Environmental Ills:
Nature-Deficit Disorder
by Mark Madison

“In the end, we conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
—Baba Dioum

Most environmental maladies are natural disasters, not a crisis of the soul. However, Richard Louv’s recent book—Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder—suggests our greatest challenge may lay in our perceptions of nature. Louv, in a recent public lecture in Shepherdstown, suggested our nation’s youth are disconnected from nature leading to medical and spiritual maladies. He observed that the present generation of youth is the first generation of young people with sharply truncated experiences in the environment. Whereas previous generations of Americans were often raised in rural areas or still had relatives who resided in rural areas, this generation of youth is largely urban without any meaningful rural connections. As Aldo Leopold noted in 1948 (when most Americans still had some connection to rural life):

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

But beyond spiritual dangers, Louv outlined the medical dangers arising from a lack of time in the great outside. Louv pointed to epidemic rates of childhood obesity, depression, and attention-deficit disorder coinciding with greater youthful insularity. Louv’s research implied a surprisingly strong connection between the lack of time youths spend outdoors and the rise in these maladies. Whether this lack of quality nature time is a cause or coincidence is open to debate.

Much of the power of Louv’s claims comes from anecdotal observations. Many a parent (myself included) recall spending most of their non-school time outdoors: fishing, building tree houses, just hanging out in the woods or by the river. This time was largely spent with peers often without adults hovering about. The nature my friends and I encountered as youths was hardly wilderness, but it was green and inhabited by the types of fish and wildlife that are well-suited to co-existence with humans (e.g., carp, deer, birds, etc.). In a culture less fearful, children were allowed more freedom from parental oversight than today. (This raises the interesting question of whether our children are unwitting victims of a politics and culture of fear that is increasingly dominating our news and perceptions.) Although difficult to quantify there does seem to be less time for outdoors and more time indoors doing homework for standardized tests (once again the law of unintended consequences) or doing safe, supervised activities such as organized sports.

This concern about the next generation’s lack of connection to nature goes back at least a century in this country and is often tied to fears about other contemporary changes. The 1890 census officially declared an “end” to the American frontier giving a concrete geographical explanation for more generalized fears regarding industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Around the turn of the century the “Country-Life Movement” emerged as a national mobilization to try to keep young people on the farm. (The fact that 40% of Americans were farm dwellers in 1900 and less than 2% of Americans currently live on farms suggests the movement was a bust.)

In the first two decades of the 20th century Progressive educators like John Dewey sought new pedagogical techniques that would mimic the hands-on experiences enjoyed in more rural times. Aware that early 20th century American classrooms were increasingly filled with urban youth and immigrant youth (both vaguely unsettling in different ways) the Progressive era educators sought to re-create a rural atmosphere through school yard gardens or reading literature which evoked an earlier nostalgic rural era. Two of the best-selling reading texts of this period were evocatively entitled “Birds and Bees” and “Little Nature Stories for Little People.”

Other movements arose to bring youth back to nature. Founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America was one attempt to provide alternative experiences to youths who could no longer tame a frontier. In the midst of the Great Depression in 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created to take thousands of boys and make them into men. CCC boys were deliberately set to work on national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges so they could test their mettle against nature. The growth of organized children’s sports in the postwar era can be understood in one sense as an attempt to replace natural wild fields with the playing fields. Yet all of these laudable attempts have failed to arrest the problem. American children continued to grow fatter, sadder and increasingly distracted from nature.

For those of us working in the environmental field there is also a dire political fallout from nature-deficit disorder. Indifference to nature may well be the greatest environmental threat we face in the 21st century. Political attitudes have changed enough so that outright hostility to nature has become largely unacceptable. Even the worst despoilers of the environment now try to couch their work in environmental or security platitudes. But while those attitudes have changed there is a greater challenge to creating a viable conservation constituency. It was common in the 20th century for environmental leaders to emerge from a childhood spent in nature with frequent, meaningful, and fondly remembered interactions with the environment. As the opportunities to venture into nature become less frequent (and less meaningful) we may be weakening the gene pool for future conservationists.

In fact knowledge of the surrounding landscape is itself becoming a lost language. As science classes have focused on global systems or biodiversity hot spots, we have, probably for the first time, created a generation of students that may be more knowledgeable about tropical rainforests than the temperate forests that surround their homes. That is not to denigrate tropical rainforests (where I spent two years doing conservation work), but it does suggest new challenges. How can we expect people to protect things they may never see or hardly understand? How have we made the local environment a foreign country to many of our young? Unlike more familiar dangers of pollutions, deforestation, and global warming we may face an invisible threat to saving our nation’s green lands from apathy and indifference. A fourth grader in Louv’s book who observes, “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electric outlets are” seems profoundly indifferent to his environment. If only we could fool ourselves that this fourth grader was a rare exception and not, perhaps, our future.

Considering its long pedigree of complaint and unsuccessful remedy, nature-deficit disorder is in danger of becoming like the weather—something which everyone talks about but nobody does anything. In an attempt to move beyond the litany of ills, the National Conservation Training Center, working with Richard Louv, is trying to organize a conference this fall to seek some effective remedies. The goal is a working conference of all interested folks to see what can be done to ensure the future of conservation through the next generation. The success of this effort will be reflected in how well we convince all our children to heed William Wordsworth’s thoughtful injunction to “Let Nature be your teacher.”

Mark Madison is the historian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and teaches environmental history at Shepherd University