The NY Times Would like You to Believe That There is Controversy over Nature Documentaries


Yeah, that place looks beautiful, but now that I've seen it in picture form I see no reason to leave my couch.
(Thanks to gelinh on Flickr for the image!)

I was reading Room for Debate on the New York Times website this morning, and it’s about whether or not nature documentaries are beneficial to us, or if they’re ultimately discouraging us from experiencing nature first-hand. On the one hand, this is just fueling my belief that people will find literally anything in our society to complain about. Soon someone might launch a debate about the pros and cons of the era of bromances we’re so firmly entrenched in. Then, if the current portrayal of bromances gives way to a more reserved sort of male friendship in television and films, we’d find a way to rage against that too.

Oh the other hand, part of me can’t help but engage in this discussion, I have to weigh in. Just in case you couldn’t guess from the title of one of the commentators, “Virtual Reality is no Substitute” posits that virtual reality is no substitute for the real deal of nature. Aside from the initial inclination to say, “No shit,” I have to step in and passionately defend documentaries for what they contribute to society as well as our own proclivities for engaging in nature on a more personal level.

What frustrated me most about Ming (Frances) Kuo’s point is that it really has nothing to do with nature documentaries at all. She starts out by comparing these documentaries to junk-food, saying they satisfy certain cravings but leave us without actual satisfaction. Fair enough, certainly, but she uses this as a launching point for a wholly unrelated argument. Her point seems to be that people who live in areas with less access to nature run the higher risk of developing various health problems. She in no way answers how our consumption of nature documentaries contributes to this. Her article culminates with no real connection between the two—no statistics, studies or even theories suggesting that because we have such easy access to these documentaries we’re not fighting hard enough for more greenery in our areas.

For me, nature documentaries have been my gateway drug into a fuller appreciation of nature. They’ve given me a deeper understanding for the need to have these kinds of spaces both in close proximity and in the wider world. For both our own immediate health and for our future “earthly” well-being so to speak. Even having a pond in a park can open the doors for tons of wildlife to thrive in that kind of ecosystem, and parks themselves encourage experiencing the outdoors. Just because I can turn on my television and watch the camera pan over a beautiful rainforest doesn’t mean it satisfies my craving for a beautiful space to see first-hand.

When I was in elementary school, my mother dropped a huge bombshell on me during a ride home from school. We were getting rid of cable. My temper tantrum was a valiant effort to change her mind, but ultimately a failure. Her reasoning was that I was spending too much time watching television and it would encourage me to go outside more without it. Not the case. I just didn’t get the outdoors at the time, and aside from television there are plenty of ways to pass the time inside like, you know, reading a book.

However, we still had access to some stations. PBS became my lifeline, and with it many nature programs. Yes, at the time I still found it boring to go on nature walks, but I was fascinated by animals and other forms of wildlife, and those shows planted the seeds. Now, I love walks in parks (and of course along the beach, winky winky), and any beautiful nature walks. I’m not interested in any especially serious hiking, but I’m certainly interested in some form of hiking that doesn’t require me to use a walking stick or camp out overnight. An hour or so hike to the top of a manageable mountain is good enough for me! I like being alone with my own thoughts, some music, or a quiet friend. I also, however, love watching documentaries, especially about places I probably will never get to see, animals I probably will never get to observe. Kuo’s argument to me seems a bit like saying because I watch so much Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, I’m devaluing doctors and won’t seek real medical practice because I can simply self-diagnose and perform surgery on myself.

I feel like this particular NY Times topic is like trying to start a debate over carrots being healthier than chips. No one out there, except maybe one contrary asshole who likes to argue for the sake of arguing, is trying to seriously assert that chips are healthier than carrots. I have a hard time imagining there is any sort of expert out there trying to convince the world that we no longer need to go outside because we can watch nature happening in front of us on our television.

I glanced at the other three opinions on this debate, and they seem to be arguing the same points as me (that films can give us a different view or lure us outside, which seem so painfully obvious I don’t feel like quoting anything specific from them), but after reading the topic of this discussion and the first opinion, I couldn’t help but wonder why there was nothing more interesting to debate/discuss this week.

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