Some people are born to activism; others have activism thrust upon them. For every person who possesses a keen sense of the world’s injustices and a fever for remedying them, there have to be another 10 or 20 people who arrive at social change work slowly, serendipitously. A classic subspecies of the reluctant activist is the writer, journalist, or academic who, after studying a subject for years, finally decides there’s no other option but to put down the pen and take action. A good example would be NASA climatologist James Hansen, or author-turned-environmental leader Bill McKibben.
You could also put on that list Richard Louv. Before 2005, Louv — a longtime columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune — was a well regarded (if little known) writer who had published a number of books preoccupied with the connections between parenthood, family, and community. Then he wrote Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The book became a best-seller — and in the process helped spark a grassroots movement to get American kids away from the Web and out into the world.
Louv’s book pulled off the feat journalists always hope for: it uncovered a major problem that had been lurking in plain sight. Much like, say, Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique, Last Child in the Woods gave name to a malaise that many of us had perceived but had no words for. Only instead of dissecting women’s alienation from their own lives, Louv described a similar problem affecting modern children — an alienation from the physical world.
“For many [children], playing in nature seemed so … Unproductive. Off-limits. Alien. Cute. Dangerous. Televised,” Louv writes, then later continues, “In the United States, children are spending less time playing outdoors — or in any unstructured way. From 1997 to 2003, there was a decline of 50 percent in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening.”
So what? I can hear the plugged-in peanut gallery saying. Because, as Louv documents, less time for unstructured play in nature means “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.” Kids who play outside are simply more focused, healthier, and happier.
Like so many other fine titles, Louv’s heartfelt investigation might have gone no further than the bookstore. But then an interesting thing happened: Parents and teachers across the country who had also perceived the problem of nature deficit disorder decided to do something, and in 2006 they launched the Children & Nature Network. Today the network has 80 chapters across the country looking for new ways to get young people to engage with the real, living world.
“This movement was around before Last Child came out,” Louv said recently. “We are at the moment in the movement when it could become a fad and go away — or it could jump to the next level and grow exponentially. …. This isn’t about programs. It’s about culture change.”
I had the chance to hear from Louv last week when he and other leaders in what some have called the “No Child Left Inside” movement gathered in San Francisco for a two-day strategy session. The meeting was hosted on the National Geographic Sea Bird, a large yacht which is operated by Linblad Expeditions, a company that organizes adventure travel to places like Alaska, the Galapagos, and Antarctica. As we cruised around San Francisco Bay, the gathering’s participants got busy networking and laying plans for fulfilling their agenda. Since I was an outsider in the close-knit group of activists, a lot of the talk was new to me. What I found most interesting was that, for many of the people there, getting kids outside isn’t just an end in itself — it’s also a key way of encouraging the ecological awareness necessary to preserve and defend the environment. This should be obvious enough. After all, no one will fight to protect a place they do not know. Or, as Tierney Thys, a National Geographic Explorer and marine biologist put it: “The oceans are getting hammered, so we need all hands on deck to love the natural world, to embrace it, to work for it.”
A collection of parents, teachers and nature enthusiasts working to have children spend more time outdoors — that sounds nice, doesn’t it? Really, though, the work of the Children & Nature Network is quite radical — radical in the sense that it’s addressing one of the root causes of our environmental crisis. Because if the next generation is ignorant or indifferent about the natural world, there will simply be fewer people eager to work in its defense. In a society in which internet connections are prized over natural connections, encouraging kids to spend some time getting dirty in a creek is rebellious.
“Ultimately, this is a subversive idea,” Louv said. “We can’t wait for the principles and school boards and education reform. Our ideas is that this will become contagious.”
Larry Volpe, a teacher from Santa Clara, CA who was honored with the Children & Nature Network’s first award for outstanding performance, was even more to the point. Volpe said, “Have kids develop an organic relationship to nature — then you don’t have to teach them activism.”
In listening to the outdoor enthusiasts hatching their plans, I was impressed by their willingness to meet the dominant culture where it’s at. Because fact is, most people in this country — and not just children — see the natural world as scary, dirty, and weird. It’s simply not part of their daily experience. Which is why it’s so important not just to promote kids getting into the wilderness, but to explore the wild places that are close to home and often forgotten or neglected.
“We’re trying to bring the outdoors into people’s everyday lives,” said Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI. “And not in a 1950s sort of way, loading up the station wagon and going to Yosemite. Because it’s not going to happen. We need to invest in our local parks, in our city parks, so that kids feel safe to go out and play.”
The great outdoors, it turns out, is as close as our own backyards.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate