During my idyllic vacation two weeks ago, I pulled out a book that had been sitting on my table for some time: Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. Based on the somewhat off-puttingly pedantic subtitle (“Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder”) I had been procrastinating. But once I started I could hardly put it down. I think it will prove to be a seminal work in environmentalism.
Yesterday, at the Ecological Society of America‘s annual meeting in San Jose, I had the privilege of seeing Mr. Louv speak in a session and panel discussion entitled “No Child Left Indoors” (see my previous post on this topic here). I was spellbound and inspired. It has been the highlight of the meeting for me. This guy is my new hero. Here’s to Richard Louv, Natural Patriot. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say this:
If you care passionately about the environment, and you read only one book in the coming months, read this one!
The book documents the profound changes that have occurred — largely unnoticed, or at least largely without recognition of their importance — over the short period of a single human generation in the relationship between people and nature, and the equally profound implications of those changes for nearly every aspect of modern life: our physical health, our psychological health, spiritual identity, our sense of community. Louv documents with a seamless blend of both scientific documentation and heartfelt, poetic sense the consequences of our increasing estrangement from the rest of the universe, and the especially destructive impact that this has on kids. He has put his finger squarely on the strong but inchoate sense of discord that has been growing in so many Americans over recent decades: something fundamental has gone wrong with American childhood, but what is it?
There are of course many aspects of life that have changed in recent decades, and fingering any one of them definitively as the culprit would be difficult. But Louv makes a compelling case that a major part of the problem, an ultimate cause underlying many of the proximate symptoms, is the estrangement of kids from nature and the outdoors.
How have we missed this? Modern environmentalism has focused so much on the impacts humans have on nature that it has largely ignored the impacts that nature has on humans. Those impacts are now coming into focus and they are turning out to be deep, broad, and important. And this stands to reason: for the entire sweep of human history and prehistory — from the African savannah millions of years ago to my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s — kids have spent most of their childhoods outside. That is, up until the last two decades. Now, as every parent recognizes with distress, kids are sitting in front of a glowing screen for much of the day. And we’re frightened to let them out of our sight for even a few minutes. We have taken children out of their natural habitat. It’s hard to imagine that this could happen without affecting their physical, psychological, and spiritual health. And, indeed, strong evidence suggests that we have affected their health, and our own, profoundly. To illustrate, consider just two telling observations:
The greatest increase in childhood obesity in American history has taken place in the last two decades, despite the fact that this same period has witnessed the greatest increase ever in organized sports participation by kids. Clearly, playing soccer a few times a week is not making up for the many hours that kids formerly spent running around outside, playing creatively, building treehouses, etc.
Why are so many kids on ritalin, a phenomenon that would have seemed unthinkable when I was a youngster? As Louv points out, there are thousands of studies documenting the effects of pharmaceuticals on attention-deficit-disorder (ADD), but only six studies relating experience in nature to ADD. Why? Perhaps because there is no money to be made by sending kids outside, and thus no vested interest to fund such studies. Yet the few studies that do exist show that nature experience often has beneficial effects on kids’ behavior even without drugs. And that is on top of the various other benefits of being outside and active.
So whose fault is it that kids are cooped up indoors playing Nintendo all day? Surely not their own. They are responding to the message that we adults are sending them, whether overtly or subliminally, whether personally or through our restrictive homeowners’ covenants and cable TV saturation coverage of the handful of child abduction cases each year. We are sending the message that Nature is in the past, that the boogeyman is out there in the woods, and that it’s probably illegal to play there anyway. Yes, I’m guilty too. I’ve talked with my son many times about the threats facing wildlife and wild habitats. At the age of ten he is well aware of global warming and endangered species. Louv suggests that indoctrinating kids with this information may be counterproductive, serving less to educate them toward stewardship than to instill a sense of hopelessness. Instead, Nature should be a bright, inviting world of wonder for them.
But here’s the most important thing: the greatest beauty of the book is that, rather than generating the angst and sadness that have become the constant companion of those of us concerned about the natural world around us, this book achieves what would seem an impossible feat: It is a beacon of hope. We can and must turn this around and change the world. And here’s what we can do:
1) Educate ourselves and the public about how important nature is to the physical, psychological, and spiritual health of children and adults.
2) Accept the responsibility of taking kids outside. The 1950s are gone, for better or for worse. Kids will never again play outside for hours at a time unsupervised. We will have to take them there. Go fishing, hiking, camping, even hunting. The hidden gem is that all the benefits of creativity and health that accrue to kids also go to adults.
3) Support, morally and financially, the programs and people that help kids connect to nature — scouting programs, etc. For example, there is a growing movement to incorporate nature experience into the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind act. This should be supported.
Louv also emphasizes that we need to be careful about how we talk with kids about nature and the future of the environment. He emphasizes two things that resonate with kids of all ages. First, their own health — physical, psychological and spiritual — is connected intimately with nature. “The environment” (or the Creation if you prefer that terminology) is not an abstract issue, it has real consequences for their lives. And second, the rapidly changing world we are living in is filled with new opportunities and they will be the ones that reap them. We need to build a new civilization, with new kinds of agriculture, new kinds of business, new careers that don’t even have names yet. These things are already happening and the kids of today will be the leaders of this new civilization.
Finally, this is not just about kids. If children don’t appreciate nature, where will the next generation of environmental stewards come from? Who will care enough to take responsibility for a healthy natural envirnment? Here are some resources for making sure that no child is left indoors:
The Children and Nature Network. Lots of news, commentary, and useful, inspiring information showing that “No Child Left Indoors” has grown into a bona fide movement that is making real progress — with governors, mayors, and other policy makers getting on board. Join the network here.
The Powerful Link Between Conserving Land and Preserving Health. “Evidence suggests that children and adults benefit so much from contact with nature that land conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy.”
And so, hats off to Richard Louv, a true Natural Patriot and a hero for our time.