Nature-Deficit Disorder and Humans

You may recall that I have mentioned author Richard Louv a time or two. He is the author of the best-selling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and one of my heroes. Richard was the 2018 speaker for the Doug Walker Lecture Series, an annual lecture within the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. The topic of this year’s lecture was “Our Wellbeing: Nature’s Role in Human Health & Happiness.” That lecture happened one week ago, at Benaroya Hall, and Diane and I took a run over the Cascades to hear it.

Louv has written several books which illustrate his devotion to nature interactions for humans of all ages. Consider The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, and his upcoming book about the importance to humans of connections and relationships with animals.

Louv’s serious advocacy of getting children back into nature started at least a couple decades back, when he asked a fourth grader why he didn’t play outside after school. “I like to play indoors better,” the kid said, “‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are…” His “Last Child…” book triggered world-wide responses, including the wildly successful international Children & Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org), organized in 2006.

Richard’s focus on the importance of kids’ outdoor connections and interactions has evolved with his study. He remains a strong advocate for children and nature, while now speaking of what he calls the “New Nature” movement – one which involves all ages with a clear focus on adults. This New Nature focus was the topic of his lecture/talk in Benaroya Hall last week.

More is constantly being learned about the importance of nature to all of us. In Scotland, physicians are now prescribing periods of outdoor activity for patience with depression, loneliness and a variety of physical ailments. The World Health Organization is now considering loneliness as a major contributing factor in human mortality – in some cases actually outweighing smoking and obesity. People do not want to be alone, and Louv (along with many others) consider time spent with wildlife, plants, and nature in general to be an antidote for loneliness.

The ability to freely access nature and its components is now being addressed as a human right – as opposed to a legal right. IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) is pushing across Europe and other regions for access to nature to be seen as a world-wide right. The issue of access to nature is increasingly seen as a world health issue.

In the U.S. and abroad, several large outdoor-oriented companies – REI is among the leaders of them – have pledged large sums of money to programs committed to the improvement of outdoor access, earth connections and nature interactions for people of all ages. These programs range from kids’ outdoor programs and outdoor schools (starting with preschools), to the efforts now underway in 18 U.S. cities to provide “equitable access” to the outdoors across all neighborhoods, from poor to affluent.

So, how do we humans connect more intimately with nature (somehow becoming more empathetic with it)? Louv’s new book about our relationships with animals will address the question, with a number of stories of people’s often unexpected heart-opening and life-changing experiences. And it also, apparently, will devote space to the growing number of new scientific studies involving our ability to empathize and understand (and more effectively study) our fellow life forms.

One of the more interesting aspects of this is termed “critical anthropomorphism.” (A common definition of this, from ethology and comparative psychology, involves using the observer’s senses to generate hypotheses about the perceptual and ecological world of the species being observed.) My reaction to Louv’s mention of this new science was “It’s about time.” For millennia, Native peoples have spent enough time meditating with bison, deer, whales, birds, snakes and other wild things to know how they perceived their habitat and lives – yet that knowledge has long been refuted by “trained” scientists. Interestingly, those of us who’ve studied meditation and interacted with Native American friends have long spoken of human senses far beyond the five (sight, hearing, etc.) we all learn. Researchers in this “new” science have identified as many as 30 human senses which can be opened in the process of developing deep connections with other life forms.

Richard Louv’s talk was rich and fascinating. I particularly appreciated the way he brought it to a close.  He noted that most people, when asked to look into the distant future, see desolation and destruction (that world we saw in the Mad Max movies). His summary went something like this, “If we are to inspire humans to preserve nature and biodiversity and good health through connections with wild things and places, our culture must provide a beautiful future vision. Without a beautiful future – well imagined and pictured and ‘nature rich’ – we fail our children and those who come after us.”

He left me to work on my responsibility for that vision.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized