Finding a new future by connecting with our roots.
interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee
What is nature? Is a public park enough?
RL: My personal definition of nature is where I am in contact with multiple species other than my own, in addition to my own. That can happen in lots of places.
What is the big difference between playing a soccer game outside and engaging in unstructured play at a park or in the woods?
RL: Organized sports are good. But the fact is that child obesity in our history has occurred in the same decade as the greatest increase in organized sports for children. That doesn’t mean one causes the other; it means that it’s not enough ... There is one thing that is known about how kids play. It’s called the “loose parts” theory. The more loose parts there are in an environment, the more creative the play ... The environment with the most loose parts is a natural environment. So, we need more natural environments—the kids can dig holes and climb trees and pretend and build little forts. That’s very rare in urban areas, but we can create all of those.
To sum up the overall claim of The Nature Principle, it’s that the 21st century will be the century of human restoration in the natural world.
RL: The human child in nature is an endangered species and is an indicator species for endangerment of other species. There are some folks who really don’t want any more kids in the woods ... The International Union for the Conservation of Nature ... declared [a positive connection with the natural world] to be a human right for children. One reason I think that that is so important is not only is it essential for human health and well-being on all levels and cognitive function, but because I think its essential for the preservation of nature itself, from us.
The studies, many of them done a couple decades ago, show that conservationists, environmentalists—almost all had some transcendent experience with nature when they were kids. What happens if that virtually ends? Who will be the true stewards of the earth?
It’s true that there will always be environmentalists and conservationists, but, increasingly, if we are not careful, they will carry nature in their briefcases, not in their heart. That is a different relationship and I don’t believe it’s sustainable.
Human beings, in order to preserve nature, need to love it. In order to love it, they can’t do that only in an abstract way … If at some point if they don’t get their hands dirty, feet wet, and actually use their senses in nature to learn about it, to know it and come to love it, they will not protect it ...
I’ve spent some time in Philly. I know how hard it is to find nature there, but we can create more school gardens, natural spaces, native species on rooftop gardens, and even in window sill gardens, we can make more green roofs that are planted with the kinds of plants that bring back butterfly migration routes and bird migration routes; we can treasure the wildlife that does exist in cities.
“The human child in nature is an endangered species.” That's a pretty bold claim.
RL: The whole world is urbanizing. As of 2008, more people live in cities than in the countryside. That was the first time in human history. That will increase.
That means one of two things: the human species will increase and lose whatever connection it has to the natural world, or it means the beginning of a new kind of city.
I happen to believe that cities can become engines of biodiversity through native plants, through design ... there are lots of ways to increase the amount of “natural” habitats in our cities even in the densest of urban neighborhoods. You are seeing some of that happen around the country and around the world.
We have to face the fact that urbanization is continuing—and also have to face the fact that technology is increasingly part of our lives. It’s very distracting; it’s addictive.
I’m not anti-tech or anything like that, but ... the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need ... We need it neurologically, we need it psychologically, I think we need it physically and spiritually, as well.
Many people believe nature gives them a connection to spirituality. Do you think the Pope’s Encyclical will help spiritual people—more people in general—find a connection to nature?
RL: Yes, and, you know, now and then the right person comes along. Like many people, I feel very hopeful when I listen to the Pope. I think many people, and I’m not Catholic, but I think many people who are or are not Catholic are feeling good about that.
The key part of it is the spiritual question. It is also moving past just information … I’ve believed from the beginning that information is not enough. People need tools …
We have to have a self-replicating social change.
When Last Child in the Woods was published it was compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and an international movement took root.
RL: I kind of describe [in the book] what might happen or could happen, and at the time, that was wishful thinking. And as it turns out, something much more dynamic than what I described has occurred ... it was already happening when Last Child came out ... a lot of people were out there working hard on these issues a long time before. Now, I think the real challenge is to broaden that movement.
I often talk about the new nature of the movement, which is—includes—the children in nature movement. It includes a traditional environmental movement, traditional sustainability movement ... but it becomes something much larger by pulling those together, and nobody is the leader. The food movement is part of that.
If we can begin to perceive that as something much bigger, much more hopeful than what many of us have been able to achieve in the parts of that movement—that there is great power in the aggregate of these movements—I think that we sense that and it gives us hope.
Sustainability ... is a problematic word. It’s either come to mean too much to too many people—too wide of a definition; it’s lost some of the power—or it’s become too narrow. In truth, most people in America think of sustainability as energy efficiency and stop there. Now, clearly, in the beginning, sustainability had a deeper meaning than energy efficiency, but that is how most people interpret it. If we are only aiming at energy efficiency as a society, we’ll never make it to that definition of sustainability. We need to set the bar much higher at something much more inspiring.
I talk about nature-rich schools—not just sustainable cities, but nature-rich cities, nature-rich work places, nature-rich neighborhoods, nature-rich homes and yards filled with native species—filled with the kind of changes that will actually increase biodiversity and increase mental and physical health for human beings. I talk about a nature-rich future. One of the reasons I think that phrase works is because, when you talk about that, people can suddenly attach images to that on their own. Martin Luther King said, and demonstrated in many ways, that any movement, any culture will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to.
I’m convinced that most Americans, if you asked them what images come first in mind of the far future, they will paint a picture that looks a lot like Blade Runner and Mad Max and, at best, The Hunger Games—at least there’s a few trees. The number-one genre of fiction for young adults today, and has been for several years, is called dystopian fiction. It’s about a post-apocalyptic world in which not even vampires are having a good time. That’s not to say I am against dystopian literature. 1984 was a good warning we should have listened to, and we didn’t.
But it is to say ... what happens to a culture when it cannot conjure up a set up of images? Not just of an adequate, sustainable and survivable future, but of a beautiful, great future, one that is far better than what we have now?
When I talk with young people about that, their eyes light up. They can see, they can begin to provide the images, their imaginations can create the images: a nature-rich future. On their own. They don’t have to have me or anybody else tell them what it is.
It will look a little different to everybody, but we need to begin to think about that. We need to begin to conjure up those images. When we do that, we feel hope.
Richard Louv is a journalist and the author of eight books, including Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. He is co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization helping build the international movement to connect people and communities to the natural world.