Recognizing “nature deficit disorder”

Q How did you first become interested in the way children are being closed off from nature?

A. I started researching Last Child in the Woods in the late 1980s, when I was working on The Future of Childhood. I looked for repeating themes, and I noticed that people had this feeling, they couldn’t name it, but something was changing, and it was starting to show up anecdotally,

Q. Many people have heard of your book, even if they haven’t read it. Although there are other books along the same lines, somehow your book struck a chord, or perhaps hit a nerve. Why?

A. There’s a number of things. First, we’re at a tipping point on the environment. There were pioneers out there long before this book came along… So partly its good timing, partly its language that describes something people know in their hearts and hasn’t been articulated. Also partly that some previous work has been academic in nature.
There is a movement that has emerged due to the peculiar nature of this issue. It has specific qualities that I haven’t seen any other issue … ( with the) capacity for bringing people together who don’t get together on other things.

Q. What is nature deficit disorder?

A. Actually, at first I resisted using this term. The publisher pulled it out of the text and wanted to use it as a subtitle, and I was uncomfortable with it. But that shows how much I know about marketing. I thought I would get some grief for using it, for “medicalizing” a non-medical problem.
But I took the risk, and I bet on the readers. I bet they would have a sense of irony. And although I expected grief for it, I got very little. I thought there could be a legitimate concern about that phrase. Of course, in the book, I bent over backwards to explain that it is not a known medical diagnosis. Having said that, people grabbed onto phrase, news reporters as well as parents, because it names a thing that had no name. Its shorthand. People know what it is immediately when they hear it, even though they often didn’t know what it was when they saw it, they didn’t have words for it.

Q. From the idea of a “fourth frontier” to integrating environment into education, you have a lot of hopeful messages. Is that so rare?

A. I tore the organization up several times, writing the book, and my editorial strategy was to keep people reading. To be honest, I didn’t want people going out and slashing their wrists or something. That’s not to say that things are not in bad shape, but rather that it would be missing two thirds of the story. So it was an editorial tactic.
Once the book was out, it surprised me to notice that groups I talked to were not depressed. That was an interesting phenomena. One thing, this is an issue people feel they can do something about. They feel hopeless in so many things in their lives. Another thing I noticed was that this taps into something deep inside people if it’s approached in a certain way.
If you take a “techie” approach, like, “10 things kids need to know about recycling,” that does not touch people at a deep level. At a deep level, people want to be taken back and be moved. In speeches, when I talk about experiences in nature, deep experiences that we all had as children, I sometimes see people wiping their eyes. They are reliving their own lost childhoods, moments in nature that still exist in their hearts. That’s really powerful, it transcends politics and religion.
People are really, really hungry to feel some hope about anything. The simple idea that because of challenges people face with the environment, over the next 40 years things must change is daunting. But if you say it’s a great opportunity (for this generation) to build a new civilization — that generates hope. We’ve spent last two decades being so discouraged and detached, that need to feel some hope is a latent urge that has been long neglected. In the end there is no practical alternative to hope. Only a certain proportion of people are motivated by despair. The rest of us are motivated by hope.
I recently spoke in Florida and I was on the stage with the Lieutenant Governor, and she asked me quietly, before we went on, do you think things will ever get back to as good as they were? And I told her, and the crowd there at the speech, that it was a good question, but it was the wrong question. The right question is how can we make things better than they were? William McDonough, the eco towns of Western Europe — these are some of the ones doing that.
People respond to “eat your peas,” or the traditional “we all have to recycle to save the earth,” but isn’t there something beyond that, something about making our lives better, about actually making those lives better than they are today?

Q. Isn’t it paradoxical that people support the environment in the abstract but today have less and less real experience of it?

A. We have two kinds of relationships with nature. One is when we carry nature in our heart. The other is when we carry nature in our briefcase.
Both are necessary. But ultimately when you are carrying only our briefcase, its not sustainable for the long haul. You have to carry nature in your heart. If we’re raising children only with the briefcase, that is a prescription for failure in the long run for environmentalism. I don’t know many of our national environmental leaders in the past who wanted to move in that direction, wanted to have nature in the heart, as well as on the intellectual side.
Now with talk of the disconnect, a lot more of them talk of children and nature. They realize they have done a great job of raising money but not new members. And most of them look like me – in their 50s with grey hair. So I think they are starting to realize that for our long term health, its very important for the future generation to have the experience of nature. True, to be fair, some people have a lot of contact with nature in three wheel dune buggies, and don’t necessarily become environmentalists. Having direct contact doesn’t guarantee, but it’s the most important building block. Other things need to come into play

Q. For example?

A. Environmental educators, the kind of education we support as a society, doing a pretty good job of, intellectually doing a good job of environmental education, but there is a dearth of natural history. Science has moved away from natural history, and we have some serious work to do in education.

Q. You’re a speaker at the “Environment Virginia” conference at Virginia Military Institute this month. Do you find conservatives appreciate Last Child in the Woods as much as environmentalists?

A. The new US Secretary of Interior, Dick Kempthorne, walks around with this book and I understand he has committed himself to these issues.
You know, I’ve had 2,000 requests for speeches since the book came out. Many are Republicans. I’m struck by the fact that there is an openness to this. This is what I call a doorway issue, it gets people who don’t agree on very much through the same doorway. Once they are through, they sit down together. None of them want to be in last generation where children play in the woods. They feel that deeply. Once they are there at the table they will start talking about issues that seem to be frozen in a new way. You might find a conservative saying, “What, they killed recess? They killed field trips? Whose bright idea was that?” (Louv is being ironic here. As he has argued elsewhere, the No Child Left Behind Act of the Bush Administration has had that effect). On the left wing, you find people who admit there may be something to be said for ranches and farms – they could be the new schoolyards.
The issue of children in nature is like none other that I’ve seen. About a month ago, I was asked to give congressional testimony at the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, and it was really interesting. The six Congressmen that were there talked at length of their own experiences in nature when they were kids, this feeling that they don’t want to go way. And there were no Democrats or Republicans in the room. That’s the interesting power that this issue has.

Q. People need hope. Woody Guthrie once said “I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose… I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”

A. That song is long overdue — particularly for young people.

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