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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Biophobia: Be Very Afraid!

Marcus T Anthony's new web site and blog can be found at

Simon Buckland on his blogoflove, recently wrote about the revitalising capacity of beautiful parks, and in particular the charming the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in Paris, where he lives. Deep connectivity, including an intimate connection with nature – green time – simply has to be a priority for policy makers in any city or country in the world. A future without this precious connection with the environment is quite a simply a future not worth living.

Personally, I'd much rather a walk in such a park than to strap myself in front of the computer for hours, as so many of the young do here in Hong Kong. In mainland China, where the central policy of “scientific development” lies at the heart the Communist party’s vision of the future, up to twenty five million of the eighty million teenage Internet users are addicted to the Net; numerous military-style boot camps have sprung up to help cope with the problem. Further, a recent US study found that 40 per cent of Twitter chat is “pointless babble,” along the lines of “I am eating a sandwich now”. This is not a deep future, but one of mindless distraction.

 Central District, Hong. The lights are bright, but you can never reach them

Some children here are so dissociated from nature, that they are terrified of trees and refuse to walk on grass. This has led to the necessity of a new word - “biophobia”, or fear of nature. Just yesterday I was in a small village called Mui Wo, not far from Discovery Bay in Hong Kong, relaxing with a friend in a cafe. There was a large tree right beside us, and there I saw something I have never witnessed in my six years in Hong Kong - a child climbing a tree! The little girl (about six years old) was bounding around like a monkey, more than two metres from the ground, and her parents didn't mind at all. It was already evening by this time, so a little dark, but when she climbed down I saw that she was not Chinese, but perhaps eastern European in origin. Despite the slight danger involved, it was so refreshing to actually see a child do something so simple and natural.

Parents are partly to blame for the estrangement from nature, as many have become overprotective of their children. When I was a lad (back in the day), my parents had no problem allowing my brothers, sisters and I to go swimming in the huge Manning River, where we lived in Taree, NSW, Australia. The river was just behind our home, so swimming there seemed to us to be the most natural thing imaginable. Our parents never bothered to watch us. Although I never witnessed the event, my brother Sean swam to the farmland on the other side of the river – at seven years of age! 

 The Manning River, Taree, NSW, Australia

Here in Hong Hong today, the vast majority of the population cannot swim, and I suspect you’d struggle to find more than a few hundred of the 7 million people here who have ever swum in a river.

Such is the fear of undomesticated lifeforms, that even the most harmless of nature’s creatures can cause chaos here. While teaching in a classroom in a high school about a year ago, a butterfly flew in the open window. As it fluttered around, the teenage students began screaming, and cowering in their seats. The fragile creature came to rest on the curtain, so I went over, picked it up and released it from the window. The students cheered and applauded me like I had just wrestled a tiger to the ground. I kid you not.

It is not just the kids and the locals who are exhibiting this mass neurosis. In today’s South China Morning Post, I noted the following letter to the editor, referring to the local subway system (the MTR).

MTR must go touch-free
Given all the recent health scares in Hong Kong, the MTR Corporation should replace all its rotating metal bar turnstiles with touch free gates. These already exist in some of the newer stations.
They are more hygienic as there is no physical contact. While we see signs in lifts stating that buttons are disinfected frequently, no such safety measures can be seen regarding the turnstiles.
Metal bar turnstiles are a haven for all kinds of bacteria that people may carry on their skin or clothing and which can be easily spread to vulnerable members of society. The touch-free gates are hygienic, efficient, user-friendly, and faster.
Hans Wergin, Cheung Chau

“Touch-free, hygienic, efficient user-friendly and faster” just about sums up the vibe in the Central district of Hong Kong. Too bad it is also soulless. Perhaps we should just go the whole hog, and wrap ourselves in plastic bubbles. That way we will never have to bother ourselves with becoming infected by other human beings or the environment. That annoying human habit of verbal communication, which still persists in small pockets of public space, can also be eliminated once and for all.

There are plenty more alarming statistics I can refer to, but let me add just one. A recent revealing study has shown that about a third of Hong Kong women are electing to have cesarean sections, rather than have natural births, by far the highest rate in the world.One has to ask why we are losing so much respect for nature's ways.

In a paper I wrote last year called Deep Futures, Beyond Money and Machines I outlined why planning for the future must incorporate Gaian futures, where we reconnect with our bodies, our hearts and the planet and with each other. Without this connectivity, we will produce future generation of disembodied, soulless automatons, negotiating a distant world through electronic interfaces. It’s happening already.

Biophobia and the assorted neuroses mentioned in this article are a symptom of an underlying greater problem - the ascendancy of the ego in modern consumer-based life. The fearful ego sees itself as separate, disconnected. Reality is mediated through the lens of the little self, where self-interest, and thus self-preservation, dominate.

As I like to say, maybe it's time to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror, raise an arm, and give ourselves a huge bitch-slap in the face - before it's too late.


  1. Great post, Marcus and thanks for the tip. I do think that HK represents something like an extreme, fortunately. Here in Europe people do really love and use their city parks, and hiking on the innumerable way-marked paths in the countryside is a very popular pastime.

    Whether it will still be in 10-20 years' time is perhaps another question, as the disembodied screen world comes to dominate so many people's lives - the young particularly.

  2. Maybe we will be just brains in a vat, Simon, as some neuroscientists have argued. Or our consciousness will be uploaded onto a computer, like Ray Kurzweil thinks is going to happen. Personally speaking, they ain't putting my brain anywhere near a vat or a computer!

    Yes, Hong Kong is an extreme case, and many East Asian cultures appear to be all pretty much that way. There are some fantastic hikes in Hong Kong. I have asked my high school students if they like hiking, and I am yet to hear anyone say "yes". But 43% of homes in Hong Kong are 450 square feet (40 metres) or less. There are often families of five living in those.

    It's a slightly scary situation, because if there was some kind of crisis - e.g. a war, and people had to move out of their apartments and into the country, they would perish by the million.

  3. Wow, having never lived in an urban environment quite like Hong Kong, I had no idea there were people in the world with absolutely no contact with Mother Earth! You are certainly right about making sure that future cities embrace parks and open areas, if for no other reason than to make sure the people of the future take care of it. Their lives depend on it.

  4. Wonderful post, Marcus. I think this is why central park in NY is such a draw.