The rise of nature-deficit disorder

Toronto Star - Ontario, Canada – August 11, 2007
By Stephen Scharper

In speaking with a friend recently, I experienced a profound sense of loss. He had taken his son fishing, returning to the ponds and streams we fished together in our youth.

"Steve," my friend said, "they're all gone — Warner's Pond, Caddy's Pond — they're both filled in, and the North Woods is just one big housing development."

I felt a generational tether had been severed, and grieved the fact the waters and woods that helped shape us in our youth were no longer there to help frame and contour the lives of our sons.

This sense of "nature loss" also disturbs U.S. journalist Richard Louv, whose recent book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, probes environmental, social, psychological, and even spiritual implications of the removal of nature from our children's lives. Reflecting on his childhood in the 1950s, Louv recalls that while no one then spoke of acid rain or the thinning ozone layer, he and other kids did have an intimate knowledge of the woods and fields near their homes. "A kid today," he writes, "can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest — but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching clouds move."

Louv cites several factors for the decline, including development of rural spaces, parental safety concerns and liability restrictions on unsupervised play.

Claiming that North American society teaches youth "to avoid direct experience with nature," he writes that this lesson is taught by schools, families, even outdoor education groups, and codified into community legal statues. "Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom — while dissociating the outdoors from joy and solitude."

In the "patent-or-perish" environment of higher education, he continues, we witness "the death of natural history as the more hands-on disciplines, such as zoology, give way to more theoretical and remunerative microbiology and genetic engineering."

And the post-modern notion that all reality is only a social construct, Louv writes, suggests "limitless human possibilities; but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience."

Louv's work builds on the research of Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, whose idea of "biophilia" suggests that humans have a natural love of and affinity for nature, and when access to natural is blocked, become distorted.

Louv also cites numerous psychological studies indicating the importance of nature exposure in helping children overcome attention deficit disorder and other medical and psychological challenges.

Interestingly, such research also jibes with the insights of Catholic priest and "geologian" Thomas Berry, who speaks of the "soul-loss" experienced each time a meadow or forest is developed into a shopping mall or parking lot.

Louv’s work is not all nostalgic lament. Reflecting on land restoration movements, increased awareness around climate change and scientific research about the importance of exposing children to nature, he hopes not only his sons, but all generations, may experience a rebirth of wonder in nature.

Stephen Scharper is associate professor with the Centre for Environment, University of Toronto. Email him at stephen.scharper@utoronto.ca.

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