Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle, and Vitamin N, has a vision for a healthier relationship between human beings and nature.
By Hank Edson
GWE: Good morning, 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 on the relationship of human beings to nature. The subtitle of Last Child in the Woods is “Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” and the subtitle of The Nature Principle is “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.
RL: 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?
GWE: Is it fair to describe The Nature Principle as a sort of sequel to Last Child in the Woods? How would you describe the relationship between the two books?
RL: 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,” 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.
GWE: 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?
RL: 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.
GWE: What is “the Nature Principle” and how does it enable us to return to a healthier state of being and relationship to our world?
RL: 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.
GWE: 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 wellbeing 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. Please correct or refine my attempt to present the idea as appropriate. 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.
RL: 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. 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.
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