After decades of reporting on the connection between family, community and nature, one might expect Richard Louv to be a pessimist. After all, the news of the day about humans and nature isn’t always the cheeriest. But the famed author and journalist radiated optimism during a late-October interview in Seattle, just before taking off on […]
After decades of reporting on the connection between family, community and nature, one might expect Richard Louv to be a pessimist. After all, the news of the day about humans and nature isn’t always the cheeriest. But the famed author and journalist radiated optimism during a late-October interview in Seattle, just before taking off on a hike with Sally Jewell, former Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO. His message? As long as we can create a vision of a brighter future, we have something to work toward.
In fact, he believes that this message has the power to bring people together across the political divide. “People who don’t normally want to be in the same room will come into the same room to talk about making sure the next generation has the chance to experience nature,” he said. “And I can’t think of another issue in our country right now that will have such an impact to bring them to the same room.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No future is guaranteed to happen. One thing is for sure: [a greener future] will not happen unless we can see it in our mind’s eye, unless we can imagine it. If we get that post-apocalyptic future that we seem to desire, it will mainly be because of a failure of imagination and because despair is addictive.
If you go to the Children & Nature Network website, you’ll see all kinds of hopeful things. It aggregates and links to stories and media coverage. There’s a huge increase in the number of nature preschools. It’s gone from 60 to 820 studies we have abstracts for, in about a decade. They’re coming in at 20 a month. All of them about different permutations of this question, but they all point in the same direction. Finally we’re seeing—almost overnight—a growing body of research on the impact of the natural world on health and cognition. That’s been a huge change, because before about 15 years ago, this was virtually unstudied.
In the books that I’ve written about this, I’ve paid more and more attention to equity. Over time, it’s become clear that we can’t allow [the connection between humans and nature] to be seen as an issue just for people who look like me. Too often, people who look like me march into a neighborhood where people who don’t look like [me live] and tell them how to connect with nature.
What I talk about in The Nature Principle is what I call natural cultural capacity. Every culture brings different ways of connecting to nature. We can’t make the assumption that just because people don’t look like us, they don’t have a commitment to nature. We have to broaden our definition of what nature is and we have to broaden our definition of how we can connect with it and what we can learn from people who don’t look like us, both ways.
There should be a public health policy that everyone—no matter what they look like or where they’re from, no matter what set of abilities they have—has a human right to a connection to the natural world.
There is an intersection of loneliness and despair. Sometimes, when people become violent in groups, that’s out of loneliness and despair. But sometimes people with loneliness and despair band together in a different way, which is to push back against the despair, not through violence and destruction, but through creation. That’s the decision point we’re at right now.
Sustainability is a word interpreted by many Americans as energy efficiency. That’s a technical definition of the future, which is what we need to do. If it stops there, we won’t even get to that. We have to have a higher bar.
When I talk to people, we shift the conversation from sustainability and energy efficiency to what would a city look like if it became an engine of biodiversity, not just the enemy of biodiversity? What would it look like if all of our institutions redesigned themselves in terms of weaving nature into our lives every day and every night, as much as we spend time with technology? What images come to mind when you imagine that future? Their faces change, their eyes change. They seem to come more alive. They want to do that. They want to wake up tomorrow morning and start working with other people to create that future. And you can’t do it alone. The loneliness you may feel changes into something much better.
This doesn’t mean for a second as journalists we should stop reporting on the impacts of climate change, and all of the forms of pollutants and toxins and the destruction of the environment. It does mean that we have to have an alternative, and that it’s not enough to talk only about the end of things and the threat of things. We have to talk about that, but then imagine a future that is far better than the post-apocalyptic, dystopian trance that we seem to prefer to be in now.
To get involved to the extent they can. To find out about the new nature movement, which includes traditional environmentalism and sustainability, but also goes beyond that, into health and cognition and what our schools can be like. To take their kids outside. To let their kids take them outside, and to encourage that. To become far more conscious about the life around us, to the light between beings. And to connect with other human beings.
Martin Luther King said any culture will fail if it can’t paint a picture of a future that people will want to go to. We have to begin to imagine that future. That undergirds almost everything else.