The Nature Principle

JAMES CAMERON, creator of Avatar, said his film “asks questions about our relationship with each other, from culture to culture, and our relationship with the natural world at a time of nature-deficit disorder.” Avatar is “the most-watched film in history.” The scale of its success has roots that reach well beyond the fantastic special effects. The story line tapped a collective, instinctual knowledge that our growing alienation from the natural world comes at our own peril.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv warned that nature-deficit disorder threatens our health, our spirit, our economy, and our future stewardship of the environment. Louv’s newest book, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, takes the next step and tackles the ambitious task of mapping our way to a more connected future.

“The most vibrant cities,” writes Louv, “will be those that integrate the population into an urban environment enriched by both natural and re-natured habitat.” Louv’s optimism is rooted in the well-researched benefits of office buildings built around centralized greenhouses, neighborhoods studded with small parks, and yards sprouting spinach in place of grass.

Putting his journalism training to good use, Louv reports on the myriad ways contact with nature (vitamin N) improves our physical and mental health. For example, mice halved their time through a maze after being fed Mycobacterium vaccae, a common soil bug. (Take home message: eat dirt.) Workers able to harvest lunch from a garden thriving alongside the office are more productive than folks sequestered in sterile cubes. Depressed people prescribed daily outdoor walks improved their moods compared to patients walking in a mall. Alzheimer patients exposed to natural light fluctuations experienced less agitation and wandering.

Louv enriches his journalism with personal stories. In an early chapter, he recalls the robust garden that briefly flourished alongside his boyhood home. The demise of that garden and his father’s slide into debilitating depression alerted Louv at a young age to the dangers of severing our contact with nature, and he draws compelling parallels between alienation from nature in his own family and the course of our culture.

Louv writes that it is time to “give added focus to the intrinsic importance of the natural world to our health, our ability to learn, our happiness, our spirits.” Ranting about looming catastrophe or promoting the economic benefits of green jobs is not enough. Growth of the environmental movement requires a visceral, immediate connection to the greater-than-human world.

“Our relationship with nature,” Louv writes, “is not only about preserving land and water, but about preserving and growing the bonds between us.” Louv presents engaging stories, showing the vitality of dozens of individuals and groups dedicated to fostering a widening awareness of their home ground. Readers will meet architects, professors, doctors, and neighborhood organizers dedicated to integrating vitamin N into homes, schools, clinics, and communities.

Louv is wise enough not to try and depress people into action. While acknowledging the magnitude of our separation, he quickly gets back on the trail of possible reconnection. He manages to energize his readers by making us feel a part of a historic, exciting movement. Although focused on the urban world, Louv aims to shift our concept of civilization beyond notions of citizen and city to a broader awareness of our place on the planet. Page after page we learn that in working to heal the world through restoration, we end up healing ourselves.