Our AFC intern Max explores 'nature deficit disorder' and whether ten years on it is still a pressing issue. Max has a degree in Biology from Royal Holloway University and has been helping AFC with fundraising and organising school workshops. He has a keen interest in science communication and hopes to work in this field in the future.
The concept of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ was first mentioned in 2005 when Richard Louv published his book Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature deficit disorder. At the time it caused a huge media furore, prompting public discussions on a wide range of subjects from childcare to curriculums, advancing technology and the concept of nature itself. So ten years on has the theory stood the test of time and what, if anything is being done about the problems it highlights?
Nature deficit, says Louv, is an observable suite of problems caused by people not spending enough time in ‘nature’. These problems are varied, including ADD, mood disorders, depression, obesity and a reduction in creativity. Louv made a case for this disorder becoming increasingly common among modern children due to factors such as over protective parents, the lure of indoor activities often orientated around modern technology, over exaggerated ‘stranger danger’, loss of immediate nature in people's environment and nature being heavily policed.
The sound case made in Louv’s book for these problems being associated with a lack of nature based activities appears to have held firm in the public consciousness. Papers and articles continue to be published using nature deficit disorder as a solid rationale and there appears to be more public motivation to reconnect children with nature. Recent schemes such as home aquaponics and forest nurseries have Louv’s book to thank for their credibility. Public bodies such as The National Trust have continued to discuss the issue and possible solutions, going as far as to publish a report dedicated to it in 2012. This suggests that the UK is a nation where this issue is much more common and the report states that this may explain the low well-being ratings amongst children in the UK compared to other European nations.
The theory attracted criticism at the time and some of it continues to be relevant despite widespread acceptance of Louv’s principle argument. Still problematic is the fact that the book identified the phenomenon of nature deficit but not the root causes of our disassociation from nature. The solution it posits, offering up time spent in ‘nature’ as a tonic to cure our ills adds fuel to the idea that humans are outside of nature rather than part of it. This is a step in the wrong direction. In recent discussions people have continued to question the validity of the idea of ‘getting back to nature’. A paper published this year focusing on ecotourism looked at this notion of ‘time in nature’ and suggested that ‘nature’ is viewed as an ‘other’ by developed western societies, something that they have the privilege to dip in and out of. The paper makes the link between disassociation from nature and development, suggesting that nature deficit is a crucial factor to consider in sustainable development. Work like this and other similar opinion pieces published recently show that criticisms leveled at nature deficit when the phrase was first coined are yet to be resolved.
So what can be done? Perhaps contrary to some literature I believe media consumption is an area that must have a prominent role in the coming years. In 2005 Louv placed heavy emphasis on ‘the lure of the screen’ being responsible for much of nature deficit disorder and in the process set up a ‘nature vs screens’ argument. This argument in my view has only become more erroneous in the ten years since Louv began it. It ignores the role screens play in modern life and how this is only increasing, but also sets up a rather uncompromising view of technology. Looking at the facts of what technology has done for the millennial generation, for me at least, it actually appears difficult to see it not having a role in reducing nature deficit issues. It is this generation, that has grown up with technology integrated into their lives, which has the greatest interest in nature and the largest desire to protect it according to recent surveys. The challenge is to translate this interest into positive action.
How as a society do we kick start this process? Some of the aspects identified by Louv are easily dealt with: restoring nature to people's lives through urban planning and outreach, perceptions of danger being assessed in more realistic terms and education incorporating more natural processes. However these immediate actions are only a beginning because at the heart of nature deficit disorder as an issue, is an attitude change. Currently our dominant way of thinking in the western world at least, conceptualises humans as outside of nature. To solve this, we need a holistic joined up approach that puts emphasis on the younger generation.
Youth involvement is key and as mentioned earlier I think engagement through media demonstrates that the interest is there. We are at a crossroads where organisations
such as National Geographic, The National Trust and WWF have over 40 million instagram followers between them and yet volunteering on conservation schemes is at a low among young people. It appears obvious that the challenge lies in linking these together for young people. Organisations such as Action for Conservation are essential to bridge the gap between interest and action. At AFC, education is married with career insights and direct placements working with organisations such as the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts - very obviously and physically linking up nature based activities with teenage life and concerns.
It appears that in the instant digital world which Louv criticised ten years ago the issue of nature deficit disorder is still present but more widely accepted by the majority. A more direct approach to reconnecting people with nature is emerging. AFC is part of this; combining technology with real-life opportunities, and guidance from young conservationists who bring their passion to new audiences. Technology is a powerful tool for conservation not a powerful enemy; we can use it to augment the important message that people are a part of nature and that social media, laptops and selfies are not automatically replacing it. If we recognise this, over the next ten years, we will be in a much stronger position to profoundly reconnect our modern lives with nature.
1. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Richard Louv, Algonquin Books, 2008.
3. Nature is a nice place to save but I wouldn’t want to live there: environmental education and the ecotourist gaze, Robert Fletcher, Environmental Education Research, Vol. 21, Iss. 3, 2015, accessed at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13504622.2014.993930