For example, many can look at a gun, a fighter plane, or a battle tank without being overwhelmed emotionally by the fact that these are instruments designed to destroy and kill. On the other hand, a snake, spider, or lizard can elicit fright in many, even though logically we know that they present little or even no harm to us. Any one of the hundreds of cars and lorries that speed past us every day can kill us, but this doesn’t cause us to recoil from the sight of a moving automobile. Some of these strong emotions toward living things, both positive and negative, are thought to have biological origins from our distant past and fit in with another of Professor Wilson’s major scientific contributions, Sociobiology.
To create an inclusive City in Nature, perhaps we need to better acknowledge and address biophilia’s companion, biophobia, the fear and other negative associations that people may have toward other living organisms. In most people the two phenomena coexist, but in some instances something that could become what Dr Masashi Soga of the University of Tokyo and colleagues called “the vicious cycle of biophobia” in a paper they published in January 2023. In this scenario, negative information about nature can lead to avoidance of nature, which in turns can lead to a greater disconnect from it; the disconnect can make one more sensitive to negative information about nature, creating a vicious cycle of biophobia.
Biophobia can reduce people’s tolerance for wild animals. A study led by Singapore’s Dr Ngo Kang Min showed that more than half of us in Singapore seldom or never played in natural environments or engaged in nature-related activities. This proportion of people who had limited exposure to nature was much higher than in other places where early exposure to nature was documented, which included parts of the UK and Japan. Dr Ngo and her colleagues found that attitudes to wildlife were the strongest predictor of tolerance, and that positive attitudes were more likely to be forged with early exposure to nature (and, conversely, that limited exposure was more likely linked to neutral or negative attitudes). Soga and colleagues suggested that getting out the biophobia trap might require coordinated outreach and educational efforts, and to provide direct experiences of wild organisms through a range of activities – from nature walks and field trips, to urban gardening.
Our Wild Neighbours campaign was created so that all of us in Singapore may not only learn to coexist peacefully with our native wildlife, but to gain meaning and value from living in harmony with nature and wildlife. To achieve this goal, I think it is important for us to better understand biophobia and to address it with empathy and openness. We have a shared home that we need to protect and restore, and we will do this more effectively when we all recognise the need for everyone and everything to thrive, not just the diverse and beautiful human family, but also our wonderful wild neighbours.