Return to Nature: An Interview with Richard Louv

by Jessica Kirby

A silent epidemic among North American children is reaching monumental proportions. Over the past two decades, children have increasingly spent less time outdoors, less time in free, unstructured play, and less of their discretionary time at home. Organized youth sports are taking over from street play, and virtual environments are slowly replacing natural environments as preferable places to play and interact among children of all ages. And when they have the choice, kids are spending less time at home in their yards with family and friends than at organized events or indoor entertainment options.

The results are devastating. Obesity, childhood diabetes, behavioural problems related to attention and impulse control, social instability, and a general sense of apathy towards nature are on the rise, while good emotional, physical, and spiritual health diminish. More than 45% of people live in urban areas, and rarely enter nature. Kids under 12 spend an average of two hours each day staring at a screen. Only two per cent of North American children have seen a live campfire.

Statistics abound and health declines but the future is not lost, says renowned author and children-in-nature advocate, Richard Louv. Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He says the human species is hard-wired for contact with nature, and it is never too soon (or too late) to reconnect with the multi-sensory, all-encompassing outdoor world. Adults have a responsibility to encourage and pass on the importance of connecting with nature, says Louv, and a world where both nature and technology exist to bring out our deepest and most robust intellectual and emotional capacity is absolutely possible—it is actually essential.

Picture3Jessica: In both The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods you talk about nature-deficit disorder and our general sense of disconnect from the natural world. How does this affect adults differently than it affects children? 

Richard: As with any developmental influence, early exposure builds a stronger bond to nature, and makes a lasting imprint. If we’re lucky enough to have bonded with nature when we were young, keeping that bond as an adult – or creating a new bond – is no easy thing, but doing so has enormous benefits for leading a full life. Those of us who had that connection as kids have a responsibility to pass it along. Many adults are setting a poor example. They’re staying indoors more, spending more time with electronics, and, along with their kids, having related health problems. The rise of obesity for adults and young people is one symptom. Most children and young adults simply don’t know what they’re missing. It’s never too early – or too late – to teach children or adults to appreciate and connect with the outdoors. Personally, I think spending time outdoors for people of all ages is vital to a full life. It’s certainly true that conservation leaders typically have had pivotal nature experiences during childhood. It follows that children today who have positive outdoor experiences are going to contribute greatly to society as caretakers of the earth. One more thing—if E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis is correct (it holds that we are, as a species, hard-wired genetically to have an affiliation with the rest of nature), then it’s never too late, and we’re never too old, to unlock that connection.

Jessica: You have been involved with many organizations that support children’s well-being—editorial board for Parents magazine, Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World, National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, and others. What inspires you to do this work? Why is it so meaningful for you?

Richard: I’m inspired by the good people I meet, the stories that they tell, and by the hope that true cultural change is on the way.

Jessica: We’ve all heard that being outside is good for us, yet the US Department of the Interior, Sierra Club, and The Nature Conservancy have all cited your book, and reviews say the time to act against nature-deficit disorder is right now. What is it about your message that is so far-reaching and brings such a deep sense of urgency?  

Richard: This is a primal issue. It taps something deep in the human spirit—and in our biology. Also, acting on it offers hope. Many of us sense something large and hopeful forming out there, a movement that includes but goes beyond traditional environmentalism and sustainability—an alternative vision of the future. In an essay I posted called, “Seven Reasons for a New Nature Movement,” I paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr., who taught us that any movement – any culture – will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to. I wrote that, for many Americans, perhaps most, thinking about the future conjures up images of “Blade Runner” or “Mad Max,” a post-apocalyptic dystopia stripped of nature, in which humans are stripped of their humanity. This is a dangerous fixation. One reason for it is the absence of what King advised: that vision of a future we’ll want to go to. One way to begin painting that future is to reset environmentalism and sustainability—to help them evolve into a larger, new nature movement that can touch every part of society. I’ve tried, within my limitations, to offer a version of that future.

I should add that journalists like you and the media in general have helped immensely, continuing to bring attention to nature deficit and the possibility of a nature-rich future.

Jessica: Is switching off the only way to adequately reconnect with nature? Is there room for technology and nature in the modern world?

Richard: I’m not anti-technology, but pro-balance. As I say in my book, The Nature Principle, the more high tech we become, the more nature we need. Utilizing both technology and nature experience will increase our intelligence, creative thinking, and productivity, giving birth to the hybrid mind. The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data, and natural environments to ignite all of our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and to feel; in this way, we would combine the resurfaced “primitive” powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers. Evolution may (or may not) be out of our hands, but as individuals, the outcome is a matter of choice. We can accept and celebrate our technological skills, but at the same time realize that the gifts of nature are mandatory for the realization of our full intellectual and spiritual potential. What I call the high-performance human will incorporate the best qualities of a high-tech world and the health and intellectual advantages that come from the natural world.

Louv’s ninth book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, 500 Ways to Enrich your Family’s Health and Happiness, will be published in April 2016 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. He is currently working on his tenth book, about the evolving relationship between humans and other animals.

Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of All One Era magazine.