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My reflections on interacting with the physical world

By April 20, 2023No Comments

By Hannah Henry

I’m one of the rare Floridians who was born and raised in the Sunshine State. I grew up in inner-city Orlando, Florida – a massive landlocked metropolis best known as a timeless vacation destination for our world-renowned theme parks. While many kids most fondly reflect on going to Disney and Universal, I loved going on nature walks with my family. I would beg my mom to take me to the retention pond in our neighborhood to feed ducks and minnows, the wildlife of my urban home. I always loved animals from a young age, mostly because it was so rare to see them. Of course, I learned about all the different types of animals in school, their ecosystems, and the roles they played on our earth – but I never saw these concepts in real life. The most prominent memory I have of experiencing animals was at SeaWorld. As a young girl, I was inspired by watching trainers care for and interact with dolphins, observing rehabilitated sea turtles and manatees that were hit by boats in an aquarium, and seeing our state reptile, the American alligator, in a tank. It was an emotionally enriching experience that fostered a sense of stewardship for these animals and their environments in a place where first-hand interactions with nature were rare. I not only developed a strong passion for the animals in their care, but also for the species in the wild. It was SeaWorld that sparked my interest in environmental conservation. That curiosity and kindness towards living things and their habitats is a principle I have carried with me to the present day.

As my interest in wildlife and the environment developed throughout high school, I felt a growing tension between an arguably necessary role urban areas, like my hometown, plays in society and the numbing, even debilitating, aspects of cities that disconnect us from the natural world. It scares me to think that my experience is not atypical, especially when over 80% of the United States population lives, works, and grows up in urban areas. Kids in large cities like Orlando are growing up never seeing a vast healthy forest, lakes without pollution, wildlife in their native habitats, or ever seeing the stars – we wouldn’t know any different. This helps to explain inaction on environmental problems. People in urban areas do not feel the urgency or magnitude of problems due to our removal from the natural landscape. I also quickly recognized that while many of us may superficially be distanced from nature, it does not change our reliance on the natural world.

Most of what we use and consume remains the product of interactions within nature, and many of those interactions are imperiled. Florida is one of the most species-rich states in the nation, but even this biological diversity and abundance are being threatened. Because nature is free, we often take it for granted and overexploit it. In the process, the intimate relationships between humankind and our environment are also being altered. The roadways allowing us to maneuver around the land confine wildlife to isolated tracts of territory. Flora and fauna that depend on clean water are struggling to survive with a new, unnatural hydrological regime, and increasing pollution. Ancient forests are depleted to build our homes and feed our growing population while destroying the homes and food of native species. All these threats are a major cause of mortality for species that are a key part of Florida’s unique identity. With each day that passes, the natural world shrinks as we exert greater artificial control over our environment. If intense conservation measures are not taken quickly, many areas in Florida may cease to be viable habitats for species that originally occurred there. Once I realized this, I knew it was my life goal to become a part of that integral change for my home state and beyond.

Currently, I am studying human-wildlife conflicts in the Gulf of Mexico and developing sustainable management and tourism solutions. Through this role, I am engaging a wide range of stakeholders from NOAA regulators, to state fish and game agency staff, to everyday people on the piers. I am seeking to identify the factors that increase people’s concern for environmental issues and promote pro-environmental behaviors. The environment around us is not only our home, but everything that keeps us alive. From the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, our shelter, and more, it allows us to survive. Therefore, caring for the environment is something that should be inherent in us, but that isn’t always the case. We need knowledge of human values, beliefs, attitudes, preferences, and expectations about interactions with the natural world and wildlife to promote conservation-focused behaviors.

Our interaction with the environment should be in a way that we use the resources that nature provides, but in a sustainable manner, particularly in the face of growing populations and urban areas. I do not deny the significant role cities play as a key component of productivity in modern society, estimated to generate 80% of all economic growth. I simply ask that we give another look to the well-being of the people who live in and rely on cities by providing avenues to be exposed to, and value, nature. As I reflect on my childhood, it was those few, but life-changing moments I had with wildlife in my urban upbringing that connected me to nature. It allowed me to see, feel, touch, and make connections to the vast world of wildlife while living in a place with limited natural exposure to animals or nature. Sustainable and environmentally focused urban development strategies can create opportunities and benefits not only for biodiversity and impacted communities, but for production, society, human well-being, and the global economy at large. My hope is that thoughtfully designed cities with nature in mind can offer both the stimulation and energy of an urban area, as well as meaningful interactions with a psychologically restorative natural environment.

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