Richard Louv has written eight books about the connections between family, nature and community. His book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder has been translated into 10 languages and published in 15 countries. The term ‘nature-deficit disorder,’ which he coined in that book, has become the defining phrase of this important issue. Louv is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization helping build the movement to connect today’s children and future generations to the natural world. He also serves as honorary co-chairman, with Robert Bateman, of Canada’s national Children and Nature Alliance.
Louv has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, and other major publications. He has appeared on many national TV shows, including NBC’s Today Show and Nightly News, CBS Evening News, ABC’s Good Morning America, and NPR’s Morning Edition, Fresh Air, and Talk of the Nation. Louv served as an advisor both to the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award program and to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. He is on the board of directors of ecoAmerica and a member of the Citistates Group. He has appeared before the Domestic Policy Council in the White House and recently gave the closing keynote at the first White House Summit on Environmental Education.
Louv’s latest book THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age (Algonquin Books, 2011), offers a new vision of the future, in which our lives are as immersed in nature as they are in technology. This future, available to all of us right now, offers better psychological, physical and spiritual health for people of every age.
How do you define nature?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Science has a hard time defining nature, and that’s one of the reasons why the relationship between people and nature, in terms of human development, has been so understudied. My personal definition is anytime I’m in a meaningful relationship with species other than my own.
The body of research around this issue has grown since you first published Last Child in the Woods in 2005. What do we know now that we didn’t know seven years ago?
We know more particulars now, but the foundational research was already there, although it was all rather new. During a keynote speech I gave to the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2010, I said, “I’m not going to ask you to come up with an official policy on nature-deficit disorder because I know you’re going to ask for 30-year longitudinal studies, to which I would say ‘Where were you 30 years ago?’” I added, “What I will ask you is to use your own best judgment and wisdom to take care of children, and if that involves ‘prescribing nature,’ that’s great.” They appreciated that, and many pediatricians are in fact recommending nature time.
But, yes, the research has expanded in the last few years. A large section of the Children & Nature Network web site is devoted to research results. We try to keep abreast of the latest research and provide links to the original research when it exists on the Web.
The movement seems to be gaining support from a variety of sectors in addition to health. Is there an area where it is not gaining support as quickly as you would like?
Ironically, I don’t think the organized faith community is paying enough attention to it. Many religious sectors have an almost intuitive sense that all spiritual life begins with wonder. Well, what’s one of the first windows into wonder? Many people intuitively understand how important nature is to spiritual life, but I haven’t seen a lot of activity on the part of churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. — efforts to come up with programs to get their young people and families outdoors. There’s huge potential here. They could create family nature clubs, for example.
It’s moving fairly fast in the education world, but usually that’s more of an ad hoc response from an individual school, individual principals, individual teachers, or parents who put positive pressure on their schools. In terms of national education reform, it’s moving, but not as quickly as we’d like.
When I first began to give speeches after Last Child in the Woods came out, I learned that one of my guaranteed applause lines was “If we really want good education reform, what we’d really have is a ‘Leave No Child Inside’ campaign.” That has happened, but it has not been top down. That has come from the bottom and from the outside, and from a few education leaders. This is why the Children & Nature Network launched its Natural Teachers initiative, to honor and encourage the educators who insist on taking their students outside to learn.
To what degree are children aware of nature deficit disorder? Are their voices a part of this discussion?
That’s a great question. In the 1980s, when I first started doing interviews as part of my research for Childhood’s Future [a book about the changing realities of family life, published by Anchor Books in 1993], the disconnection [of children from nature] had already begun.
I went into classrooms and living rooms and encouraged families and kids to tell me what they thought was changing in family life. One repeating theme was this sense that something profound was changing in the relationship between children and nature. People didn’t really have a language with which to talk about it, though. Here’s an example of how kids would describe it. They’d watch Lassie on TV, and see Jeff and Porky build a tree house in the woods, get lost, and have adventures. One boy said that, to him, that kind of life seemed like living on Mars. Many children knew nature based on older shows they watched on television, and knew they were missing out on that experience. The disconnection has accelerated over the past three decades.
Today, kids are a lot more aware of [nature deficit disorder]. A 13-year-old Canadian girl named Miranda Anderson did a blog for the Children & Nature Network web site. She cares deeply about this issue and is incredibly articulate. In fact, she did a TEDx talk about it. Miranda is an example [of a child whose voice is part of this discussion]. We’d like to have more of those voices.
The Children & Nature Network sponsors something called the Natural Leaders Network, which was established to galvanize young people to become the real leaders of the child and nature movement. This is a diverse network of young people in their teens and twenties.
Our most prominent young leader, the coordinator of the Natural Leaders Network, is a guy named Juan Martinez. Juan grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He was headed for gangs, but his life was literally transformed through exposure to nature in an eco club in high school. He has now been to the White House three times to talk about his experiences and to explain how one can be changed through involvement with the natural world. [National Geographic recently profiled Juan Martinez as an Emerging Explorer.]
These young people in the Natural Leaders Network are extremely articulate. Many of them are from urban neighborhoods. Sometimes it’s easier to know what you’re missing if you’ve never had it.
I learned from my chat with Bob Peart of the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada that they, too, have a Natural Leaders program. Are these two youth leadership programs connected?
The Children and Nature Network started the Natural Leaders Network, and then, when the Alliance started up, they wanted to do it, too. We thought that was great. We have talked about coordinating a little more, but it’s not really necessary. I like what the Natural Leaders Alliance is doing. I was at a meeting in Washington, D.C., and the young, Canadian Natural Leaders showed up and really took the roof off with their enthusiasm!
Does the Children & Nature Network organize a national, annual day to raise awareness and encourage people to get outside, similar to the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada’s “Nature Play Day?”
There’s an annual “Take your child outside week.” which started in North Carolina. The Children and Nature Network has Let’s G.O. (Get Outside) Month. Hundreds of thousands of people have gotten outside through those initiatives.
Many of our readers are involved in conservation. In an article in the July/August issue of Orion Magazine titled “Look, Don’t Touch” David Sobel criticizes environmental education as being “didactic and staid, restrictive and rule bound.” Among the on-line feedback and editorial letters this article elicited were comments from people who work in conservation and whose jobs require them to enforce rules that restrict play and exploration in natural area in order to preserve ecological integrity. How do you respond to the conservationist who says, “I’d love to allow kids to run around in this natural area, but to do so would be disastrous”?
I’m a longtime fan of David’s work. I quote him in Last Child in the Woods, and he’s on the Children & Nature Network’s advisory board. I thought it was an excellent, provocative article. I would bet that David was not saying that every piece of sensitive land should be open for anybody to run across or build a tree house on. He was, however, pointing to an issue that is experienced by those in conservation and environmental education. It is also experienced among wildlife biologists, like Bob Peart.
Several years ago, when Bob first brought me up to British Columbia, he gave a speech at a dinner and he turned to me and said, “Rich, the reason you’re here is because we wildlife biologists live with grief every day.” Bob then said that he had a good friend who was a wildlife biologist who had committed suicide. Bob actually began to weep as he was telling this story. He said that when he started getting involved in connecting kids to nature, it gave him hope.
People are becoming more sophisticated about which environments absolutely need to be protected and which natural areas may be more appropriate for human engagement. If young people don’t have wild places to experience, or nearby nature in cities, where will the constituency for conservation come from in future? Environmentalists will always exist, but if we’re not careful, environmentalists in the future will carry nature in their briefcases more than in their hearts, and that’s a very different relationship. Children can, with a little help, learn to be good stewards. We do have to draw some lines. I’m not a fan of off-road vehicles in the California desert, which can leave tracks that last hundreds of years. But we also must make sure kids have the opportunity to get their hands wet and their feet muddy. Yes, there will be some damage, but in the long term, connecting kids to nature can help build a constituency that will protect nature, from the national parks to the trees at the end of the cul-de-sac.
If the goal is to eliminate or cure nature- deficit disorder, how will we know when we’ve achieved it?
I’m always careful to say that nature-deficit disorder is not a known medical diagnosis. Maybe it should be, but it’s not. The phrase began as a tongue-in-cheek catchphrase, but it quickly entered the language and people know what it is when they see it. I think of it not as a disease of an individual child but as a condition of society.
How will we know when we have eliminated that condition?
When we see a lot more evidence that we have incorporated nature everywhere in our lives, where we live, work and play. We’ll see it in the amount of joy we see in kids’ eyes. I don’t pretend that technology is all bad, but we’ll know nature-deficit disorder has been eliminated when we spend less time viewing screens and more time next to streams. We’ll see the evidence around us, and our lives will be much richer. Technology gives us many gifts, but as we move more and more into the virtual world, many of us sense we’re becoming impoverished in a new way. Nature is the best antidote. The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need.
How significant is the recent passage of the resolution declaring the “Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment” at the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature meeting in Jeju, South Korea?
I think it is symbolically hugely important. See it as a first step. Positively connecting to nature is fundamental to who we are, to our full humanity. Until that connection is recognized as a human right, it won’t be taken as seriously as it should. It will be considered a “nice to have,” not a “have to have.”
The 2008 edition of Last Child in the Woods includes recommended actions. You recommend that those in construction and urban design convene conferences on how to create developments that connect residents to nature, and to establish incentives for child-and nature-based development. Can you share any recent examples where the design community heeded that advice?
In my book THE NATURE PRINCIPLE, I offer even more recommendations. The built environment is hugely important. While wilderness is essential, and we need to preserve every square inch of it that we still have, we need to turn our attention to nearby nature.
As of 2008, more people now live in cities than in the countryside, worldwide. This is a huge moment in human history. This means one of two things: either human connection to nature will continue to disintegrate, or this will lead to the beginning of a new kind of city, one with new kinds of workplaces and homes that actually connect people to nature. There’s no reason why we can’t begin to think about cities as incubators of biodiversity. When we begin to think that way, the future of the built environment looks very different.
Studies show that parks with the highest biodiversity are the parks from which people benefit the most psychologically. That ought to be a guidepost for how we think about parks in cities. The limited studies that have been done on workplaces that have been designed with biophilic design – weaving nature into the architecture, for example — suggest that those workplaces are different. People are more productive. Sick time and turnover numbers go down. That approach includes but goes beyond energy efficiency, and into the realm of producing human energy. That’s the direction that I think we need to move.
If environmentalism, architecture and urban design get stuck focusing only on energy efficiency, we won’t achieve energy efficiency. We have to aim higher than that, higher than simply sustainable. As William McDonough asks, “Do you really want a ‘sustainable’ marriage? Don’t you want something better than that?”
I’d like to see LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards begin to include biodiversity and the impact of nature on human inhabitants, particularly children, in its definition of good green design. It’s early, but we do see examples of interest in that approach.
Can you share one of those examples?
Right after Last Child in the Woods came out, I got an e-mail from a very large developer who said that the book stirred him deeply, and he wanted to do something about the issue. He invited me to Phoenix, where I gave my ‘sermonette’ to about 80 developers and real estate folks. I prepared to run, because I’m pretty tough on developers. But he then said, “I want everyone to go into groups and come up with solutions. How are we going to create residential communities in the future that actually connect kids and their families to nature?” People were very excited, and a lot of good ideas came out of that exercise.
A few months later, Clint Eastwood and a friend of his with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invited me to Eastwood’s Carmel ranch, and they brought in some of the biggest developers in California. We did the same thing. We spent the day in workshops considering how new developments, but even more important, redevelopment of decaying neighborhoods, could incorporate more nature.
Then the recession hit, and that stopped all building–or certainly building that was outside the norm. But I was impressed with the interest. These builders saw [connecting children and families to nature] as an amenity that they would market. They already knew that baby boomers who are thinking about future housing don’t want golf courses anywhere near as much as prior generations. What they want are nature trails.
In addition to that, there are some ideas on the drawing board that I’m very inspired by. A few months ago, I spoke [at a conference] in Charlotte, and William McDonough’s business partner from Germany, who was in the audience, invited me to McDonough’s office the next day. I had never met McDonough, but he had been a hero of mine for a long time. We spent the next morning together. When we were walking around his offices, I saw a large architectural drawing on a table that captured my imagination. It was the design for a multi-story, three-sided hospital in Spain. In the design, one side is a green wall. Another side is solid solar panels done in the colors of a butterfly that is about to go extinct in that region. The third side is a vertical farm that will feed people in the hospital.
So here’s an example of a building that conserves energy, but also produces human energy – through the food grown, and the view of plants and more natural habitat from the windows. Studies have shown that hospital patients who have a view of some kind of nature, from their beds, get well faster and don’t need as much pain medication. What really captured my attention, though, is that McDonough took the next step. The bottom floor of the hospital will be all glassed in, and anybody who walks into that hospital may have a butterfly – the butterfly that is threatened with extinction in that region — alight on them. The hospital’s bottom floor will become a “butterfly factory.”
The butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in a synchronized fashion. Their emergence will become a community ritual. When they emerge, the hospital will open the doors and let them loose into the surrounding community. And the idea doesn’t stop there. The hospital staff will reach out to every school, place of worship, business, and home and say, “You can do this, too. We can bring this butterfly back.” So this building is not only conserving energy and producing human energy through biophilic design, it is, in a sense, giving birth – by helping a species survive..
By the way, two weeks after my visit to McDonough’s office, I received that architectural drawing in the mail. It was rolled up in a tube and signed with the word “hope.”
One of the messages of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE is that conservation is no longer enough; now we need to “create” nature. If we’re going to have the biodiversity we need, we must begin to transform our cities, yards, homes and workplaces into incubators of biodiversity. Doing that we will greatly improve our psychological and physical health, our ability to learn, and our sense of pleasure and happiness. That’s a very different image of the future than the one that is dominant now.
I’ve become convinced that for most of us in North America, if we are asked to come up with an image of the far future, the images that run through our mind look a lot like Blade Runner, Mad Max, and The Hunger Games. The most popular young adult literature right now is dystopian fiction. We are fixated on that image of the future. I’m not against dystopian literature – we do need to be warned — but if we don’t have another set of images to balance that with (and energy efficiency is not enough to capture the full imagination of young people) we are really in trouble. How are we going to get to a better, not just adequate or surviving society if we don’t have images we can follow into the future, images of a nature-rich civilization? We have to aim higher.
In the paperback version of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE, we added a section in the back about what I call the “New Nature Movement,” which builds on traditional environmentalism. I’m old enough to remember polluted rivers that caught fire when I was of high school age (which were still burning when I graduated from college) that are now good fisheries. That’s because of the Clean Water Act. Environmentalism has accomplished so much, and it continues to do so, but today many environmental leaders fear that the movement is stalling. One reason is the disconnection of children from nature. Another reason is the way so many of us, as environmentalists, as journalists, as policy makers, view the future.
A few months ago, I had lunch with some environmental students at DePaul University who said that they couldn’t relate to big environmental organizations. They said they went to the meetings and everybody was old. In fact, many of the big environmental organizations are graying. At that lunch, a young woman said, “I’m 20 years old, and all my life I’ve been told it’s too late when it comes to nature.” That really struck me. Some of us have had a few decades to have an alternative view of the future, but she had grown up hearing that often subconscious mantra: It’s too late. That young woman, and countless other young people – and older people, too, of course – are fighting hard to slow climate change and preserve wilderness. But only some of us are motivated by despair; most of us need something more than that. I’m not suggesting that we should hold back on communicating the bad news, but if all we’re doing is worrying about survival, we won’t survive. We’ve got to describe a future that people of every age will want to be part of, will want to build, will want to go to.
I was once challenged by a high school student who stood up after one of my speeches and said, “Well that’s nice, Mr. Louv. You want us to imagine a great future. But what is your vision?” She called me on that. So I gave it my best, wrote it down, and included it at the end of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE. It’s an extremely idealistic portrait of the future I’d like to see. The fact that it is outrageously idealistic is exactly the point. We have to aim higher to get where we want to go.