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The New Nature Movement Isn’t About Going Back to Nature, but Forward to a Nature-Rich Civilization

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

This column is adapted from an essay that originally appeared in the book, “Thirty-Year Plan: Thirty Writers on What We Need to Build a Better Future,” published by The Orion Society, 2012, in which writers imagine the future. These ideas are explored in greater detail in Richard Louv’s 2011 book,” The Nature Principle.

For many people, thinking about the future conjures up images from movies like Blade Runner, Mad Max, The Road: a post-apocalyptic dystopia stripped of nature and human kindness. We seem drawn to that flame, but it’s a dangerous fixation.

There are many reasons for the attraction – global threats to the environment, economic hard times, decades of disconnection between children and nature – but there’s a fundamental problem with it too. Martin Luther King. taught us that any movement — any culture — will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to.

Despite undeniable successes, environmentalism is in trouble: recent polls (many, not all) describe a public with diminishing regard for environmental concerns. What we need now is a new nature movement, one that includes but goes beyond the good practices of traditional environmentalism and sustainability, one that paints a compelling, inspiring portrait of a society that is better than the one we presently live in. Not just a survivable world, but a nature-rich world in which our children and grandchildren thrive.

Inchoate, self-organizing, this new nature movement is already beginning to emerge.

It revives old concepts in health and urban planning (Frederick Law Olmsted, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Muir come to mind) and adds new ones, based on recent research that shows the power of nearby nature and wilderness to improve our psychological and physical health, our cognitive functioning, and our economic and social well-being. Colorado University professor Louise Chawla describes the basis of the movement as “the idea that as humans we cannot only make our ecological footprints as light as possible, but we can actually leave places better than when we came to them, making them places of delight.”

Among the movement’s tenets, which I suggested in The Nature Principle: The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. Cities must become engines of biodiversity. Natural history is as important as human history to our regional and personal identities. Conservation is no longer enough; now we must “create” nature where we live, work, learn and play. Likewise, energy efficiency isn’t enough; now we must create human energy — in the form of better physical and psychological health, higher mental acuity and creativity — by truly greening our cities.

This movement isn’t about going back to nature, but forward to nature. Participants include traditional conservationists, as well as proponents and producers of alternative energy, who create the underpinning. Physicians (particularly pediatricians) who prescribe nature experience and green exercise to their patients. Ecopsychologists, wilderness therapy professionals, and other nature therapists. Park professionals who help families fulfill their “park prescriptions.” Public health professionals and urban designers who work to increase nearby nature.

Also: Citizen naturalists who are salvaging threatened natural habitats and creating new ones. New Agrarians: community gardeners and urban farmers (including immigrants practicing what has been called “refugee agriculture”); organic farmers and “vanguard ranchers” who restore as they harvest. Urban wildscapers replacing their suburban yards with native species (slowly creating what botanist Douglas Tallamy calls “a homegrown national park.” Nature-aware champions of walkable cities and active living. And deep green design professionals: biophilic architects, developers, urban planners, and therapeutic landscapers, who transform our homes, workplaces, suburbs, and inner-city neighborhoods – potentially whole cities and their transportation systems – into restorative regions that reconnect us to nature.

None of these ideas is truly new. For examples and precedent, we can look to earlier social movements, including those which promoted healthy cities and nature studies in the early 20th century, as well as those forwarding civil rights and feminism, and the current movement to connect children to nature. This recent worldwide movement, which the Children & Nature Movement is helping to build, can be seen as both a model for and a subset of a larger new nature movement.

In September 2012, the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution declaring that children have a human right to experience the natural world, an essential ingredient if nature is to protected from human excess — and a step toward seeking a similar declaration at the United Nations. At the same World Congress, leaders of national parks and protected areas throughout the world approved the “Jeju Declaration on National Parks and Protected Areas: Connecting People to Nature,” committing them to create a global campaign that recognizes the great contribution of these natural treasures to the health and resilience of people, communities and economies.

The children and nature movement has miles to go before it can declare anything approaching victory. But it has already made inroads in policy and, more importantly, has planted the seeds for self-replicating social change,, including at least 109 regional and state campaigns that have brought together businesspeople, conservationists, healthcare providers and others. These others include thousands of parents, teachers, law enforcement officials, librarians, artists, pediatricians, liberals and conservatives, anglers, hunters, and vegetarians. People who not only consume, but also restore nature. People who have found common cause. The children and nature movement, like the larger new nature movement, is surprisingly diverse. Recent immigrants, and inner-city youth, are among the most persuasive advocates for nearby nature and outdoor experience — once they get a chance to have such experiences.

Not all of the individuals and groups I have mentioned would identify themselves as environmentalists. They do not necessarily see themselves as part of one movement – yet. But consider the collective power if these forces came together to craft a positive vision of the future, a newer civilization based on a transformed human relationship with the natural world. We certainly don’t have to agree on everything to reach that goal. But we must agree that our species’ connection to nature is fundamental to our shared humanity — and to the future of Earth itself.
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Richard Louv
is author of “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network.

4 Comments

  1. There seems to be a very anti-nature movement making stealth headway into our natural places and parks. It is called mountain biking, and they are luring our children into this very nature-deficit off road vehicular sport. Mountain biking is akin to motorized dirt biking and ATVing — as damaging to our natural areas as one can inflict.

    Mountain bikers call themselves environmentally-friendly, but the growing and damaging evidence out of their excessive activities proves other-wise. Many conservationists and even some people in the nature movement are touting mountain biking as a healthy pursuit for children. It is as far from being “green” as one can get.

    If we wish to preserve our remaining natural areas from human excess, and instill respect and reverence of nature to our children — this is one inherently dangerous and destructive sport we need to contain and curtail. If you would not like to see motorized off-roaders ripping up our natural areas, why would you tout mountain biking? Same thing, without the motor, of course. But more damaging because so many people are remaining willfully blind to what mountain biking inflicts on our natural places. It is a very nature-deficit sport to introduce children to.

    Children need to experience nature, but not astride a mountain bike, ripping and shredding what is left of our natural areas and parks! We need to introduce them to passive use of our natural areas, not through consumptive mountain biking which is destroying our natural areas by 1000 cuts. If we cannot acknowledge these facts, we do so at our own peril, and at the peril of our children’s and grandchildren’s future.

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  2. I agree, the positive vision is so important. As the economic weight of our disconnect with nature increases, eg price of food/health/unemployment, awareness is growing of the value of growing your own food (for those with the time and/or health issues). Backyard lawns turned into vege gardens (even just a small plot) can be so much more productive, greening our living spaces rather than adding to the cost of fuel for mowing and lawn care. Nature responds when you take the time to listen and work in harmony with it. Traditional practices such as gardening by the moon phases are coming back into favour as the younger generations discover they are losing the knowledge their grandparents knew as second-nature. (This is based on the moon’s effect on water content, and does not mean planting at night).
    Let’s turn our roadside verges into vege plots that whole neighbourhoods can tend and share a greater sense of community. Rooftop gardens are also taking off, changing concrete roofs that radiates more heat into areas that purify the air, cool the building/cities, reduce/trap or filter water runnoff and create spaces of greenery for relaxation or food production. This is happening in Australia now. Everyone can do a little to add to a change for the better.

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  3. I agree and wanted to add my two cents.

    Another key participating group in the New Nature Movement worth mentioning is the storytellers, artists and musicians who spread the seeds of the movement to new communities and children through their songs, murals, stories, videos, etc. Case in point is DJ Cavem Moetivation who does videos rapping about growing organic food in the hood from a community garden.

    BTW, if you received a Pacha’s Pajamas CD and book at the Grassroots Gathering, I encourage you to share it with kids in your life, if not check it out yourself. Just last weekend, at Rue Mapp’s housewarming party, Kyle MacDonald told me his kids (6 and 9) were having an amazing experience with the music and story. Please give it a chance… For more info, see http://pachaspajamas.com.

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  4. As an early childhood educator I am deeply grateful for work of The New Nature Movement and impulses around the globe to reconnect children (our future) with the natural world.

    What a glorious and hopeful picture you paint of a diverse but nature connected humanity that is creating a future that is longing to be lived into. “Nature Rich Civilization”, Love it!

    I would like to bring to the attention of those in this movement the wonderful work of The Center for Education, Imagination and the Natural World. http://beholdnature.org./

    On their website under publications (http://beholdnature.org./publications.php) there are monographs from several of the “Inner Life of the Child in Nature” courses given by the Center. I have found them to be a heart warming and inspiring resource for my work. These monographs are free to download. They contain wonderful and inspirational stories and insights from educators, therapist, librarians, gardeners and many other “nature aware” companions confirming your idea that “We certainly don’t have to agree on everything to reach that goal (nature- rich civilization). But we must agree that our species’ connection to nature is fundamental to our shared humanity — and to the future of Earth itself.”

    Forward to Behold Nature.

    Reply

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