Richard Louv is a journalist and author of a number of books, most famously Last Child in the Woods, first published in 2005. His most recent book is The Nature Principle. Last Child in the Woods coined the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ to describe the impacts that isolation from nature could be seen to be having on a generation of children. He is also a founder of the Children and Nature Network. When I spoke to him, I started by asking how Nature Deficit Disorder manifests more widely in society.
Many of the kids I interviewed for Last Child in the Woods are adults now. One of the things we know from the research is that almost all environmentalists, conservationists, whatever we want to call ourselves, had some transcendent experiences in nature when we were kids, where we felt close to nature and had a personal relationship with nature. What happens if that ends?
What happens if most experience becomes virtual, disconnected from the natural world? Who will be the future stewards of the earth? It is true that there will always be environmentalists and there will always be conservationists, but if we’re not careful, environmentalists and others who care about the future of nature will carry nature in their briefcases, not in their hearts. That’s a very different relationship and I don’t think it is sustainable. That’s one impact.
The other impacts are extensions of what we know about the effect of the natural world on children. Throughout our lives we have chances to grow, we have chances to grow new neural pathways. We have chances to be healthier psychologically and physically. We have challenges to our cognition or potential cognitive improvement. We of course have to make a living. We raise our families. We have to decide how best to be happy or pursue happiness.
In every one of those areas, the emerging research – and it’s only emerging fairly recently, in the last 12-15 years – whether it’s kids or adults, this research shows that having more nature in our lives can contribute positively. Particularly in the area of mental health. There seems to be more research on mental health than there is on physical health, although physical health is starting to catch up.
There’s some good research being done in the UK – the University of Essex is doing great stuff. Some of it looks at people on treadmills in gyms and compares how they do to another group of people who are expending the exact same number of calories but they’re doing it outside in green exercise, hiking or gardening. In both cases, the same number of calories is burnt. For the people who are on treadmills in gyms, their blood pressure gets better, their psychological wellbeing improves.
But people who burn the same number of calories in green exercise, outdoors, in more natural settings get even better. We really don’t understand why that’s true. This is a terribly under-researched arena. It’s almost an academic scandal that only recently have researchers in the academic world really looked seriously at how exposure to the natural world shapes our development both physically and mentally, and that includes our cognitive development too.
I took my kids on holiday a couple of weeks ago down to Cornwall, further down in the South West here. One evening I took them for a walk down a lane and we saw glow worms in the hedge which was the first time they’d ever seen glow worms, and I think possibly the first time I had since I was a child and my parents took me out one evening to go and see glow worms in the hedge. It was a very magical moment, a very magical experience. I wonder what your sense is of what happens to us when we have experiences like that? Why do they matter so much? What do they do to us?
Rachel Carson wrote about the “sense of wonder” in a book of the same name. She understood this early on. First there is the genetic component of that. E.O. Wilson at Harvard talks about his “biophilia” hypothesis, that we are hard wired as a species to have an affiliation with the rest of nature. Studies have been done about the images that human beings are most attracted to. This work has been done in all kinds of cultures, all kinds of settings; among people who have never spent much time in nature as well as those living fully in the natural world.
What they find is that the images that human beings are most attracted to are images of nature, and of those images, images of landscapes. The number one image that humans are attracted to are images of the savannah. And where are we from? That doesn’t prove that there’s a genetic link or a genetic connection to that past, but it certainly illustrates the conversation. This is part of who we are.
One 11 year old girl I interviewed said – this was in my own grade school, back in Kansas City – this little girl I’d been told to listen to in particular by the teacher there – she called this little girl her “little poet”. This was one of the few schools, by the way, where I found the kids were still going out in the woods in any kind of number at all.
I asked them “what do you see when you’re in the woods?”As a kid I may have talked about Cowboys and Indians, these kids talked about National Geographic. That’s what they projected into the woods. They talked about space, Star Wars. But this one little girl stood up and she said “when I’m in the woods, I feel that I am in my mother’s shoes. I had a special place. It was a little dug out hole underneath a big tree in the woods and I kept my blanket down there. I would go down there and lie on my blanket and look up through the leaves and branches, and I would think of my poems”. She said “one day I went down there and my tree had been cut down and my blanket was gone, and my special place no longer existed”. And she said “when they cut down my tree, they cut down part of me”.
I don’t think the little poet was speaking metaphorically. She was speaking correctly and realistically. If E.O. Wilson is right and this emerging research about this impact on our health and our development is correct, then literally this is part of us. This is one of the reasons why I’ve argued for some time – I did in The Nature Principle, I did in a piece for Orion magazine several years ago where I argued that this should be a human right, to have a positive connection to nature.
September of last year, the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, with some input from several sources including the Children and Nature Network passed a resolution, saying in fact that children have a human right to a positive connection to the natural world and to a healthy environment. That’s a big step.
What does a healthy relationship with technology look like? I noticed that you have been doing a few media appearances over the summer with the question about surely kids should be outdoors rather than sitting inside playing on their XBoxes all day. What does a healthy relationship with technology look like?
Both in Last Child but particularly in The Nature Principle, I try to make very clear that I’m not anti-tech. You and I are talking via Skype right now. It’s hard to by anti-tech while we’re talking on Skype! I’m not. For a long time I was an early adopter, but now I think I’m a late arrival, I’m falling behind. In The Nature Principle I talk about something called ‘the hybrid mind’.
The best way to describe that is I met a fellow who trains people how to become pilots of cruise ships. We need a few good pilots of cruise ships, apparently. He said he gets two kinds of student. One kind grew up mainly on couches, playing video games, watching television and in front of computers. He said that that kind of student has a great talent and great ability that I need on my ships. That kind of student is really good at the electronics and I have a lot of electronics on my ships.
He said the other kind of student grew up mainly outside. Maybe they were in an agricultural community, maybe they just did a lot of camping and hiking. But he said that that kind of student who grew up mainly outdoors also has a great talent that I need. That kind of student actually knows were the ship is. He wasn’t being facetious or funny – I laughed because I thought it was pretty funny, but he was being serious. He said their senses are more attuned to literally where the ship is in space as it’s moving, and he needs that kind of talent too, obviously.
He said his ideal student would be someone who has both sets of abilities. Both the set that comes from electronics, but also he needs that other balancing set of senses that are developed more in the natural world. That to him would be an ideal student. In The Nature Principle, I call that ‘the hybrid mind’.
I gave a speech in Boston recently. It’s an annual conference called Learning and the Brain, and it’s a very big conference put together by MIT and I believe Harvard and others. It’s heavily focused on technology. I presented this idea about the hybrid mind there. One reason was that the educators there had a sense of relief that I was not accepting the idea that we need to flood our schools with more technology. There’s quite a lot there already.
There is a big economic force for more technology in our schools to essentially immerse kids in technology. That economic force knows exactly what kind of future school it wants. The good news is that testing as we know it will disappear. To me, the not so good news is that we won’t need that kind of testing any more because the machines will be watching kids all the time. Every keystroke, everything they do. That economic force would like schools to be filled with video games, literally, as teaching tools.
None of that has very much to do with going outdoors and having cognitive improvement from what nature gives us. There’s a lot of research on that that really shows significant improvements in test scores and so forth from taking your class outside into nature. So I don’t accept that as the future.
That doesn’t mean I’m anti-tech though. Technology will be there whether we like it or not and some of that is great for education. But the point being, if we focused on the hybrid mind as one of the goals of education, then we would get the best of both worlds.
The technology people in the audience came up to me afterwards and they too were relieved that I’d said that because I didn’t attach technology as evil. That’s not the issue. Being a Luddite is not the goal. Having a sense of balance is the goal. In our schools, for instance, I think that for every dollar we spend on the virtual we should spend another dollar on the real. If we do that, we’ll be ok.
Is it your sense that our separation from nature is one of the key things that’s at the heart of ecological crisis that we face?
Yes. Perhaps I should add, a way to look at technology that I do in The Nature Principle is that the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. It’s a kind of equation that we need to apply to, I think, every area of our lives. Our lives are going to get more technological. But we can increase the amount of nature around us.
One of those ways is through conservation, through conserving what nature we have left. I know that the definition of nature can be tricky. I won’t even go into that unless you want me to, but conservation is essential if we’re going to have that sense of balance with technology. It’s essential for many other reasons obviously, for biological reasons, for health reasons and so forth.
But in The Nature Principle, I make the argument that conservation is no longer enough. Now we need to create nature. That’s a different way of looking at environmentalism, I think. By that I mean different kinds of cities. I mean bringing back butterfly and bird migration routes by replanting our yards in native species. Even in the densest urban neighbourhoods, green roofs that can bring back the migratory routes of native species. We can enrich our lives in that way. But if we’re only trying to conserve what we have left, I think that over time, if that’s all we do that’s a losing game.
If we, in addition to conserving every square inch of wilderness that we still have, we begin to create nature where we live, work, learn and play in new ways, that’s a different kind of future and I think it’s the route that the Transition towns are taking. You would be able to talk better to that than I can, of course.
With Transition groups now around the world working at that community level, what would your advice be to them on how to bring the insights from what you do into the work that they’re doing?
I don’t want to presume to tell anyone how to do that, because the Transition movement is so far ahead of so many other efforts around the world that I wouldn’t presume to give a prescription to it or to tell it it could do better. It’s doing great things and I write about it with admiration in The Nature Principle. I think there is an overarching issue that environmentalism in general has ignored often. Not always. I don’t think all environmentalism necessarily, and I don’t think this applies to the Transition movement.
I’ve become increasingly concerned over time about how we talk about the future. Firstly to our kids, but also to ourselves. I’ve become convinced that most Americans – and I think this would be true of most people in the UK and most people in the so-called developed world and perhaps beyond that, any place where there is fast-growing urbanisation and the Western media has permeated – I think most people carry around images of the far future that look a lot like Blade Runner or Mad Max or I guess The Hunger Games.
At least there are a few trees in The Hunger Games. In the United States at least, and I bet this is true of the UK, the number one fiction genre for young adults is called ‘dystopic fiction’. It’s about a post-apocalyptic world. It’s about a world that not even vampires are having a good time in. My feeling is that there’s nothing wrong with dystopic literature. In fact, there’s everything right. 1984 was a good warning.
But what happens when our narrative about the future, our internal subconscious images that we carry around all the time become dystopic, become predominantly post-apocalyptic? I’m talking predominantly about a subconscious view of the future and the far future. Not next week or the year after, but where are we headed.
I spend a lot of time with students these days, and some students at De Paul University took me to lunch. They wanted to talk to me about their future. These were all environmental studies students. They were already committed to the environment. One of them said that he tried to join some of the local chapters of some of the big environmental organisations and he said it didn’t work out for him.
He said “for one thing, they all look like you Mr Louv”, I said “oh thanks a lot!” In other word he was saying they all look old. In fact, one of the largest environmental organisations in the world – and I won’t name it as I don’t like embarrassing them – their average membership age I believe is 78 and their average new member is 74. The old members get together and they haze the new members.
That has been true for some time of the major environmental organisations. They’re like newspapers. Newspaper readers have got older and older. The big environmental organisations are worried about that. They’re worried that they’re going to age out. That’s because of two reasons.
One is that they haven’t, until recently, – and they’re doing a lot now – they haven’t done much to reach out to young people. The second reason had to do with what a young woman at that table told me. This student told me, and she’s a very hip young woman. I know that because she had tattoos.
She said “I’m 20 years old. All my life I’ve been told it’s too late”. I thought about that for a minute and then I said “20 years, that’s about the window. That’s about right”. That’s the window that the news media (I was involved with the news media for a long time) and western entertainment media, but also to an extent environmentalism itself, that’s the message that’s been getting through. That it’s too late.
Yes, other messages come through, but I’m talking about the one that settles deeply in people’s psyche. If I’m right, and most people are carrying around those dominant images of the far future as being post-apocalyptic, that is maybe a larger barrier than even climate change. You can’t do much about climate change unless you have the idea that the future can actually be not just adequate but better.
I use the word sustainable, but I think that word has limitations. To most Americans, at least, the word conjures up energy efficiency and that’s it. It’s turned into a technical term. It describes survival, getting by, breaking even. Rightly or wrongly, and I know there are broader definitions and it started out more broadly than that, at least among Americans, that’s how most people interpret that word. I think if that is our goal, we won’t get to sustainability. We won’t get even close to energy efficiency if that’s our goal. We have to set the bar much higher in order to get even to that goal.
That’s why increasingly, rather than talking about sustainability or sustainable cities, I talk about “nature-rich cities”. Nature-rich schools. Nature-rich towns. Nature-rich workplaces. A nature-rich civilisation. The idea that nature brings us wealth, in the deepest sense. It brings us out of our loneliness as a species. Yes, it brings energy efficiency if we do it correctly but it brings an enrichment to our lives that we get in no other way. When we begin to see the far future that way, then we begin to see not just energy efficient cities but nature rich cities.
We see the city like a garden. Simply a city that is beautiful. We bring the idea of beauty back into it when we begin to see those images of the future.
Martin Luther King said and demonstrated in many ways that any culture, any movement will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to. I think we’ve been failing at painting that picture. The Transition movement is, I believe, one of the few bright spots where images are being painted, not just of a ‘sustainable’ energy efficient future, but a beautiful future, a wonderful future, a better future than what we have now. If we can’t have that goal, we won’t get to the goal of energy efficiency or survival.
The above is an edited version of our conversation. You can hear that in full, or download it, below: