The Nature of College by James Farrell


In an earlier age, Americans might have been known for the endurance, their persistence in pursuing happiness or the public good.  These days, however, indoorness has become one of our most enduring environmental values.  Even though most Americans regularly express our love for the great outdoors, we spend almost all our time in the great indoors.  This is absolutely unprecedented in human history.  Most people in the world have lived in shelters, but they almost always worked and played outside. On the average, Americans endure more than 90 percent of our lives inside.  We live in the “little boxes” called single-family homes (although many of them now are quite large), and we drive little boxes to and from our cubicle boxes at work.  We watch a box in the living room, which helps establish a box in the brain.  And we stay “connected,” as we put it, by watching the screens of other boxes and electronic devices and fiddling with buttons.  Sometimes, we play outside, but most of our time outside is just going from one inside to another.

We even bring the outside in.  The best example of this—or the worst, depending on your point of view—was THE AMERICAN WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE in the Ontario Mills shopping center in California.  Outside the mall, signs beckoned visitors to “Come inside the Great Outdoors” and the brochure for the attraction invited shoppers “go wild in the mall!”  There, after a simulator ride that let customers experience the world from the point of view of a fish, an eagle, and a cougar, visitors could enter five “indoor recreations of . . . natural ecosystems.”  In the first one, the Redwood Forest, “the spirit of the wilderness”—a hologram that looked a good deal like John Muir—tells us “there’s nothing like the wilderness to calm your soul.”  Within minutes, visitors could also “trek the high Sierras,” “explore the harsh [Mojave] desert,” “stroll along the Pacific shore,” and “venture into Yosemite Valley” by looking at animals displayed in small dioramas painted to evoke the sublimity of nature.  Ironically, three of these five indoor ecosystems were located within an hour’s drive of the mall’s simulations.  And thankfully, the attraction didn’t generate enough traffic to stay in business.

More commonly, we bring nature inside as pets and houseplants, where, for once, we serve nature’s needs.  In evolutionary terms, dogs and cats (and other denizens of the household menagerie) are outdoor animals, designed to hunt for their food and survival.  But we’ve domesticated them, and brought them into our territory, the great indoors.  At the same time, we’ve domesticated ourselves, training ourselves to take care of this nature we love.  We feed them kibbles and bits, tempt them with toys, and pamper them like royalty.  If we cared for all of creation the way we care for pets, we might not be in the fix we’re in.

But on the whole, our affection for our pets doesn’t transfer to other species.  American indoor-ance begets ignorance of the millions of species that don’t grow indoors, the plants and animals that aren’t houseplants or pets or household pests.  Many of Dr. America’s students don’t even know the seasonality of foods.  Compared to our ancestors, most of them farmers, we are idiots about the natural life around us because it doesn’t seem to matter in the same way.  Ironically, however, now it matters even more than ever before.  What modern men and women do indoors—especially the burning of fossil fuels for indoor climate control—has more effect on the outdoors than most of the things people actually do outside.  Indoor living is, oddly enough, a threat to life outside our doors.

In some ways, therefore, we’re a culture that needs to turn things inside out—at least metaphorically.  We need to note the indoorness of our lives, and its environmental impacts.  We need to live inside our places with a window open to the other places on the planet.  And, more radically, we need to experience nature on nature’s terms, and not just in the controlled environments of what we quaintly call the developed world.

One guide for such a transformation is the Bible, the most popular book about outdoor life in the history of the world.  The Bible begins in a garden, and it’s full of plants and animals (including people), and mountains and rivers and deserts.  The people of the Bible aren’t exactly environmentalists, but they understand the gift of good land and the promise of the land.  From the very beginning, they have a sense of stewardship that flows from an understanding of interdependence.  When the deluge begins, therefore, Noah doesn’t just build a boat for his family.  He builds an ark for all creation, which is one way of seeing the human project now.  As our indoorness threatens the survival of creation, we need to redesign our lives to be regenerative, so that the bountiful biodiversity of God’s gracious creation can thrive on Planet Ark.