‘Birthright’ by Stephen Kellert – Book review by Lisa Horne

This excellent book review of ‘Birthright’ is by Lisa Horne, ASLA

Birthright cover. Image Source: Yale University PressAs the keynote at the 2013 national American Society of Landscape Architects annual meeting and expo in Boston, Stephen Kellert gave a provocative presentation for the profession. “Biophilia” is a relatively new concept in design and Kellert’s recent work Birthright gives a heartwarming survey of ideas with relevancy to design and theory.

Birthright provides a basis for incorporating nature into our lives. Kellert leaves classifications of nature open-ended and defines biophilia as a love of life. We have an innate desire for nature, which is “a birthright that must be cultivated and earned” (Kellert xiii). This attitude neither advocates a return to an Arcadian past nor forecasts apocalyptic doom. Instead, he asserts that humans will recognize their own self-interest and benefit from investing in the environment. An audience of academics, leaders, policy makers, and professionals interested in biophilia will appreciate the pace, text, and reasoning.

Biophilia – a love of life. Image Source: Lisa Horne

Biophilia – a love of life. Image Source: Lisa Horne

The intersection of nature and humanity creates a challenge for scope. Kellert divides the topic into a series of essays on each critical aspect of the relationship between the two. They progress from the more physiological like attraction and aversion to the more abstract such as symbolism, design, and ethics. Each chapter is relatively contained and explores research, observations, and literary excerpts. References and quotes from René Descartes, Aldo Leopold, Edward O. Wilson, and Roger Ulrich appear in the first twenty pages. In most chapters Kellert adds an interlude with short narrative essays about himself or others. A few are fictional. They provide a counterpoint to the intellectual rigor of the facts and infuse a sense of pathos.

(Image 3) Humans benefit from investing in the environment. Image Source: Lisa Horne

Humans benefit from investing in the environment. Image Source: Lisa Horne

Human relationship with nature has complexities and even contradictions – nature is sometimes cathartic, sometimes perilous, sometimes both. In the Attraction chapter, Kellert notes that “[w]hat we find aesthetically appealing in both nature or human-made objects are settings rich in detail and diversity, but rendered orderly and organized” (Kellert 8). The mystique of nature is set aside for something applicable to design. In the Exploitation chapter, Kellert notes the rough parts of our relationship with nature. His integrity in describing his experience hunting elk is all the more meaningful for the controversy around the issue. Although some of issues clarify that nature is not a cornucopia of delights, the reader can conclude that the net result of a relationship with nature has benefits. It is similar, but more nuanced than Richard Louv’s blog post, “Want Your Kids To Get into Harvard? Tell ‘Em To Go Outside!

(Image 4) Nature can be both cathartic and perilous. Image Source: Lisa Horne

Nature can be both cathartic and perilous. Image Source: Lisa Horne

There is effectiveness to the quality and tone of the writing. Although we may recycle, choose a green energy provider, and specify environmentally friendly materials on the job, it seems almost futile when considering catastrophic environmental issues. While acknowledging the seriousness of these issues, Kellert brings an outlook that is balanced and optimistic. He is not the first to make this argument, but is among the more persuasive.

The final chapter of ethics and everyday life closes powerfully. It is a fictional story of a young adult living and working in New York with a curiosity about incorporating nature into her life after reading an article. Starting with simple steps of updating her apartment with natural materials and nature photographs to adding tropical fish and eventually a cat, she feels more satisfied. Her windowless work cubicle is transformed with more plants and nature prints, which in turn influences the workplace to make changes and even create a small green roof patio.

Connection with nature. Image Source: Lisa Horne

Connection with nature. Image Source: Lisa Horne

She plans trips to wilder distant places instead of a Floridian resort or cruise. She takes more frequent trips closer to home such as camping and hiking with friends. All in all, she is surprised at the increased confidence and joy that the adventure brought to her. The story is visionary, but rings true. The final words of the book are a quote from John Muir “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

 

Kellert, Stephen. Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven: Yale University, 2012. Print.

Louv, Richard. “Want Your Kids to Get into Harvard? Tell ‘Em to Go Outside!” Columns by Richard Louv. Children & Nature Network, 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

Many thanks to the author of this book review: Lisa Horne, ASLA, a project manager at RVi/NJB in Dallas, Texas, and co-chair of the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environment Professional Practice Network. She may be reached at lhorne (at) rviplanning.com.

Want to hear an interview with Kellert on NPR? Click here.

 

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