Richard Louv & the Nature Principle
Please join North Cascades Institute and REI as we present Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, Thursday, May 12; 7 p.m. at Town Hall, Seattle and Friday, May 13; 7 p.m. at Sehome High School, Bellingham. Tickets available online or at the door; information at www.ncascades.org/events.
Co-sponsored by US Forest Service, Village Books, Sierra Club, ParentMap and the Bellingham Herald.
A Conversation with Richard Louv
Q: Why did you decide to follow up on the successful Last Child in the Woods?
A: Once in Seattle, while I was giving a talk, a woman said, “Listen to me, adults have nature-deficit disorder, too.” She was right. In Last Child in the Woods, I introduced that term, not as a medical diagnosis, but as a way to describe the growing gap between children and nature. By its broadest interpretation, nature-deficit disorder is an atrophied awareness, a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us, whatever form it takes. This shrinkage of our lives has a direct impact on our physical, mental, and societal health.
Over the last few years, I’ve heard many adults speak with heartfelt emotion, even anger, not only about the deficit for children but about their own as well. The Nature Principle is not age-specific. It has a much broader scope and includes the latest research related to nature’s impact on human beings, as well as accounts of the personal discoveries of poets, artists, scientists and other thinkers.
What is the “Nature Principle?”
The Nature Principle holds that a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival, and that the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. This book suggests how we can apply the principle to where we live, work, learn, and play, and asks, What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are today in technology? And how can each of us help create that life-enhancing world, not only in a hypothetical future but right now for our families and for ourselves?
So, we all need to move to the country?
No. The Nature Principle can be applied in our cities, suburbs, homes, and workplaces. In 2008, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population lives in cities and towns. What that means is that if human beings are going to have a meaningful relationship with the natural world, that relationship will likely take place in urban areas, but this will require new kinds of cities and towns. There’s a growing urgency.
Why the urgency?
Traditional connections to nature are vanishing quickly, along with biodiversity. We see this not only in the U.S., but in developing countries as well. Since Last Child in the Woods was published, what I would consider the first de-natured generation has entered adulthood. At the same time, a new mythology of technology is suggesting that nature doesn’t matter anymore. We even hear talk of the “transhuman” or “posthuman” era in which people are optimally enhanced by technology.
The Nature Principle is not an argument against these concepts or their proponents, but the book does make the case that we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We do not yet fully understand the power of nature to enhance human capacity.
So you aren’t anti-technology?
No. In fact, in the book, I suggest a number of potential new products and jobs that could be used by what I call “technonaturalists.” But The Nature Principle does argue for a new balance, so that we can experience the best of technology and nature in our lives. The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world.
You use the term “nature smart” throughout The Nature Principle — what does that mean?
When truly present in nature, we use all our senses at the same time, which is the optimum state of learning. New research suggests that exposure to the living world can enhance intelligence for some people.
First, our senses and sensibilities are improved through our direct interaction with nature (and practical knowledge of natural systems is still applicable in our everyday lives); second, a more natural environment seems to stimulate our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative.
At the University of Michigan, researchers demonstrated that after just an hour interacting with nature, memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent, according to results published in Psychological Science in 2008. This and other studies have positive implications for education, for business, and for the daily lives of young and old, perhaps particularly for the aging population.
One of the benefits you write about is the enhancement of the senses. Can you give some examples?
Scientists recently found that humans have the ability to track by scent alone. Some humans rival bats in echolocation or biosonar abilities; some can listen to sounds broadcast between two boards and assess the space between the boards. Some soldiers in war zones see nuances others miss and can spot hidden bombs; by and large these soldiers tend to be youths, rural or inner city, who need to be very conscious of their surroundings. Seemingly superhuman or supernatural abilities of Australian aborigines and other “primitive” people are in all of us, but vestigial, like that remnant tailbone, or latent, blanketed by noise and faulty assumptions. Being in nature stimulates these senses.
What are the health benefits to spending more time in nature?
Time spent in the natural world can help build our physical and emotional fitness. We know nature-based therapy has had success healing patients who had not responded to treatment. Studies show exposure to natural environments enhances the ability to cope with and recover from stress, illness, and injury. There now are established methods of nature-based therapy (including ecopsychology, wilderness, horticultural and animal-assisted therapy among others) that have success healing patients.
Is nature therapy a replacement for other forms of professional therapy or self-healing?
Unlike therapies and medications, the restorative power of nature is there, always. Short, quiet encounters with natural elements can simply calm us, and help us feel less alone. Let’s call it vitamin N, for Nature. Some mental health organizations are beginning to see nature as an antidepressant. The science is incomplete, and some mental health professionals are skeptical that future studies will bear out what common sense suggests is true. But according to current research, natural environments do seem to offer something extra, a tonic that goes beyond the benefits of physical exercise alone.
Does the medical community take nature therapy seriously?
Increasingly. In 2009, the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in an effort to fight the high rate of diabetes there, launched its Prescription Trails program, which is partially funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besides trail time, physicians can refer their patients to a trail guide. In 2010, a pilot program in Portland, Oregon, began pairing physicians with park professionals, who record whether outdoor “prescriptions” are fulfilled; the park prescription program is part of a longitudinal study to measure the effect on health. In Japan, so called “forest bathing” is widely accepted as helpful to healing.
If we’re to transform the health care system in the U.S., this would require more than institutional change. It will demand philosophical evolution that goes beyond what we usually call preventive care.
You write that families and friends can form deeper bonds through shared experiences in nature.
This is an under-researched but exciting frontier. New ways to use nature as a family/friendship bonding agent are emerging, such as family nature clubs, through which multiple families go hiking or gardening, or participate in outdoor activities together. In the U.K., families are forming “green gyms” to bring people of all ages together to do green exercise, which is a lot cheaper than joining indoor gyms!
In cities or denser suburbs, there are fewer and fewer natural areas left. How do you suggest people there reconnect with nature?
In addition to bioregional consciousness and conservation, we need to begin to create nature by reimagining our cities. 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. This is what I mean by the term human/nature social capital.
What about where we live, our own homes?
People who want to maximize the restorative powers of nature in their homes are developing fascinating approaches to daily life, from creating “living walls” and using natural elements within their homes to creating healing gardens and wildlife sanctuaries in their yards. A “backyard revolution” is brewing, based on the belief that the last best hope for biodiversity is in our own yards and home gardens, which if transformed using native species could bring back bird and butterfly migrations, and at the same time be restorative to human health and well-being.
And where we work?
A new breed of designers are using biophilic design to create the so-called “high-performance workplace.” Studies show that employees who sit next to operable windows are more productive and exhibit consistently fewer symptoms of “sick building syndrome” than other workers. At one organization, absenteeism quadrupled after a move from a building with natural ventilation to one with sealed windows and central air. Studies of “green” workplaces show improved product quality, customer satisfaction, and innovation.
Is this mainly a phenomenon of upper-income people?
There are many more examples being imagined or built right now by people at every economic level. Some of Detroit’s decaying neighborhoods are being replaced by community gardens and truck farms. I should say here that some of us need to think differently about how different ethnic or cultural groups relate to nature. I write about “natural cultural capacity,” the historic nature-based strengths that have been underreported and underappreciated in African-American, Hispanic, and other communities.
Last Child in the Woods helped stimulate an international movement to connect kids to nature. How’s that going, and can the same thing happen for adults?
It must happen for adults, otherwise the tentative progress we’re seeing for children will be reversed. After Last Child came out, a handful of like-minded individuals came together to form the Children and Nature Network (C&NN). Our mission was simple: to reconnect children to nature, for their physical health, cognitive development and emotional well-being, and for the good of the planet. Since then, more than eighty cities, states, provinces, and regions in North America have created their own campaigns to connect children and families to nature. I was recently asked to give the plenary keynote speech at the conference of the National Academy of Pediatrics, and the response to the idea of prescribing nature was quite positive. We’re seeing changes in local, state, and national policies and increased media coverage of solutions for closing the gap between children and the natural world. In 2010, Sesame Street changed its set for the first time in forty years, to include nature!
The first wave of de-natured young people are now in their early parenting years, so the extension of the children and nature movement to adults is crucial. I believe the next nature movement already emerging is focused on human restoration through the natural world: the creation of personal identity, the pride and meaning that come from what Thomas Berry called the Great Work.