After decades of reporting on the connection between family, community and nature, one might expect Richard Louv to be a pessimist. After all, the news of the day about humans and nature isn’t always the cheeriest. But the famed author and journalist radiated optimism during a late-October interview in Seattle, just before taking off on a hike with Sally Jewell, former Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO. His message? To face the reality of environmental destruction, we can and must create a vision of an alternative, nature-filled future.
Louv believes that organizing communities to connect children to the natural world has the power to bring people together across the political divide. “People who don’t normally want to be in the same room will come into the same room to talk about making sure the next generation has the chance to experience nature,” he said. “And I can’t think of another issue in our country right now that will have such an impact to bring them to the same room.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve written about a new world where “children grow up with a deep understanding of the life around them.” Do you have a vision for the future?
No future is guaranteed to happen. One thing is for sure: A greener future will not happen unless we can see it in our mind’s eye, unless we can imagine it. Today, if you ask people to describe images of the far future, many and perhaps most people immediately describe a postapocalyptic future. What happens to a culture that can no longer see a beautiful, nature-filled future? Despair is addictive. The challenge is not only to oppose the current trajectory, but to escape the dystopian trance.
Over the past 20 years of reporting on human connection to nature, have you seen change that makes you hopeful?
If you go to the Children & Nature Network website, you’ll see all kinds of hopeful things. It aggregates and links to stories and media coverage about the growing children and nature movement—or “new nature movement,” because it’s for adults, too. There’s a huge increase in the number of nature preschools. Many pediatricians have begun to prescribe nature connection. The number of studies of the deficit and the benefits of nature experiences to health and cognition has gone from a relative handful in 2005 (I cited 60 in Last Child in the Woods), to well over 800. The Children & Nature Network has compiled a research library available to everyone. New studies come in at a rate of about 20 per month. That’s been a huge change.
Where do equity and inclusion play into this future?
In the books that I’ve written about this, I’ve paid more and more attention to equity. Over time, it’s become clear that we can’t allow [the connection between humans and nature] to be seen as an issue just for people who look like me. Too often, people who look like me march into a neighborhood where people who don’t look like [me live] and tell them how to connect with nature.
In The Nature Principle I describe what I call natural cultural capacity. Every culture brings different ways of connecting to nature. We can’t make the assumption that just because people don’t look like us, they don’t have a commitment to nature. We have to broaden our definition of what nature is and we have to broaden our definition of how we can connect with it and what we can learn from people of different cultures, abilities and economic backgrounds.
Many of us now argue that nature connection is a human right. Every child and every adult has a human right to a connection to the natural world, and shares the responsibility for caring for it. Where every child regardless of race or economic status or gender or sexual identity or set of abilities has the opportunity to help create that nature-rich future. The good news is that in 2012, the World Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meeting in Jeju, South Korea, passed a resolution declaring that children have a human right to experience the natural world.
How do loneliness and hopelessness factor into the new nature movement—the global push to connect people to the natural world?
In recent years, a wave of alarming research has suggested the emergence of what some health officials are calling an epidemic of loneliness ... The word “epidemic” may be an exaggeration (solitude has its charms, and creativity often depends on it), but social isolation is on the rise. This is partly due to our disconnection from other species.
We are at an intersection of loneliness, despair, violence and hope. That’s the decision point we’re at right now. Our species' loneliness is one of the reasons we cannot allow the nature movement to focus only sustainability, a word narrowly interpreted by many Americans as energy efficiency. We absolutely need energy efficiency, but if the conversation stalls there, we won’t even get energy efficiency. We have to have a higher bar—and that bar is to imagine, and then build a society that is not only efficient, but nature-rich. Nature-rich schools and workplaces, nature-rich neighborhoods and cities, a nature-rich future.
What would cities (where most people in the world now live) be like if they became engines of biodiversity, not just the enemy of biodiversity? What would the future look like if we were all as immersed, every day and night, in natural environments as we are in digital technology? What images come to mind when you imagine that future? When I ask college students that question, their faces change, their eyes light up. They want to go to that future. They want to wake up tomorrow morning and start working with other people to create it. And they can’t do it alone. That is one prescription for the loneliness epidemic.
This doesn’t mean for a second that journalists should stop reporting on the impacts of climate change and the destruction of the environment. It does mean that we have to have an alternative, and that it’s not enough to talk only about the end of things.
What would you tell readers to do in the world?
To get involved to the extent they can. To find out about the new nature movement, which includes traditional environmentalism and sustainability, but also places additional emphasis on the relationship between nature connection, human health and cognition. To take their kids outside. To let their kids take them outside, and to encourage that. To become far more conscious about the life around us, to the light between beings. And to connect with other human beings.
Martin Luther King said in many ways that any movement, any culture will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a future that people will want to go to. We have to begin to imagine that future.