You, along with 100 percent of the other people who clicked on this article, are currently using an electronic device. So its safe to say that a life without modern technological luxuries would be quite a shock to most of my readers here, as well as those who watch Live Free Or Die, Nat Geo’s show about “wilders,” Americans who voluntarily return to natural habitats and surrender most technology from the 20th century on. Aside from showcasing interesting DIY crafts, Live Free Or Die spends most of its time exploring why people leave settled society to live in the wilderness, and the costs and benefits of doing so.
The choice is an intersection of personal preference and politics. Forgoing a life with modern amenities is a political statement – some of the “back-to-nature” cast members view their choice to renounce modern technology as moral, and look with disdain at the economic system that allows development and the destruction of wildlife to go largely unpunished. Others simply prefer this ascetic existence for various reasons ranging from a much slower lifestyle to its inexpensiveness.
But while it may be enjoyable for a select few or politically admirable in certain environmentally conscious crowds, there’s a disconnect between the liberated rhetoric and evidence that returning to the wild can be a healthy decision. Everyone on the show has made a conscious decision to leave society behind and serve as a champion of such a lifestyle on national television. As back-to-nature cast members tell it, returning to the wild allows individuals to relieve themselves of the stresses or modern life, and live the healthier, stress-free lifestyle. This is certainly true, but most of these cast members are also swearing of human contact by living a life completely in the wild.
Here’s the problem: while many studies demonstrate that being alone can be unhealthy, scientists also understand the health benefits of living a life with more exposure to nature. Neither of these primary arguments study the idea of personal exile or sustained contact with nature, free of contemporary societal intrusions.
This is the contradiction. According to the Department of Agriculture, research shows that frequent interaction with nature can yield lower blood pressure, cholesterol and stress, and has been linked to longevity. However, studies of those who live alone and in relative social isolation show that limited contact with others increases a person’s overall risk of death over time.
Obviously, these aren’t dichotomous findings – somewhere there’s a middle ground, though we don’t currently know where it is. Is there a point at which too much nature depresses us? According to a study that the Atlantic reported on several years ago, natural environments have a unique constellation of features that sets them apart from man-made locations – even those with a significant amount of green space and lovely architecture. Is there a happy middle ground where exposure to a certain amount of nature while sticking to a modern diet is healthy? It’s difficult to say with the information that’s available.
The allure of a stress-free lifestyle in the woods has transfixed Americans since Walden Pond, spawning imitators with its promises of true rugged individualism. And while few of us are headed into the wilderness any time soon, perhaps studying those who do will better allow us to understand the true health benefits of nature.