Earth Day 2008 brings good news about the environment but also reveals a strange dynamic. Despite a nearly non-stop public dialogue, including an Oscar-winning movie and two Nobel prizes, Americans are actually taking less time to experience the environment. They would be better off if they went outside and enjoyed it for a change.
According to a study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, participation in outdoor activities has declined 18 percent to 25 percent on a per-capita basis since the late 1980s. While the authors suggest numerous causes -- high gas prices and the lure of electronic diversions like the Internet and video games -- some suggest that pervasive pessimism about the environment may also play a role.
"Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom -- while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude," Explains author Richard Louv, in the introduction to his book Last Child in the Woods.
In an interview with the Personal Life Media Network, Louv further noted, "We spend so much time talking about the problems of Global Warming, the problems of how to recycle, why to recycle, all of the detail. We miss the forest for the trees."
There are numerous downsides to this nature-aversion. Research has repeatedly shown the benefits of nature-based activities -- decreased stress levels, improved mental focus, faster recovery from illness, among others. But it seems that many Americans are choosing instead to stay inside and watch television programs about the sorry condition of our environment, which is not only stressful, but may not be accurate either.
Interestingly, it turns out that while Americans are generally pessimistic about the state of the environment, their own experience suggests differently. As Steve Hayward points out in the 13th Edition (2008) of his Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, "While overwhelming majorities of Americans tell pollsters that the environment is a very serious issue (but then Americans like to worry about everything, such polls show) and that overall environmental quality is deteriorating, an increasing proportion of Americans tells pollsters that environmental quality in their local area has improved or is satisfactory."
And they aren't wrong. The truth is that there are actually many reasons to be optimistic about the environment this Earth Day. Numerous indicators reveal that in many ways our environment is actually improving, at home and abroad.
For the first time in nearly 100 years, species such as whitefish have been observed returning to the Detroit River . The Aral Sea, a freshwater body straddling Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan , is also showing strong recovery. In Los Angeles , air-quality regulators reported a significant decline in health risk from air pollution.
The bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list last summer. The United Nations notes that in many parts of the world, the rate of deforestation is in decline, and has been reversed in Asia . Net deforestation in Brazil has fallen by two-thirds over the last four years.
Total wetland acres in the United States are on the rise. Perhaps most surprising, given the gloom and doom most often relayed in the public sphere, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions actually fell by 1.5 percent in 2006.
As always, Earth Day brings choices. By visiting the EarthDayNetwork homepage, you can listen to Kevin Bacon describe "how many degrees separate us from the tragedy of global warming." Listen to media mogul Ted Turner and you will hear prophecies of environmental chaos driving people to cannibalism.
On the other hand, you can visit a national or state park, hike in the woods, raft a river, or observe wildlife in one of the nation's thriving wetlands. There you can appreciate for yourself the value of our great outdoors, reduce your stress levels, and improve your physical fitness and mental health. You decide which is a better tribute to Earth Day 2008.