When Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods was first published in 2005, it hit an international nerve. Its basic message, that children are suffering from what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder,” galvanized a movement to reconnect kids with the natural world.
Louv makes the case for a connection between NDD and current childhood disorders that were almost unheard of a hundred years ago, but the book’s ultimate message is hopeful. Even minor exposure to small amounts of nature can enhance our mental health, creativity and levels of concentration. We don’t necessarily need to undertake full-on wilderness expeditions to enjoy such benefits. We just need to get ourselves and our kids outside.
Though Louv does not directly state that NDD is an end result of our cultural addiction to fossil fuels, he relates the two issues from the standpoint of stewardship. What we don’t know, he points out, we are not predisposed to take care of, and the less direct experience children have of nature, the less concern they will have about its destruction. Re-establishing that connection thus becomes a key component in taking back our power as individuals and a society. Raising children with an ingrained respect for nature, deeply rooted in personal experience, is a fundamental step towards creating a future in which our energy sources, technology and design are in alignment with the natural world. SC Magazine spoke with Louv about what that future might look like.
SC: You’ve written extensively about what you’re calling ‘nature deficit disorder.’ How do you see the relationship between nature deficit disorder and our dependency on fossil fuels?
RL: Let me start first with the indirect connection. I think that we have been in a cultural depression for at least ten to fifteen years, something that psychologically is on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s. We have become addicted to despair. We’re not going to do much about our addiction to oil until we deal with our addiction to despair.
Despair is very seductive. It is a close relative of a very deep kind of cynicism. We are showing signs recently of coming out of that cultural depression. I first noticed this when the book came out in 2005. When I started going to bookstores and giving my presentation to people, I was astonished that they were not leaving depressed. People were literally saying, “I can do this. When it comes to connecting kids to nature, we can do this one.”
The studies show that conservationists and environmentalists, almost to a person, had some transcendent experience in nature when they were kids. The question is what happens if that ends? What happens if we reach a point of cultural amnesia about a time in Western society in which children went outside and either played or worked in nature? Where will future stewards of the earth come from? Once people begin to think about this issue and they begin to realize its full implications, it not only includes the health of children in future generations, but the health of the earth itself.
A very well known biologist who had read the book brought me up to British Columbia. We spoke at the Lieutenant Governor’s home to a big group and he turned to me and said, “Rick, you don’t know why you’re here. The reason this event is happening is because I ran across your book in San Diego at the Natural History Museum and as a wildlife biologist, I know that I and other wildlife biologists live with a sense of despair and loss all the time. I don’t know why, but reading your book and thinking about this issue gave me hope.” He then said he’d had a good friend who was a wildlife biologist commit suicide because of that sense of despair.
Then you get to this issue of our complicity. This is not just about what we put in our gas tanks; this is about what we put into ourselves at the deepest level and the extent that we have cut ourselves off from nature and the joy of nature. That is, I think, at root in the complicity. We have forgotten that nature itself gives us gifts. When we cut ourselves off from it we suffer a deficiency in health, happiness and intelligence.
We have forgotten that nature itself gives us gifts. When we cut ourselves off from it we suffer a deficiency in health, happiness and intelligence.
I’d like to see us go beyond thinking only about programs and legislation and begin to think more clearly about cultural change. As an example of that, a few days ago a second grade teacher wrote me an email about what he and others had done. First his family read my book and decided they were going to get outside a lot more. They started doing that and then they realized, why can’t other families do this too? They put out the word and now they have something like 130 families signed up in Virginia. They have created a network of families that are going outside together in groups.
The same could be true for families that arrange to go on hikes or do stream reclamation, or go fishing, or do whatever activities outside. They’ve created this network where they have a newsletter and I would like to see that spread everywhere. That’s one idea that represents a clear cultural change. It doesn’t wait for funding.
SC: What are the benefits of studying your local environment as opposed to big global issues like deforestation and climate change?
RL: David Sobel is the guy that coined the term “ecophobia” and he’s really good on this topic. There are a couple of levels to this. One is that when we begin overloading kids at the earliest age, even before preschool with tales of disaster in nature, I think that we do them and ourselves a great disservice. First it’s not developmentally appropriate to overload kids with bad news that early. The hidden message is that people are terrible and they’re destroying the earth. Now as true as that might be, if we continue on that path at that developmental level, you’re setting a precedent for how kids think and feel about nature.
When we begin overloading kids at the earliest age, even before preschool with tales of disaster in nature, I think that we do them and ourselves a great disservice.
We do that in the absence of a joyful experience in nature just for the fun of it. When kids are not allowed to go out and dig a hole, or climb a tree, or make a leaf fort or find a lizard, it counts. They never are touched by nature in a way that associates it with joy and wonder. Therefore, you’re setting these kids up for the rest of their lives to associate nature with fear and disaster.
SC: Europe is relatively far ahead of the U.S. in terms of design, both of schools and of communities. What can we learn from Europe?
RL: In Finland, where kids are required to go outside in most schools, the science testing is way up compared to us. But since the book came out I started getting a lot of emails from the countries I had complimented like the Netherlands and Norway and other Scandinavian countries saying,” We like the book, we agree with you, but you were too kind to us: We’ve got nature deficit disorder.”
The Dutch government itself paid for the translation and sponsored the publication of Last Child in Dutch and asked me to come over. The government Minister of Nature and Health presented the book to the Dutch people. I thought, gosh, I wish that happened in the United States. But what was interesting is that they feel intensely that this is happening despite the fact that they’re far ahead of us in many ways, in the creation of ecovillages. My wife and I were stunned with Amsterdam and Rotterdam. We’d see thousands of bicycles; and yet they have this intense sense that this is happening there, too, to their kids and that they’ve got to do something about it.
SC: One of the potential approaches to this issue is greenprinting. Could you explain what that is and how it’s working in relation to cities?
RL: Basically it’s using the technology to map an urban region to look at where the green places are and in what relationship to populations. That gives you a better sense of the distribution of nature. We hope that greenprinting also takes a much closer look at inner city areas. That topic is so important because we have to place far more emphasis than we have on nearby nature. Nearby nature seems to me every bit as important as wilderness. Obviously we need to protect every bit of wilderness that we’ve got but at the same time we’ve got to remember that nature can’t just be something that we buy a ticket to that is forty miles from town.
SC: You pointed out that 80% of Americans lived in cities and I think that statistic would probably hold up around the world.
RL: There have even been articles about nature deficit disorder in Nairobi, Kenya. At first it sounded strange to me until I began to think that the whole world is urbanizing. But that’s again why nearby nature has to become more of a priority. Nearby nature optimally is wildlife corridors that go throughout an urban region as migration routes that are maintained. But we can’t stop there. We have to think of nearby nature also as the woods at the end of the cul de sac, the ravine behind the house. To adults, certainly to a biologist’s eyes, the biodiversity of those little islands is insignificant. But to a child’s eyes that can be the whole universe. That can be their first foray into nature and even though it’s limited in terms of biodiversity and even though it’s small, we have to remember to look at it through a child’s eyes. We have to preserve those places.
We have to think of nearby nature also as the woods at the end of the cul de sac, the ravine behind the house. To adults, certainly to a biologist’s eyes, the biodiversity of those little islands is insignificant. But to a child’s eyes that can be the whole universe.
We can begin to rethink our cities. What if cities, including New York, began to identify all those places and create more of them by tearing up old crumbling flat, asphalt playgrounds and replacing them with natural play spaces? And what if roof after roof was greened and some of those roofs became natural play spaces?
SC: If we do create these kinds of changes, what does the future look like?
RL: Martin Luther King said that any movement will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to and I think we’ve been failing at painting that picture. Recently I spoke to a class of 150 urban issue and architecture graduate students in San Diego. I asked them to describe a city that they would like to live in some day. They drew a blank. It was an astounding silence. They are not used to thinking about the future in positive terms. That gets us back to that original question, which is the addiction to despair. That’s one of the symptoms of an addiction to despair: you can’t see the future in a positive way.
What if we began to think of the biophilic design research about buildings and schools, workplaces that have been designed with nature woven into them from the beginning and then kept there? The people that work in those buildings are far more productive, sick time gets better, turnover gets better. At that point, we’re not only talking about the restoration of nature, we’re talking about human restoration in the process.
Last year a high school nearby asked me to come and talk. I went and I expected 20 kids and there were 200. I spoke for about an hour, and you could have heard a pin drop. It’s not because I’m a great speaker. It was because I talked about two things. One was that their health and the full use of their senses are directly related to their experience in nature.
The second thing was, because of global warming and all of the environmental issues that we face in the next 40 years, everything must change. It’s already beginning. They’ll need new kinds of agriculture. New kinds of energy sources are already beginning. We’ll need new kinds of urban design and architecture. All new careers will emerge. When the kids left, I turned to the biology teacher who’d invited me and said, “What was that all about? Why were they paying so much attention?” He said, “Simple, Rick. You said something hopeful about the future of the environment. They never hear that.”
When kids and the rest of us are presented with this as a great opportunity, it’s an entirely different frame. We may well be entering the most creative period in human history because everything must change. That’s a good opportunity for every 16 year old. They don’t want to hear about sustaining something, they want to hear about creating something and that’s where we’ve got to move.
What are your thoughts?