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Richard Louv is an American nonfiction author and journalist. In his seventh, bestselling book Last Child in the Woods, Louv sparked a national debate that spawned an international movement to reconnect kids and nature. He coined the term nature-deficit disorder; influenced national policy; and helped inspire campaigns in over eighty cities, states, and provinces throughout North America. In The Nature Principle, Louv delivers another powerful call to action—this time for adults.
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. Between 1984 and 2007 he was a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune and has been a columnist and member of the editorial advisory board for Parents magazine. Louv was an advisor to the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award program and serves on the board of directors of ecoAmerica. He has appeared before the Domestic Policy Council in the White House as well as at major governmental and professional conferences, nationally and internationally, most recently as keynote speaker at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference.
For more information, visit www.RichardLouv.com.
Hank: Greetings Mr. Louv, and thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us, most particularly about your last two groundbreaking books: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Why don’t we begin by asking you to explain what nature-deficit disorder is and how you came to identify it as a serious issue in need of public attention?
Richard Louv: In the late 1980s, in the course of researching another book, I interviewed nearly 3,000 children and parents across the United States, in urban, suburban and rural areas. In classrooms and family homes, the topic of children’s relationships with nature sometimes surfaced. I couldn’t help but notice the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the social, spiritual, psychological and environmental implications of this change. And then there were the questions my own sons would ask me about the changes that they had seen. In the years that followed, a body of scientific evidence emerged. In Last Child in the Woods, I report on studies that show us the benefits — biological, cognitive and spiritual — when we give the gift of nature to our children and ourselves.
“Nature-deficit disorder” is not a medical diagnosis, but a term I devised to describe what I believe are the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. This nature deficit damages children, but I think of it as more of a disorder of the society — it shapes adults, families, whole communities, and the future of our stewardship of nature. Studies show that people who care deeply about the future of the environment almost always enjoyed transcendent experiences in nature when they were children. If nature experiences continue to fade from the current generation of young people, and the next, and the ones to follow, where will future stewards of the earth come from?
Richard Louv: Adults often came up to me after readings or other events and told me in no uncertain terms that they also had nature-deficit disorder. The Nature Principle extends the conversation, gathers the latest research in the field and offers ideas for civic leaders as well as for individuals who wish to create better lives for themselves. Obviously, I hope the book attracts readers who aren’t acquainted with “Last Child in the Woods,” but if it’s considered a sequel that’s all right by me.
In The Nature Principle, I address the questions: How might our lives – no matter our age — be enhanced if our society embraced nature with as much enthusiasm as it has embraced technology? If we could strike a balance between the two, right now, how might our culture change? How might we accomplish this? What would that life be like?
In the new book, I write about the “mind/body/nature connection,” better physical, mental and spiritual health through the nature prescription; about the increase in creative thinking and productivity, and the enhancement of the senses – feeling fully alive — that can come through biophilic design and more contact with the natural world; about “human/nature social capital, which results when we enrich our lives through our associations with other species; about the “purposeful place,” the building of regional and personal identity and meaning in communities where natural history becomes as important as human history; about “biophilic design,” which is already transforming some workplaces, schools and homes into places that not only conserves watts, but produces human energy; and the “high-performance human” who not only conserves nature but creates nurturing habitat everywhere.
Hank: Tell us about your love of tree houses and how the freedoms and benefits associated with children being able to build and play in tree houses illustrates different components of a healthy relationship with nature?
Tree house image source.
Richard Louv: Partly, it’s personal. I grew up building tree houses and forts. But it’s also because of the benefits I see them having on children, particularly if the parent (usually a father) restrains himself and lets the child build his or her tree house or fort on their own. First, children all need to find or create their own, contained special place. It’s part of natural childhood development. Second, there’s the practical learning. In “Last Child” I include a long list of engineering or architectural principles that a child can learn from building a tree house. That list was provided by an architect friend of mine. I’d love to build a tree house of my own. Unfortunately, I live in a land of eucalyptus trees and unstable soil. I helped my older son, when he was eight, build a tree house. The tree blew down in the first storm. Apparently I didn’t learn enough about engineering earlier. But I do look at trees longingly.
Hank: What is “the Nature Principle” and how does it enable us to return to a healthier state of being and relationship to our world?
Richard Louv: Simply put, the Nature Principle maintains that a reconnection with the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being and survival. Perhaps many of your readers have had personal experiences that confirm the genuineness of that statement, which I consider to be reconciliation with old truths. Thanks to the growing body of empirical, anecdotal and theoretical research, we can now point to scholarly evidence linking meaningful connections with nature to positive impacts on our intelligence, our spiritual health and links to the larger human community. I don’t make my case based only on science, but also on millennia of human experience, on old cultural knowledge and common sense. One purpose of this book is to provide a workable framework to support a reunion of humans with the rest of nature.
Hank: I think a particularly valuable aspect of the Nature Principle is what you call the “hybrid mind.” To paraphrase you, the idea is that, as we increase our mental engagement with technology, our mental health and general well-being require us to develop a correspondingly stronger connection to nature. This balance of our engagement with technology and nature is the “hybrid” we want to achieve, if I have understood correctly. I’m wondering if you would share with us some of the successes and struggles you personally have had in developing your own hybrid mind?
Richard Louv: The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. 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.
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I met an instructor who trains young people to become the pilots of cruise ships. He described two kinds of students. One kind grew up mainly indoors. They’re great at video games, and they’re quick to learn the ship’s electronics. The other kind of student grew up outside, spending time in nature, and they also have a talent: they actually know where the ship is. When you look at new studies of the human senses, that makes sense. “We need people who have both ways of knowing the world,” he said. In other words, people with the hybrid mind.
I spend a lot of writing time on a computer, as you might imagine. Electronic technology has extended my reach but it also creates negative stresses, atrophy of the senses. I find I have to force myself to shut down, turn off, and get out. When I travel to give speeches or attend meetings, I try to slip away at some point for a walk away from the manicured zones, to the places where one might meet the local wildlife. I take photos of what I find with my iPhone, and send the pictures to my wife.
“I find that the camera makes me slow down and look more intently than I normally would. After one hike, I was sitting at my computer, reviewing photos of rock patterns and tree bark. I was suddenly startled by something I had not seen when I took the picture. Hidden in the bark was an eye, looking back at me.” The eye is slightly to the right of center and up a bit. The eye of the tree, source.
Hank: You provide a great definition for “Nature.” You write: “human beings exist in nature anywhere they experience meaningful kinship with other species.” You also mention that others extend this concept of nature beyond animal species to include aspects of the physical environment, such as a particular habitat, or rock formation, or river. And here, certain versions of the Gaia hypothesis that hold that the entire planet Earth is itself a live “species” of sorts is also suggested. I wonder if you think it is useful or important to expand your definition in these ways? Do you consider yourself a Gaia adherent?
Richard Louv: I’m attracted to the Gaia theory. While teaching at Schumacher College in England this past year, I listened to a fascinating explanation of that theory, about how all life on Earth has periodically come close to extinction, but in the 11th hour, the Earth – as a whole organism — has corrected itself. Let’s hope the Earth is on the case right now, and that our demise isn’t the correction.
Hank: One of the moments in the book that gave me the deepest pause for thought, was some time following your discussion of philosopher Glen Albrecht’s concept of “solastalgia,” which he describes as the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault. The moment comes when you write in a confessional tone that you have at times been prone to a distancing defense mechanism with respect to beautiful natural places because you are aware such places often fall victim to society’s bulldozer beyond any ability on our part to stop.
It’s a very human reaction, I know too. I don’t want my heart broken when the place I love is taken from me. One thing about Albrecht’s solastalgia concept, however, indicates to me a healthy condition and that is the fact that at least we recognize what is happening and appropriately feel pain, as opposed to the distancing defense we learn to employ, or in the case of children in the inner city, who might grow up angry or restless without ever really knowing that the source of this anger and restlessness comes from the loss of something they have never experienced: a connection to nature. Do you agree that there is something healthy in solastalgia?
Richard Louv: Imbalance and discord on a daily basis can inspire action to correct the problem, of course, or it can lead to despair, to debilitating physical, mental and social illness. Many of us can still make that choice. As the poet and farmer Wendell Berry says, “You can’t know who you are until you know where you are.” Fortunately, groups that help people really see where they live, that foster a bioregional sense of place, are growing in size and number. The “purposeful place” is one in which the building of regional and personal identity and meaning in communities comes as much from natural history as human history.
Hank: Is there some sense in which “looking backwards” to “simpler days” is appropriate? Is the simplicity of those days, just a matter of technology, or do changes in the law, demographics, education system and culture also make us long for simpler times? The Transition Towns and re-skilling movements come to mind here, as do efforts to revive scouting. Do you see society “dialing back” from its current trajectory in response to health issues and Nature-Deficit Disorder or do we need to “come to grips” with an unrestrained techno-future?
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Richard Louv: Nostalgia isn’t the cure for solastalgia. One of the reasons the back-to-the-land movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t quite pan out is because it was essentially pointed backward. It’s time to look forward. In 2008, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population lived in cities and towns. What that means is that if human beings are going to have a meaningful relationship with the natural world on a daily basis, that relationship will likely take place in urban areas – and this will require new kinds of cities and towns. In many urban regions, there’s more nearby nature than one would suspect, and we should fiercely protect that – but to do that, we need to know it, and “create” more of it. We can bring cities back to life by bringing diverse life – species diversity — to the neighborhoods.
In urban and suburban neighborhoods thousands of redundant or decaying shopping centers could be replaced by mixed-use ecovillages, with both higher residential density and more habitat for nature. That’s one antidote to solastalgia. There’s no reason why the natural world should be associated only with the past. When I visited Minneapolis recently, the Minnesota Arboretum brought together stakeholders from around the state, people who work in tourism, health care, education, residential development, and more. For an evening and a morning, over 300 people looked at the future of the state through the prism of the Nature Principle. One participant said that one of the state’s goals should be to become the healthiest state in the country. One way to reach that goal, she said, is to apply the Nature Principle — to consider the role of the natural world as an essential part of public health as well as health delivery. And in fact, around the country, pediatricians and other health professionals are beginning to “prescribe” nature. They’re partnering with park districts, writing “park prescriptions.” Park rangers take on a new role as health paraprofessionals. That’s not looking backward, but to a future we’ve never had.
Hank: In The Nature Principle you also discuss research indicating that nature can improve all our relationships with other human beings by making them more authentic. What about our relationship to corporations, which society has accorded the legal status of “persons” even though corporations are entities that grow more powerful than many entire nations and that have no human heart, conscience, or emotional connection to anything other than generating profits for their shareholders? Doesn’t addressing this false “personhood” status acquired by corporations need to be a part of the restoration of authenticity in our human relationships and the end of Nature-Deficit Disorder?
Richard Louv: Recently, I’ve had some good discussions with Dan Leftwich, a Colorado attorney who won a huge and famous anti-trust judgment against Microsoft, who has shifted his attention to something he calls Evolutionary Law, which is an expression of what Berry called Earth Jurisprudence. He points to the recent decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which, he argues, “opened the floodgates to corporations’ use of their status as “persons” under the Constitution to exercise their First Amendment rights to “invest” unlimited corporate funds as campaign contributions, attack ads, and corporate propaganda in the guise of free political speech…” That was a leap in the wrong direction.
As he points out, we need to replace the old business meme (what’s good for corporations is good for America) with a new meme: what’s good for the Earth is good for corporations. Leftwich doesn’t pretend making that shift will be easy. Thomas Berry, at least, offers us something to shoot for. In “The Great Work,” Berry wrote: “To achieve a viable human-Earth situation a new jurisprudence must envisage its primary task as that of articulating the conditions for the integral functioning of the Earth process, with special reference to a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. Within this context the various components of the Earth—the land, the water, the air, and the complex of life systems—would each be a commons. Together they would constitute the integral expression of the Great Commons of the planet Earth…”
Hank: In somewhat the same vein, I note that many people have drawn a connection between our climate crisis and the crisis in our hearts, our spirits, and our connection to nature. Al Gore in “Earth in the Balance” comes to mind. You assert that both the climate crisis and the heart crisis are of equal concern, but seem almost careful not to draw a connection in order to preserve the positivity of the medicine you are offering society. Is that a fair assessment? And will we ever see a Richard Louv book on global warming and the human heart?
Richard Louv: That’s a fair assessment, yes. Many writers are writing eloquently and effectively about global warming, but I’m most attracted to the other questions, the ones that Thomas Berry and Paul Hawken and Robert Michael Pyle and many others have asked. I do believe that climate change and the change of climate in the human heart are related, and in each case, we have about the same window of opportunity to act positively.
Hank: One of the important aspects of the growing movement you document – to re-nature ourselves and our society – is networking, both on the internet and face to face. Would you tell us about the Children and Nature Network? How did it come to be? Who else is involved? Are there any particular programs or aspects of the Children and Nature Network you would like to highlight?
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Richard Louv: After Last Child in the Woods came out, a handful of like-minded individuals came together to form the Children and Nature Network. Our mission was simple: to help build a movement to reconnect children to nature – for their physical health, cognitive development and emotional well-being, and for the good of the planet. Many good organizations have been committed to this issue for decades, long before “Last Child” was published. The role C&NN played was to journalistically keep track of the movement, to offer a single place on the Web to learn about the growing body of research, and most importantly, to provide a way for good people, especially at the grassroots, to network – to learn from each other both online and in person at our national leadership gatherings.
In the best sense, this is a leaderless movement, and well-connected. As of today, 93 cities, states, provinces and regions in North America have created their own campaigns to connect children and families to nature. The movement is reaching inner-cities, suburbs and rural areas. Many physicians are “prescribing” time in nature to their young patients. We’re seeing changes in local, state and national policies and increased media coverage of the issue. In 2010, “Sesame Street” changed its set for the first time in 40 years to include nature. We’re seeing a growing popularity for nature-based education. Young people are stepping forward, often from inner cities, to become what we call Natural Leaders of the movement.
Image © Patrick Rafferty
We’ve worked to honor what we call Natural Teachers — the English teachers, the art teachers, the biology teachers who insist on getting their students outdoors. We’ve seen thousands of families band together to create family nature clubs. These are just a few changes we’re seeing, but we don’t know how deep the change goes, and we don’t know if these changes will continue. The barriers remain.
For example, electronic media use by children and youth has increased in the past five years to more than 53 hours per week, up from 44 just five years before. Obesity and other health-related risks continue at epidemic rates among children and youth as well as adults. Children’s ability to recognize wild species continues to decline. The first wave of denatured young people is now in their early parenting years. So the extension of this movement to adults is crucial.
Hank: I believe you know Paul Hawken, the founder of the Sustainability Network WiserEarth. Have you discussed with him the role of networking in the movement to re-nature society? If so, do you recall what you discussed? What advice would you offer members of the WiserEarth community to help them make a positive impact in the movement to re-nature ourselves and our society?
Richard Louv: I don’t know him, but I hope to change that. But I’m in awe of his work, and his articulation of the nascent movement. Now it’s time for the WiserEarth Network, the Children & Nature Network, all of us, to get on with what Berry called the Great Work. In an essay I posted recently, 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 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 movement that can touch every part of society. I’ve tried, within my limitations, to offer a version of that future. Hawken offered us his hopeful and inspiring view of a new world. Others are joining in. In The Nature Principle, I make the case that the future will belong to the nature-smart, the individuals, families, business and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world, and who balance the virtual with the real. That’s a future worth going to, but first, we have to imagine it.
Hank: Richard Louv, your books sit on a special shelf among my books. They have had a great impact on me personally in the way they frame our human predicament in the 21st century and map our relationship to nature as a society. It has been a special pleasure for me to be able to converse with you about your work. Thank you so much for so graciously sharing with us your time and thoughts.
Richard Louv: My pleasure. It’s an honor.
Hank Edson is an attorney, author and environmental activist living in Palo Alto, California with his wife and son. “I am blessed to have spent most of the summers of my life at a cabin on a lake in the woods of northern Wisconsin, and so I feel an ever increasing connection to nature. Thanks to that special opportunity to know a place in its natural condition throughout my life, I now look forward to share that cherished opportunity with my son”. Hank Edson’s books are featured at http://democracypress.net. Image of Hank Edson, courtesy of the author.
Fly fishing in the Maramec Spring branch in Missouri, source.