‘It’s not time to go back to nature, but to go forwards to nature’

Without knowing what a more fulfilling relationship with the natural world could look like, we won’t be able to reach it, writes Richard Louv. It’s time for a new, positive ecological vision

Over the past decade, speaking to and with thousands of people from all walks of life, I’ve come to believe that our culture is trapped in a dystopian trance. I believe we must have the courage to be idealistic once again.

In 2013, a group of environmental studies students at a US university asked me out for coffee. During our discussion, a young woman leaned across the table and said: “I’m 20 years old, and all my life I’ve been told it’s too late.”

The other students nodded. I had heard this before and realised that she was right. For years, our culture has struggled with two addictions: oil and despair. It’s clear by now that we can’t kick one of those habits without kicking the other. Yet, for many people, perhaps most of us, thinking about the future conjures up grim images from Mad Max or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: a post-apocalyptic dystopia stripped of nature.

Americans did not fall into this trance overnight. It emerged over several decades, fuelled by entertainment and news media that profited from a negative news bias and fear of the ‘other’. In the US, people’s fear of stranger danger – from terrorists to kidnappers – has skyrocketed along with the 24-hour news cycle.

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Martin Luther King Jr taught us that any movement will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to. Our cultural problem isn’t the presence of dystopian images or post-apocalyptic storylines, but the virtual absence of images of a good, decent, beautiful future.

I grew up in Missouri and Kansas, and spent many hours in the woods at the edge of our housing development with my dog. I built treehouses, dug underground forts and collected snakes and turtles. My boys didn’t have the kind of freedom I had as a boy, but my wife and I consciously made sure they had nature in their lives, and often took them fishing, hiking and occasionally camping.

It’s not time to go back to nature, but to go forwards to nature. The more hi-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. I’m not against technology in education, or in our lives, but we do need balance. Time spent in the natural world, whether nearby urban nature or wilderness, provides that.

The ultimate multitasking challenge is to live simultaneously in the digital and the physical worlds, using computers to maximise our powers to process intellectual data, and natural environments to ignite all of our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and to feel. In this way, we would combine the resurfaced ‘primitive’ powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers. Today, people who work and learn in a dominating digital environment expend enormous energy blocking out many of the human senses – including ones we don’t even know we have – in order to focus narrowly on the screen in front of our eyes. That’s the very definition of being less alive. What parent wants their child to be less alive? Who among us wants to be less alive?

Our cultural problem isn’t the presence of post-apocalyptic storylines, but the virtual absence of images of a good, decent, beautiful future

I’ve found that smart religious or spiritual people, across boundaries, intuitively understand that all spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder. For children, nature is one of the first windows into wonder. And for many children, that window is in danger of closing. The human spirit is inseparable from the natural world. As the eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote: “A degraded habitat will produce degraded humans.”

But we’re seeing some change. In the US there is progress among state legislatures, schools and businesses, civic organisations and government agencies. Family nature clubs are proliferating. Regional campaigns are bringing people from across political, religious and economic divides, to connect children to nature. I’m inspired by the enthusiastic young people I’ve met recently and remain hopeful that true cultural change is on the way.

The World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has passed a resolution titled The Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment. This connection is, indeed, a human right. And the acknowledgement of that is progress.

Image: Isaac Hernández Herrero

Richard Louv is an author as well as co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. His most recent book is Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life. He is working on his tenth, about the evolving relationship between humans and other animals.

Main image: Isaac Hernández Herrero
Byline image: Eric B. Dynowski


This article is featured in issue 90 of Positive News magazine. Become a subscriber member to receive Positive News magazine delivered to your door, plus you’ll get access to exclusive member benefits.