Defending the author from an unfair review
Sorry for the egregious lack of blogging this week — a bit swamped with other stuff. Once I get that clone in the mail next week things should pick up around here.
I thought twice about whether to post on this — I don’t make a practice of kvetching about our own content — but I must say I found Naomi Schalit’s review of Richard Louv’s new book rather uncharitable. Crabby, even. Lamentable.
Of course the idea that it’s good to get kids out into nature isn’t going to come as a revelation to a committed environmentalist. The book isn’t written for them. But I’d wager even plenty of parents who self-identify as environmentalists find themselves, and their kids, stuck inside way more than they’d like. They face the same problems other parents do: restrictive neighborhood covenants, sterile suburban development, litigiousness, TV and video game ubiquity, and media-driven fear of the danger kids face if left unsupervised. The structure of modern life exerts a pull indoors.
To parents just trying to get by — not "environmentalists" — it’s not a simple thing to take a step back and question something fundamental about the way life is structured. When you’re in the trenches, those kinds of things are invisible, taken for granted. Sometimes it takes somebody digging up that instinct, that intuition, and validating it: Yes, you’re right, it really is bad that your kids never interact with nature. More importantly: Here’s what you can do.
On one hand, Schalit seems to charge that Louv’s thesis is so obvious it’s not even worth writing about. But in the next breath she criticizes him for discriminating, in some sense, against those who are unable to get out into nature. "Louv virtually condemns the nature-deprived among us to lives of physical and mental deformation." (Incidentally, no he doesn’t.) So which is it?
Particularly unfair is the review’s charge that Louv reduces nature to a kind of instrumental value for kids — makes them smarter, raises their test scores, whatnot. A whole chapter of the book is devoted to countering that impression, and indeed Schalit herself quotes him saying that "nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity."
Anyway, I was sorry to see the book dismissed with such an antagonistic and shallow review. I’m sure it’s happened before in our books section, and in book-review sections all over the world every day. But in this case I met the author and was entirely impressed, so I’ve taken a little umbrage.
When I scheduled the interview with Louv I expected to hear the sort of therapeutic psycho-babble one hears all the time these days, about how to further perfect our precious children. But — and I don’t know if this comes across in the interview, since we focused it on the book-related material — I found Louv to have a solid big-picture grasp of the environmental situation. He understands that environmentalism begins with a sense of connection to nature, and that begins in nature. If the next generation is, as we ask them, going to remake virtually our entire civilization, they’re going to need to be inspired and energized. And aside from that, there’s a matter of spiritual impoverishment; too continuous an immersion in human affairs leads to pinched, narrow minds.
Louv has chosen to make a contribution not by writing a book full of scientific statistics and fear-drenched apocaphilia, — lord knows there’s no shortage of such tomes — but by talking directly to parents about how to make themselves and their families happier and healthier. He’s made environmentalism into a health issue, a values issue, a family issue. More environmentalists should be doing this, and they shouldn’t face reflexive, condescending upturned noses when they try.