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As Earth Day Turns 50 Technology Offers a New Way to Connect with Nature

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

By: Laura Madtes

As an environmental studies major, I often cannot help but feel frustrated or disheartened at the lack of care often shown towards issues such as climate change or habitat loss. I’ll sometimes turn on the news and hear political or media officials try to downplay the effects of environmental degradation, insisting that they do not require any immediate action or attention. I feel this apathy may stem from a sense of separation many may feel between humans and nature, caused partly by our overreliance on our devices, which makes it harder for us to fully immerse ourselves with our surroundings. As such, new cell phone apps such as iNaturalist and Seek could help to resolve this issue by encouraging people to better engage with our natural surroundings.  April 22, 2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration, so this seems like the perfect time to promote more interaction with the environment. However, given recent developments with COVID-19, health and government officials have been stressing the importance of social distancing, with multiple areas going so far as closing schools, workplaces, and all non-essential services such as theaters and restaurants. How will these recommendations affect our ability to build great relationships with nature?  

First, let us discuss the goals and effects of these apps. One of the more popular ones, iNaturalist, defines itself as a social network designed to help people share pictures and information of nature to help educate others on biodiversity. Users can also add their own discoveries and observations into an online map that others can add or contribute to. The app also has a companion app called Seek, which uses image recognition technology to help users identify different species of plants, allowing them to make unique discoveries to help increase their maps.

These apps could not only help to educate people on nature and biodiversity but could also help to increase interest and engagement with nature by encouraging people to make new discoveries to add to their maps. I have some experience with these kinds of apps, as last year for a biology class we had an assignment where we downloaded an app to identify the various species of plants found on campus. The experiment proved to be very interesting for most of the class, with many students deciding to continue using the app even after the assignment. Apps that allow us to identify and record different species could encourage people to go out into nature to further expand their maps, almost making it a sort of competition It’s similar to how Pokémon Go caused more people to go outside to find Pokémon, resulting in more people getting exercise.   

This encouraged exposure to nature could help to improve people’s attitudes toward the environment. From what I have observed and read, people who grow up without strong positive interaction with nature are less likely to care about the environment or support any initiatives designed to improve or protect it. These apps could help people to better interact with the environment and see its own inherent worth.

At the moment, however, it seems as though it might not be a good idea to have people go outside. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, resulting in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising people to limit social interaction in order to prevent the spread as much as possible. This practice, known as social distancing, has already resulted in the closing of most schools, businesses and restaurants, as well as the cancellation of major public gatherings such as Broadway shows and sporting events.  

With so many people now afraid to leave their homes, it’s easy to see how this could result in a further separation from nature for most people. However, I feel that iNaturalist and similar apps could still help engage people with the environment even from their homes. Looking at the iNaturalist website, they still offer valuable information on various plant and animal species, as well as allowing us to look at the observations made by other users in the past. As such, it would seem that these apps could be a useful tool in staying in touch with nature as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.     

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