By April Thompson [This article appears in the April 2011 issue of Natural Awakenings]
If it’s true that people are self-interested creatures at heart, journalist Richard Louv has a message for humankind: Think not only what we can do for nature, but what nature can do for us.
Louv’s seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, launched a national dialogue about the disconnection between children and nature, a state he calls nature-deficit disorder. Now, in The Nature Principle, Louv vividly portrays how a nature-infused lifestyle can enhance the quality of our health and relationships, benefiting every facet of experience. He asserts that the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need, and offers a roadmap to a future that incorporates nature into every aspect of our lives, from our homes to our workplaces.
The recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal, Louv is the author of eight books, and the founder of the Children & Nature Network.
You cite many instances of nature’s power to heal and restore us mentally, emotionally, physically and even intellectually. How does science account for this?
Healers have known about the importance of nature to our health and well-being for thousands of years, but scientists have only in recent years begun to study the benefits of what I call, “vitamin N.” Still, the preliminary research indicates overwhelmingly positive correlations between human health and intelligence and nature.
For example, a University of Illinois study of urban children with attention deficit disorder found that even a little exposure to nature can have a positive effect on ADD. Several other studies indicate that walking in natural areas improves our mental and physical health. Researchers from Sweden and England have compared exercising in indoor and outdoor settings learned that expending the same amount of energy in these different environments provides different results, with green exercise offering added value. Science can’t yet tell us the causes and mechanisms behind these correlations, yet we know enough to act.
Technology permeates every aspect of our lives today. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that American youth spend an average of 53 hours a week using entertainment media. So we have to consciously bring more nature into our lives—not just to escape technology’s documented negative effects, but also to access the positive benefits that nature provides.
It’s not a case of nature versus technology, however; it’s a matter of balance. The “hybrid mind” can access the benefits of both, facilitating skills in big-picture thinking.
You assert that reconnecting with nature also strengthens community and family bonds, but where can busy urbanites start?
Often, families want to connect with nature but don’t know how. We offer free tools at ChildrenAndNature.org to help you start a family nature club organized around prearranged nature play dates. One club has 600 families. This helps create meaningful social bonding within and between families. It’s something any family can do, regardless of location or income, and it’s good fun.
What roles do governments play in preserving a nature-balanced world?
All have a role to play. Urban planners a hundred years ago planned cities around nature. It’s not a new idea; we’ve just forgotten.
Nature can offer cost-effective solutions to some of the problems cash-strapped governments face. For example, it costs a lot to tear up a canyon and put in a new stormwater system, but a lot less to develop a system that takes advantage of the natural watershed.
People often think about nature as somewhere else, like a state park or wilderness area, yet you point out the need to re-imagine our own yards and neighborhoods. What can we do to enhance the local habitats that ultimately sustain us?
We often overlook the nature where we live, work and play. In 2008, for the first time in history, more people on Earth were living in urban, rather than rural areas. That means if we are going to have meaningful experiences with nature, we are going to have to rethink nature within cities.
Looking forward, conservation measures alone won’t be enough to get us where we need to be. We need to start recreating nature in order to protect the biodiversity that all creatures need, humans included. We can start in our backyards by replacing lawns with flowers and native plants that will bring back sustainable migration routes for birds and butterflies.
Acting on The Nature Principle is an optimistic way of looking at the future. It’s not just about survival; it’s creating a way of life that is profoundly all-around better for all of us.