Our life urbanizes rapidly and brings us further away from the countryside and nature. City centers used to be connected with farming areas to provide food, but this is no longer necessary, and natural environments almost completely disappeared from our daily city life. However, our distanced relation with nature has proven to affect our well-being, and we are trying to reintegrate nature in our life. What is the role of technology in our modern relationship with nature and food? Can technology restore our relationship with nature?

Our observations

  • In Hungry City (2013), Carolyn Steel shows how the countryside and the city were historically connected. She introduces the notion of Sitopia (Greek for food-place) to describe how our world is shaped by food. By recognizing the central role food plays in our lives, she hopes food can be used as a conceptual tool, as a design tool to harness its potential to shape the world in a better way.
  • Research shows that we have grown more disconnected from nature, and that this is not only explained by urbanization but the more by the increased virtual and indoors recreation options (e.g. television, video games).
  • Nature is crucial to our well-being. Growing evidence shows that proximity to natural environments is linked to better physical and mental health. In our modern lives, distanced from nature, we still seek the relation with nature in other ways.
  • Peter Kahn introduces the notion of technological nature, describing digital representations of the wild, such as documentaries about nature, video games, and VR stimulations. In a previous note, we wrote about his research on environmental generational amnesia. This phenomenon explains how the concept of nature is changing in each generation. What each generation comes to think of as nature is relative, based on what they have been exposed to.

Connecting the dots

Urbanization is often seen as the main reason for our disconnectedness with nature, our goodbye to the countryside and to our previous existence as farmers. However, if we trace agriculture back to its birthplace, we find that it was invented together with urbanization: The Fertile Crescent. This was no accident. The development of agriculture and cities were bound together because the invention of grain generated a food source that was large and stable enough to support permanent settlements. In this way, cities where highly organized food centers.

With technological developments, the railway and modern agriculture practices, the relationship between cities and their agricultural environment changed fundamentally. New technologies enabled the city to grow faster and to disconnect from the previous natural connections to the countryside. Evolutionarily speaking, we found ourselves in a situation we never experienced before: our modern food system made food cheap and accessible to us at any time, at any place, without making a connection to its source. Carolyn Steel argues that where our modern food system promised to make food easier, it has in fact become more complicated, further alienating us from a prominent source of life and from nature.

Our lives in the city are no longer interconnected with the seasons and a more natural environment, and our connection with nature is organized with Cartesian rigor. We have become subjects bending other species to our will, like disposable objects. This Cartesian view extends to the countryside, in the form of industrial agriculture. Farmers, for example, feed data to a robotized tractor from a laptop without having to actually go on their land. Technology has become a mediator in our relation with nature and food.

In Technological Nature (2011), Peter Kahn compares our relationship with real nature and nature mediated through technology. He found that technology can indeed make us feel good because it triggers our affiliation with a natural environment. However, technology like VR and video games take a Cartesian position to nature and compromise our fundamental affiliation for the environment. In the process of accepting the digital substitute, it has distanced us from real nature. Although Kahn describes us as a technological species, he emphasizes that in order to thrive, we still need a real connection to nature.

Implications

  • Louise Fresco, professor and director at Wageningen University, discusses solutions to our distance from food and its natural environment. She argues that we have to keep the large scale in our modern food system in order to keep up with demand, but she proposes to transform it to more regional scale, as for example in urban food systems. She believes the Netherlands already succeeds in this because it makes the rural area accessible to all.
  • An example of technology explicitly trying to help us by granting a different position towards nature than a Cartesian one is the VR game Everything. We experience VR avatars through a first-person perspective, avatars like animals or plants or even furniture. It helps us to see the world differently. Moreover, as research from Stanford shows, this can influence one’s behavior in real life. However, while this example has some beneficial aspects in mediating between us and nature, it still does not mean it can substitute nature.