This is the second part of my interview with Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The first part is here.
Louv is not just interested in healthier kids and families, though that’s obviously his abiding passion. He also realizes in a way few other environmental leaders seem to that connecting kids with nature is vital for the future of the environmental movement and, well, the environment. As he says below, kids learn about environmental problems earlier and earlier these days, slowly coming to associate the environment with doom and hopelessness.
But this next generation has perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity: to remake society in a sustainable way. They need hope, and they need that sense of wonder and visceral connection that comes only from getting out into nature.
David Roberts: Do you have formal recommendations for schools to help them connect kids with nature?
Richard Louv: Have outdoor classrooms. There’s a San Diego school that’s adopted the canyon behind it, and the kids have taken out invasive species and had their science classes down there.
Studies done in the 1990s of schools that had outdoor classrooms found that across the board, from social studies to standardized testing, their kids did better. There’s a new study that came out from the California Department of Education about five months ago: they took kids from three school districts that had intensive outdoor classroom experiences and compared them directly to kids in traditional classrooms, and they did 27 percent better on math and science tests.
I got a clip the other day from a Nairobi newspaper about nature-deficit disorder. They are very conscious about the threat to agriculture. Some people from Norway contacted me, trying to get the book translated. They’re pulling together teachers and farmers, who are creating a curriculum together. The kids spent part of their school year physically on a farm. I think that’s a great idea. We subsidize farmers not to plant seeds. Why don’t we subsidize them to plant the seeds of nature in future generations?
If we were really interested in education reform we’d have a "No Child Left Inside" movement.
DR: What can attract kids to environmentalism?
RL: I spoke to some high-school students a few weeks ago — I expected 20 kids and there were 200 waiting for me. I spoke for an hour and you could have heard a pin drop. I’m not a great speaker, but I talked about two things: one was the connection of nature experience to their physical health. The second was that, because of climate change, everything must change in the next 40 years. New kinds of agriculture. New kinds of architecture and urban planning. New kinds of energy. Everything must change. That poses wonderful opportunities for these kids.
Afterwards, I turned to the biology teacher who invited me and said, "What was that all about? I expected a whole lot of note-passing." He said, "Simple: You said something hopeful about the future of the environment. They never hear that." A week before, an expert on climate change had come in from the University of California at San Diego, and the teacher said the kids’ eyes froze over.
DR: It’s paralyzing.
RL: It is paralyzing. We’re in danger of having a whole generation disassociate from nature. Not only because they didn’t go outside as kids, but because of the message being sent, often unintentionally, by environmental organizations and by the news media: When it comes to the environment, it’s too late. Game’s over. Why should we expect them to want to suit up?
What was evident in that auditorium was that as quickly as that light has gone off, it can go back on. What generation of teenagers has not wanted to create a new civilization? What generation has had such an important responsibility? The minute you start talking about professions that haven’t even been named, that are going to emerge, they get very excited. The message has to change. In the end, there’s no practical alternative to hope.
DR: The environmental movement has oversubscribed to the idea that fear is the great motivator.
RL: Fear and shame.
I’m not proposing happy news. I’m proposing we might think about appropriate developmental stages before we start telling 4-year-olds the world is going to end. We might want to wait on that one until they actually experience some of the joy of being in nature. David Sobel at Antioch uses a term, eco-phobia. Schools are doing such a good job of teaching kids about the mass of ecological threats that kids, in the absence of experiencing pure joy of being in nature, start to associate nature with fear.
I’m not talking about limiting bad news. I’m talking about expanding the message.
DR: Everybody in the environmental movement can give you any number of ways that things are going to hell in a handbasket. But what exactly would we do if we had control? What are we aiming for? What does that new society look like?
RL: That seems to me the next core question. Martin Luther King Jr. said over and over again: no movement will succeed if it cannot paint a picture of a world people want to go to. That’s been the great failure of progressives in the last decade, and the great failure of environmentalism. Environmentalism began around 1970; there was a lot of hope, a lot of utopian thinking — The Greening of America. We need to remember that. Particularly when we talk to young people.
It’s moving beyond the "eat your peas" environmentalism to the fact that nature isn’t the problem, it’s the solution. It can make life more comfortable, more fun, more visually exciting.
Baby Boomers are entering the retirement period, and we’re a cause-oriented generation, or at least used to be. This could be our greatest cause: re-connecting the next generation to nature.