Connecting with nature to improve individual, societal health

Dec 14, 2019

Deficit is not often a word associated with nature, but it is what one author is calling the lack of nature in people’s lives in modern-day society. Without nature, society and the individuals within it face many disadvantages, which is why he’s advocating for a rediscovery of the natural world around us.

Journalist and author Richard Louv is the co-founder and chair emeritus of the non-profit Children and Nature Network, and his newest book is called “Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives - and Save Theirs.” He joined “Take Care” to talk about his work and how we can cure our nature deficit.

Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” to relay the negative effects a lack of nature can have on the lives of both children and adults.

“That really took off,” he said. “The phrase has entered several languages, much to my surprise, and there’s a really a movement out there to connect children, but also family and whole communities, to nature.”

Louv said that movement comes from hundreds of recent studies that have shown increased exposure to nature improves all aspects of life, from cognitive functioning and physical health to mental health and productivity. Specifically for children, Louv said he’s seen how what might be seen as attention-deficit disorder in some kids can actually be a need for nature.

“Sometimes, it’s true, but a lot of times, they need something else,” Louv said. “They’ve been cooped up in these cubicles that we call schoolrooms, and the minute many of these kids get outdoors, the teachers report … the trouble-maker becomes the leader. … I wonder how many leaders we’re wasting by keeping them outside all the time.”

Exactly why nature has these effects on people is still hotly debated, Louv said, with some experts arguing there is a biological connection with nature and others arguing it’s about using different parts of our brain to effectively recharge. Louv’s theory, though, is connected to the idea that humans have nearly 30 senses, and our environments are blocking out those senses.

“We’re creating learning environments for kids and working environments for ourselves in which we stare at a screen, and in order to concentrate on it, we quit paying attention, we quit using all those senses,” he said. “In fact, we purposely block most of them out. … That seems to me the very definition of being less alive.”

In Louv’s latest book, he focuses on the coexistence between animals and humans and how that can transform our lives as much as interaction with nature. He said he chose to focus on wild animals because there were very few studies that studied the benefits of interacting with them.

“While danger may be involved in some of these wild animal encounters, the payoff is extraordinary,” he said. “People really do report lightning, a sense of awe and wonder, and their senses come along.”

For “Our Wild Calling,” Louv interviewed many people, including theologians. He said that humans have talked about interacting with wildlife for hundreds of years, especially in ancient times. Ancestors would tell stories around the fire and act them out in great detail.

“They felt much more connected to something larger through other animals,” he said.

Louv experienced a similar feeling in a situation he described in his book. He was on a boat and thought he saw a couple vultures eating on land near him. When he moved closer, he realized they were eagles, and he and the animals stared at each other for a while. Louv said he was filled with an intense feeling that’s hard to describe.

“Whoever I say I am, I’m not,” he said. “Whoever I was in those moments is actually who I am. I don’t have the words to describe it. This is beyond human language.”

Louv said that others he interviewed described similar experiences, where they felt almost a sort of electricity rush through them after interacting with wildlife. But the animals don’t have to be wild to make an impact on our lives.

"Pay attention to the life around you. Pay attention even in the densest of urban neighborhoods. Pay attention to the life that's there, that's nonhuman, both plant and animal. But then, take action."

Interacting more with animals -- whether domesticated or wild -- can help decrease feelings of loneliness, which Louv called an epidemic of the modern age.

“As a species, we are desperate to not feel alone in the universe,” he said. “Why else would we look for bigfoot? … We’re desperate to feel this sense of connection with other life, and increasingly, we don’t get it.”

Unless that situation changes, Louv said that humans could become the loneliest species and lose their connection to other animals, which means we won’t protect them and the cycle will perpetuate.

To prevent these outcomes, Louv advocates for a transformation on how humans view their environment.

“The way we’re doing it now is not working out well,” he said. “We’re destroying the very thing that nurtures us, and I think that this is a new stage that environmentalism conservation needs to move into.”

A lot of environmentalism conservation talks about data and numbers, he said, as have other areas of study, which is having detrimental effects on the environmental movement as a whole.

“Traditional field studies and biological knowledge has been pushed aside for creating things in the lab that we can commercialize, so I think that unless we find our heart again, and our heart is connected to other life, then the environmental movement will die,” he said.

In “Our Wild Calling,” Louv discusses the “habitat of the heart” that needs to be nourished.

“I think there are two habitats,” he said. “There’s the physical habitat that we pay a lot of attention to and try to protect, as we should. But then, there’s this other habitat, the habitat of the heart, and if one of the two habitats goes, so does the other one.”

Combatting our nature deficit comes down to two words, Louv said: pay attention.

“Pay attention to the animal that walks by your window,” he said. “Pay attention to the life around you. Pay attention even in the densest of urban neighborhoods. Pay attention to the life that’s there that’s nonhuman, both plant and animal. But then, take action.”

Further awareness of the natural environment can inspire a care for our effect on it, which Louv said can be used to promote more outdoor activity in all sectors of life. Louv encourages others to make time to go outside, put more green spaces in schools and use cities as engines of nature diversity.

“In taking action, we actually cure ourselves of this nature-deficit disorder, which hurts us, which hurts our psychological health, our physical health and, I think, also our spiritual health,” he said.