Few writers have done as much to reconnect kids with the outdoors as Richard Louv, who is the author of several books on the topic (including Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle), and whose essay “Leave No Child Inside” is published in Orion’s new collection of the same name. Orion’s Erik Hoffner spoke with Richard about his books, his organization, Children & Nature Network, and the state of the movement to reconnect kids with all that’s wild and green.
Since your essay “Leave No Child Inside” ran in our pages back in 2007, you also wrote “A Walk in the Woods” for Orion, in which you ask “Does a child have a right to a walk in the woods? Does an adult?” Are you still met with ambivalence to that question when you talk to people?
I’m grateful to Orion for having published my essay on the right to a walk in the woods; I later expanded on that piece in a chapter in The Nature Principle. I think the ambivalence that some people felt may have lifted, as they’ve come to understand that I’m not specifically talking about a legal right, but a moral right—and that this is not a right to destroy nature.
Annelies Henstra, a Dutch human rights attorney, has done important work to make that right a reality. In September 2012, the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meeting in Jeju, South Korea, passed a resolution declaring that children have a human right to experience the natural world. Henstra, and Cheryl Charles, who is president of the Children & Nature Network, and others made the case to the Congress—attended by more than 10,000 people representing the governments of 150 nations and more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations. This was an important moment for anyone concerned about the future relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
What’s the state of awareness around nature deficit disorder, the term you coined and which figured large in your important 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods?
Awareness and activism precedes Last Child in the Woods, of course. But since then there has been a perfect storm of trends that have pushed the issue forward.
Environmental organizations have helped, but groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and many others have pushed for more connection between children and the rest of nature. Three Interior Secretaries in a row have taken on the issue, and we have particularly high hopes for the new Secretary, Sally Jewell, former head of REI.
You can see some of these results at the Children & Nature Network web site, which is the non-profit that grew out of Last Child. It’s the best place I know of to find out about past and recent research on the deficit and the benefits.
Increasingly, this is also an international movement. In North America, there are now at least 115 state, provincial, and regional campaigns to connect kids to nature—and these are bringing people to the same table that often don’t want to be in the same room. There’s something about this issue that tends to reduce political and religious divisions.
Having said that, there are still enormous barriers between children (and adults) and the natural world. I listed them in a recent blog post, under five headings: urbanization without nature, a culture of fear, silicon faith, the cultural devaluing of nature, and the cultural dominance of the post-apocalyptic view of the future.
What has pleased you most about how The Nature Principle has been received?
To a degree, I believe it helped complete the circle. Though children are the most vulnerable to the psychological, physical, and spiritual implications of the nature deficit, adults are too. So The Nature Principle extended the case to adults—and it also, to the best of my limited ability, described the potential of a new nature movement that includes traditional concerns, and sustainability (which is often defined in terms of, say, energy efficiency), to set the bar higher: to describe and help create a nature-rich civilization, with nature-rich homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, cities.
Groups such as the Congress for the New Urbanism have shown interest in that concept, but the most gratifying response has come from college students, who deeply desire careers and lives dedicated to something greater than survival. I often paraphrase Martin Luther King, who demonstrated that movements fail if they cannot describe a world to which people want to go.
You excel at telling stories in your books and essays. Have you found narrative to be an important ally in your advocacy off the page, when you address groups or talk to kids?
Oh, yes, the stories add up to something larger than statistics. And people continue to tell me their stories, especially ones from their own childhoods, and I never tire of that. It doesn’t seem to matter what someone’s politics or religion are, they always want to tell me about the tree house they had when they were kids, or that special place in nature, if they’re old enough to have had that experience.
The younger people are, the less likely it is that they have those stories to share, but I believe it’s never too late, and we can reverse the deficit. Even if, in the long run, the barriers prove too high, the countless people out there who are working to reconnect children and their families and their communities to nature will have done great good in the world. The truth is, this is a happy cause.
In a recent blog post on the education system, you wrote, “For every dollar spent on the virtual, another dollar must be spent on the real.” What would that look like?
Electronic technology wouldn’t disappear from schools—a precept of The Nature Principle is that the more high tech our lives become, the more nature we need.
If our goal were to educate what I call “hybrid minds”—ones that are not only good with technology but also attuned to the patterns of the world—then things like recess, physical education, and field trips would return to schools. The movement to green schoolyards and create school gardens would grow exponentially. Teachers would be encouraged to take their student outdoors to learn. The number of nature-based schools, especially preschools, would continue to grow. As a result, test scores would improve, as would cognitive skills, and psychological and physical health of students and teachers, too.
We might also see an expanded definition of green jobs, to include careers connecting people to nature, ones that would span from nature therapists to biophilic architects, and much more; the focus of education would shift from excessive faith in electronic technology, to using appropriate technology to create a nature-rich civilization.
The New York Times asked me a similar question recently: is creativity endangered? Of course, creativity isn’t endangered; it goes on without us. But the creativity of the human experience can be preserved and greatly expanded if we do not forget where we came from.
As critical as I am about the digital world at times, I like this ‘hybrid mind’ idea of yours.
In a sense we are living in nature constantly. The technology that seems to estrange us is just nature reconfigured. No doubt the Garden of Eden myth was a memory of a time when human culture did not drive things, but instead nature’s original rhythms did. I wonder if control of fire was the original dramatic cultural change.
So we want to get in touch again and again with our original home but radically change it to suit our additional needs and desires which inevitably despoil nature in its pre-human aspect.
Perhaps we would be better off if we weren’t such capable technologists and adapted more poorly to extreme challenges. Then we would have to be better preservers of our natural and simpler social surroundings. And those who upset it would become pariahs.
In some ways that reminds me of H.G. Wells ‘Valley of the Blind’ story. The sighted man in the blind society upset the whole apple cart. It suggests to me that restraint in so many ways, preserving nature being one, is a great virtue.
Quite an uphill battle to fight – but good work so far!
Our Children’s Garden is facing a problem that expands across our country. Parks are becoming homes for the homeless. Our city is looking at putting in a perm.homeless shelter with in walking distance of a park that has a sailing program on one side and a children’s garden on the other. Our small local park is already home of the homeless where our kids won’t go because they are laying under the swings and are afraid. The people seem more involved in letting our parks go to the homeless calling them our most volunerable citizens, when I think are kids are. HELP Susan