What is Nature?

In my previous two blogs, “Nature Helps” and “Does Nature Influence How We Think?,” I presented research that showed the benefits of exposure to nature. At the end of “Nature Helps,” I made the observation that “Some, if not all, of the more beautiful images of nature and plants…in Zhang’s study have been manipulated or ‘made’ by humans.” Furthermore, images that were not considered as “as beautiful” appeared to be depictions of natural environments. This is counter to how nature is defined: everything in the physical world not created by humans. My concern was that the more beautiful images of nature and plants were not natural at all. Instead, they were a human idealized vision of nature that has become the accepted view. This is troubling because if we cannot distinguish between a natural environment and an environment manipulated by humans, then saving those truly natural spaces and places becomes more difficult. Surprisingly, the development of this growing rift can be observed in Disney animated films over the past 70 years.

Researchers from the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris, France, and The College of Wooster in Ohio, USA, investigated the depictions of nature in Disney (51 films) and Disney-Pixar (an additional nine films) animated films from 1937 to 2010. Anne-Caroline Prévot-Julliard and her team assessed representations of nature by looking at the amount of time each film spent in a natural setting. Specifically, the amount of time dedicated to a wild natural setting showing biodiversity as opposed to a cultivated nature with crops, gardens, and domesticated animal species. The authors called wild nature “green nature.” Prévot-Julliard and her team also assessed biodiversity and they did this by counting the number of animal species depicted and used this number as a proxy for species richness and complexity.

The results of their research showed a statistically significant decrease in depictions of green nature in the 51 Disney films. According to Prévot-Julliard and her team, this decrease could not be attributed to an increased focus on interior scenes because the duration of interior and exterior scenes relative to overall film duration have not significantly changed over time. Furthermore, this change could not be attributed to changes in Disney executive ranks over time. Additionally, the research team found that the decrease in depictions of green nature was further strengthened with the addition of the nine Disney-Pixar films.

This same trend was also seen in representations of biodiversity. Depictions of species richness and complexity have significantly decreased over time in the 51 Disney films and it was again strengthened when combined with the nine Disney-Pixar films.

Prévot-Julliard and her team observed that during the first 40 years of Disney animated films green nature was used as a backdrop in the majority of outdoor scenes. Starting around 1980, 50 percent of the Disney films assessed were situated in settings devoid of green nature. Moreover, when green nature was depicted, representations of species richness and complexity decreased and cultivated environments increased over time.

The authors concluded that the decrease in green nature in Disney films reflects a similar decrease in individual connectedness with nature over the past 70 years in Western cultures. Furthermore, the decrease in representations of biodiversity may also reflect a disconnect between Disney filmmakers and nature. According to the research team, the extent of this disconnect can be seen during the period of production under the guidance of Michael Eisner (1984-2005). During this period, environmental awareness became an explicit message in Disney animated films. Prévot-Julliard and her team observed that “even when there are explicit messages about nature and the environment, there is a trend for simplification of green nature and its inherent complexity in the settings.”

Considering the popularity of Disney and Disney-Pixar films, the results of this study are troubling. If we, Western cultures, cannot distinguish between a natural environment and an environment manipulated by humans, then saving those truly natural spaces and places becomes more difficult. In light of my recent blog posts on nature, how will this decreasing connection and understanding of nature impact future generations? How will they answer, “What is nature?”

Rodney Steadman 01 September 2014

Works Cited

Prevot-Julliard A, Julliard R, & Clayton S (2014). Historical evidence for nature disconnection in a 70-year time series of Disney animated films Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662513519042

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