The Beach Boys walk along the beach holding a surfboard for a portrait session in August 1962
The Beach Boys walk along the beach holding a surfboard for a portrait session in August 1962

When Did Pop Culture and Nature Part Ways?

Ever since the 1950s, our books, movies, and songs have contained fewer and fewer references to flowers, birds, trees, and the outdoors. What does it all mean?

The Beach Boys walk along the beach holding a surfboard for a portrait session in August 1962

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These days, when Pelin and Selin Kesebir hear a song on the radio, they can’t help but listen for references to nature: a flower, a sunset, or “the birds up above” (Paul McCartney, “Till There Was You,” 1963). But nature-related words, Pelin observes, “really are hard to come by in current song lyrics.”

This is no off-hand gripe from the 37-year-old identical twins, who both hold Ph.D’s in psychology. According to a paper they published in March in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, references to nature are disturbingly sparse in current pop culture, be it books, music, or movies—and they’ve more or less been in steady decline since 1950. This, the researchers suggest, likely corresponds with a general decline in the public’s engagement with nature. After all, artists tend to write about what they know or try to create things they think the audience can relate to.

To be clear: the Kesebirs are not critiquing pop culture itself. That’s a debate that extends well beyond the parameters of their study. What they do argue is that music on the radio and books on the bestseller list provide a tidy capsule about what society is experiencing at any given time. That the experience involves less and less nature, they argue, is bad for both our minds and nature itself. 

The sisters’ interest in nature references in art was piqued in 2015 when a number of high-profile writers protested the decision by the editors at the Oxford Junior Dictionary to jettison words like “clover” and “blackberry” in favor of words like “blog” and, um, “BlackBerry.” (How quickly tech lingo becomes dated.) They realized that while it seems almost self-evident that society is less connected to nature than it used to be, actually showing that with data is difficult. Some studies have looked at how much time people spend doing “nature-based activities,” like hiking, but the Kesebirs found this approach lacking, since it doesn’t account for more ephemeral moments like spending a lunch break beneath a blooming cherry tree. Songs and books, they argue, have a way of capturing the zeitgeist of culture, making it a good proxy for measuring trends in society. 

One of the strengths of the Kesebirs’ research is that they analyzed thousands of works—they looked at some 6,000 songs released since 1950 alone—which allowed them to see clear trends in the din of millions of songs and books. To arrive at their results, the sisters compiled lists of common flowers, birds, trees, and general nature words (like “rainbow”) and then, using various online databases, tracked how often they appeared in lyrics, movie plot summaries, and books since 1900. With slight variations, the trends followed a typical line, increasing between the turn of the 20th century and 1950, then plunging in the second half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. To make sure these declines were specific to nature-related words, the Kesebirs also compiled a random assortment of human-related words—like “bowl” and “brick”—and looked at their trends as well. Those words became more and more common in art over the course of the 20th century.

One may reasonably wonder whether these trends are the product of pop culture’s whims. Woody Guthrie, preeminent folk singer of the mid-20th century, wrote reams of music about green Douglas firs (see “Roll On Columbia”) and redwood forests (see “This Land Is Your Land”). That was fitting for a man who grew up in rural Oklahoma and traveled the country on freight trains. The modern British rock band Radiohead, held in equally high regard for its songwriting but with a less nomadic pedigree, seems mostly interested in nature as metaphor for paranoia and alienation (see 1995’s “Fake Plastic Trees”). The 1960s happened to be the height of the Beach Boys’ fame (just look at the cover of Surfin' Safari), and John Wayne was popular in the 1950s, so lots of movies had sweeping panoramas of the Mojave Desert. Does that mean the people watching the Duke were better connected to nature? The Kesebirs say yes. “Culture products are agents of socialization that can evoke curiosity, respect, and concern for the natural world,” they write. In non-psychology speak, this means that movies about New York City make people want to go to the city. Movies about the desert (unless they're horrifying survival stories) make people want to go to the desert. It’s a chicken and an egg situation: authors, musicians, and screenwriters write about what people are interested in, and in turn people become interested in what the artists are writing about.

What’s causing the decline? With people moving off farms and into cities over the course of the 20th century, it would seem inevitable that nature demanded less of their attention. But the researchers note that urbanization was a fairly steady fact of life in the English-speaking world over the entire century, meaning it doesn’t tell the full story of the rise in nature words before the 1950s drop-off. A more plausible culprit, they write, is television, which first appeared in living rooms in the 1950s.

Beyond the psychological problems that this growing disconnect from nature presents, it’s bad for the environment. “Emotional affinity for nature is associated with environmentally protective behavior,” the Kesebirs write. “In one experiment, participants who viewed a brief video of natural spaces engaged in more sustainable behavior than did participants who viewed a video of human-based spaces.” 

Looking at the Kesebirs' research, one data set stands from the norm: between 2000 and 2010, nature references in popular music actually rose slightly. Selin says the rise is statistically significant and that she and her sister can’t definitively say what caused it. Looking over the songs included in the study, one wonders if it was tied to the mainstream success country music enjoyed that decade, which often evokes pastoral scenes of fireflies and sunsets, the way Jason Aldean does in his 2009 hit “Big Green Tractor.” Or it could just be a fluke. Selin says that the trend could be a momentary blip in the downward trend. (A sampling of Nikki Minaj’s latest offerings suggests she’s right.)

Regardless, the Kesebirs say “cultural leadership” is needed on the issue, given both the psychological and environmental benefits of appreciating the outdoors. “Public figures such as celebrities could…help spread a sense of the joys of nature,” Pelin says. Take a page, in other words, from Paul McCartney, who sang on the White Album, in 1968:

Find me in my field of grass
Mother Nature’s son.
Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun.

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