is a journalist and author of eight books about the connections
between family, nature and community, including the best-selling
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit
Disorder. His latest book, The
Nature Principle offers a new vision of the future
in which our lives are as immersed in nature as they are in
technology. This article originally appeared in Network
magazine, an Irish quarterly publication focused on holistic
approaches to psychological and physiological well-being.
NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER
"Nature-deficit disorder" as I defined it in Last
Child in the Woods, is not a medical diagnosis, but a useful
term to describe the human costs of alienation from nature,
as suggested by recent research. Among these costs are diminished
use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical
and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and
adult obesity, and other maladies.
disorder damages children – and, as I write about in The
Nature Principle, adults as well — but I think of
it as more of a disorder of the society. This disorder also
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?
disconnect with nature is associated with two trends: one is
the fading of independent play, which is linked directly to
what psychologists call “executive function,” the
ability to self-control; and to what medical experts are now
calling the “pandemic of inactivity.”
January, 2013, the Harvard Business Review published
Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation, an article by Nilofer
Merchant, a former founder and CEO of Rubicon. “As we
work, we sit more than we do anything else.” Add in the
time we sit at home, and we’re averaging over nine hours
of sit time every day.
as for how this effects children, well just think of schools.
Some do a good job getting kids moving. But at other schools,
too many students spend most of their time sitting. At their
desks, in front of computers, taking tests, sitting in schools
where recess and gym class have been restricted or eliminated.
Even in preschools, most children sit in the classroom for most
of the day — and even when they go outside, more than
half of their activities remain sedentary. Then
they sit in a car to be driven home to sit some more.
greatest cost, it seems to me, is a stunted ability to feel
and be fully alive. I’m not anti-tech, but I do believe
this: The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we
need. We need nature experience as an antidote to some of the
downsides of technological influences, and we need to nature
to revive the full use of the human senses – conservatively
ten and as many as thirty senses, according to some scientists.
As we focus for hours on our screens, we spend much of our time
trying to block out most of those senses. To me, that’s
a definition of being less alive. What parent wants their child
to be less alive? What adult wants to be less alive? Some do,
but most of us want something better.
BALANCING TECHNOLOGY AND NATURE
The Nature Principle, I include a section on what I
call “techno-naturalists.” I point out that taking
technology with us into nature isn’t new. A fishing rod,
a compass, binoculars are examples of technologies we’ve
used for nature exploration. Today, the family that goes geocaching
or wildlife photographing with their digital cameras is doing
something as legitimate as backpacking; these gadgets offer
an excuse to get outside.
attitude of young citizen naturalists toward technology is bound
to be different from that of many older people?--?and that could
be an advantage. However, I’m not keen on the kind of
gadgets that go over the line --?to the point where we become
more aware of the gadget than of nature; iPod-guided tours of
natural areas, for example, offer audio information at the cost
of the use of many other senses. The litmus test for some of
this technology should be how long it takes for someone to look
up from the screen, or forget the gadget, and actually experience
nature, and to feel a sense of wonder.
test is whether the technology is preventing other people from
fully experiencing nature. Loud engines don’t pass that
CONNECTED TO NATURE
People who want to maximize the restorative powers of nature
in their homes and urban neighbourhoods 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. The home nature-restoration
market is growing. One company produces indoor living walls
of ficus, hibiscus, orchids and other plants. A backyard revolution
is brewing, based on the belief that the last best hope for
biodiversity is in our own yards and home garden, 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.
These are just a few examples.
need to realize that even in densely urban settings, nature
can often be found nearby, somewhere in the neighbourhood. This
is partly a design issue, but it’s also about intent.
Getting kids outside needs to be a conscious act on the part
of parents or caregivers. I suggest that over-scheduled families
make outdoor time a priority. As parents, grandparents, aunts
or uncles, we can spend more time with children in nature. To
do so, we need to schedule nature time. This is quite a challenge,
one that emphasizes the importance of exploring nearby opportunities.
This proactive approach is simply part of today’s reality.
of 2008, more people live in cities than in the countryside
in the whole world. This is a huge and largely unremarked moment
in human history, and it means one of two things: either the
human connection to nature will continue to disintegrate –
or we’ll work to create a new kind of city, one with new
kinds of workplaces and homes that actually connect people to
nature, one in which cities become incubators of biodiversity.
seems that some older cultures are more aware of the sacredness
of nature, and that we have much to learn. I should say here,
too, that some of us need to think differently about how different
ethnic or cultural groups relate to nature. In The Nature
Principle, I write about what I call “natural cultural
capacity,” the historic nature-based strengths that have
been under-reported and underappreciated in, for example, African-American,
Hispanic, and other communities — including indigenous
human spirit is inseparable from the natural world. As the eco-theologian
Thomas Berry wrote, “A degraded habitat will produce degraded
humans.” The concept of an “ecological unconscious”
has emerged at the crossroads of science, philosophy and theology.
This is the idea that all of nature is connected in ways that
we do not fully understand.
Last Child in the Woods was published, I was surprised
that so many religious figures, on the right and the left, were
supportive of it. I came to the conclusion that they intuitively
understand that all spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder.
Nature is our most immediate, shared window into wonder. This
is not only a view into the past but into a potential new era.
I avoid the phrase ‘back to nature.’ I prefer to
say, ‘Forward to nature.’
MOVING FORWARD TO NATURE
do see progress, but I don’t see enough yet. In recent
years we’ve seen much greater awareness and action. Shortly
after Last Child in the Woods was published, several
of us formed a non-profit, the Children & Nature Network
which offers many ways that we can connect our children, families
and communities to nature – and it is a good source of
the latest news and research on the deficit and the benefits.
seen the emergence of major campaigns to connect children and
the rest of us to nature, in the U.S. and around the world.
We’ve also seen how the issue of nature-deficit disorder
can bring people together across political, religious and generational
lines. We can agree that our children’s nature deficit,
and our own, can drain life and spirit from the human experience.
been arguing for several years that a positive connection between
humans, especially children, and the rest of the natural world
should be considered a human right.
In September 2012, the World Congress of the International Union
for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) cited “adverse consequences
for both healthy child development (nature deficit disorder)
as well as responsible stewardship for nature and the environment
in the future,” and then passed a resolution titled “The
Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy
connection is, indeed, a human right. And the acknowledgement
of that is progress.