Ari Armstrong, Exclusives

Armstrong: Balancing some wildness with tech-driven life

“Today, urban living, the Internet, and technology have distanced too many people from the magic and the magnificence of nature and its power to enrich our human existence.” That’s a line that I read, while camping in Sand Dunes National Park, from Alexandra York’s book “Soul Celebrations.”

I thought about York’s remarks as a yellow bird with a red head (I think a Western Tanager) flit into my camp spot, as a chipmunk ate a seeded head of grass, as deer grazed on tree leaves, as the seasonal creek trickled past the dunes, as clouds rolled by overhead, as lightning sparkled in the valley below. It’s a lovely place.

I did read York’s book on my Kindle reader, made of plastic and metal, with contents downloaded across the world via data cables and radio waves. I slept soundly breathing the cool pine-scented air atop my battery-powered plastic blow-up mattress, inside my tent made of oil-based synthetic fabrics.

I wore hiking clothes made of a mix of plant, animal, and oil-based materials. However, even the “natural” fibers were woven using advanced robotics involving products shipped around the world. As a storm pelted my tent with hail, I watched from the comfort of my car as I burned gasoline to run the heater and charge my smart phone.

We are creatures of nature; we are creatures of technology. The key is to get the right balance. The answer is neither a Rousseau- (or Kaczynski-) inspired “back to nature” movement nor a Borg-like conversion of the Earth to machinery. Rather, as humanity expands beyond eight billion people, the right approach is to use technology to continually make our lives better, including by protecting many wild spaces and by helping us to enjoy the wilderness in nature-friendly ways.

Children need nature

I was struck by a metaphor invoked by Alison Gopnik in her book about children, “The Gardener and the Carpenter.” The “carpenter” approach to raising children tries to build them to exacting standards according to well-defined blueprints. The “gardener” approach tends to children while letting them grow largely independently. Gopnik has in mind a wilder garden rather than a perfectly manicured one.

I think the “gardener” approach involves giving kids lots of time in nature, away from screens. While my son enjoyed a homeschool “creek day” with friends, another parent recommended the book “How to Raise a Wild Child,” by Scott Sampson (who used to work at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science before moving to the California Academy of Sciences).

“Simply being in the presence of natural landscapes tends to reduce stress and promote relaxation,” Simpson writes. He advocates “immersion in wilderness settings—places where humans are not in control, where nature is raw, untamed, maybe even dangerous.” Children in nature show “reduced levels of stress and depression,” “improved concentration and problem-solving skills,” and even “reduced symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” Simpson summarizes. Although I think Simpson is not optimistic enough in seeing how new technologies can improve human lives and at the same time better-protect nature, I’m on board with his program of getting kids back into nature.

Wilder yards

I can see the value of manicured laws for sporting events and the like. But how many urban and suburban lawns never host a soccer game or a picnic? Lots. Why not convert those water-sucking, mowed, sprayed, conformist lawns to wilder areas, filled with wildflowers and native grasses?

A few years ago King’s College converted part of its lawn to a wildflower meadow. A recent study found that “wilding” the lawn resulted in dramatically more biodiversity and reduced maintenance costs. People also found the meadow more aesthetically pleasing.

Last year, my front yard was a mess. Weeds loved to grow through the old river rock, and the patch of Kentucky Bluegrass was having trouble surviving Colorado’s hot and dry summers. My wife and I picked out all the old rocks, added in some better-quality soil, and planted native grass, clover, and wildflower seeds. This spring, we have loads of flowers—including some that blew in by seed from surrounding meadows, including milkweed—mixed in with the grass.

True, our yard is not genuinely wild—the time of rolling prairie roamed by buffalo is long gone. And, until our more-native plants grow in fully, we have to spend considerable effort keeping the weeds at bay. Our back yard mostly remains a mess. Still, we are well on our way to providing a wilder, spray-free habitat that attracts the bees, the butterflies, and other pollinators and types of wildlife.

Room for all

Colorado continues to grow in population—ironically largely because Colorado offers such beautiful wild areas. Some people fear that more people are incompatible with protecting Colorado’s natural areas. Those people are wrong.

Especially if we free up the housing market to allow people to build denser housing if they want, Colorado can host loads more people even as Coloradans maintain and even expand natural areas. The coming revolution in energy production will feed new technologies such as land-efficient vertical farming.

We don’t have to choose between people and nature or between technology and nature. We can have more technology-advancing people who preserve and enjoy the wild.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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