The Biophilia Paradox

We need exposure to nature — but nature doesn’t need exposure to us

Clive Thompson

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Those two plants above?

In my entire adult life, they’re the only plants that I have succeeded in not killing.

This is a small victory, but it gives me a curiously powerful type of pride.

I got them a few years ago from “Horti,” a plant-subscription company. Horti will ship you a new plant every month with instructions on how to care for it. “We start you off with succulents, stuff that’s hard to kill,” as one of the company founders assured me.

As it turns out, I killed the succulent.

But these other two? Them, I kept alive! In fact, I’ve had them for four years now, and with careful regular watering, some occasional dusting, and the trimming of dead branches, they’ve continued to grow and sprout new shoots. Every time I go into the kitchen, they provide a lovely jolt to the soul.

I’m not alone in taking daily solace from my plants. Back when I originally wrote about Horti, I spoke to a guy who’d been mildly depressed and listless — until he started filling his house with plants. Eventually he had over 120 stuffed into his place, and he loved the routine that the weekly watering imposed on his life. He also noticed that his funk lifted. “It’s like I had a new purpose, and these plants were part of that purpose,” he said.

Why exactly do plants have this effect on so many people?

Because of “biophilia” — humanity’s deep-seated affinity for nature. We truly need exposure to it.

The paradox, alas, is that nature may not need exposure to us.

Philosophers have for centuries noticed the profound pleasure we get from being around nature. In the 1970s, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was one of the first to use the term “biophilia” itself. Then in 1984 the American biologist E.O. Wilson brought the concept mainstream with his book Biophilia.

He defined the term as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes”. Biophilia is…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net