When Annelies Henstra, a Dutch human rights attorney, talks about the right of children to a meaningful connection to the natural world, she calls it the “forgotten human right.” Now, at least for some, it is remembered.
In September, the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meeting in Jeju, South Korea, passed a resolution declaring that children have a human right to experience the natural world. Henstra, and Cheryl Charles, who is president of the Children & Nature Network, and others made the case to the Congress — attended by more than 10,000 people representing the governments of 150 nations and more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations.
The resolution, “the Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment,”calls on IUCN’s membership to promote the inclusion of this right within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The resolution recognizes “concern about the increasing disconnection of people and especially children from nature, and the adverse consequences for both healthy child development (‘nature deficit disorder’) as well as responsible stewardship for nature and the environment in the future.” And it recognizes that:
“…children, since they are an inalienable part of nature, not only have the right to a healthy environment, but also to a connection with nature and to the gifts of nature for their physical and psychological health and ability to learn and create, and that until they have these rights they will not bear responsibility for nature and the environment…”
This is an important moment for anyone concerned about the future relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
In the March 2009 issue of Orion Magazine, and then in a more detailed chapter in The Nature Principle, I sketched out a case for that right, for children and for adults, not as legal argument, but as moral stance: Do we really need to add more rights to our catalog of entitlements? The answer to this question is yes, if we can agree that the right at issue is fundamental to our humanity.
In recent years, science has shed more light on the measurably impressive benefits of experience in the natural world to human health and cognition. Our understanding of this right emerges not only from what science can prove, but also from the spiritual necessity it cannot fully reveal. I emphasized that this birthright can only be realized if we accept responsibility for the preservation and care of the natural world. Most people will do that only if they come to love nature through personal experience.
With seeds formed through millennia of human experience, the new codification of this idea has taken root in the children and nature movement.
As early as 1997, Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and one of the world’s leading experts on natural play spaces, called for such a children’s right to be established. In 2007, California adopted the first statewide children’s outdoor bill of rights, followed by similar symbolic statements in many other states. Cities and regions around the country have embraced similar declarations.
Now the concept is igniting internationally.
As I reported in an earlier column, Henstra, with Thomas van Slobbe, one of the Netherlands’s most prominent conservationists and director of the wAarde Foundation, have launched The Child’s Right to Nature Initiative. Their goal is to enshrine the right to nature in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) or other relevant U.N. documents.
In November 2010, Tony King, head of policy for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, wrote in an editorial for the British newspaper The Guardian, “When people talk of human rights in the context of nature conservation, they often mean protecting the rights of people in the non-industrial world to make use of the obvious things nature provides, such as firewood, food and traditional remedies.” But natural habitat offers much more than that. King cited the “growing and compelling body of evidence that regular and ready access to a wildlife-rich environment is essential for children’s health and wellbeing.”
As a result, he added, governments can and should articulate that “every child and young person has the right to grow up and live in a high-quality, wildlife-rich environment with ready access to the physical and mental health benefits, developmental advantages and play opportunities it affords. He called his position a hybrid moral/utilitarian one. “There is a government focus of preventative spend[ing]… I am working to raise the importance of environmental and biodiversity investment in this context.”
In addition to approving the children’s-right-to-nature resolution, the IUCN went two further steps.
It adopted the “Jeju Declaration on National Parks and Protected Areas: Connecting People to Nature,” a commitment to create a global campaign that recognizes the great contribution of these natural treasures to the health and resilience of people, communities and economies. And the IUCN and the Children & Nature Network jointly released the landmark report, “Children and Nature Worldwide Summary of Research” to stimulate action worldwide.
All of this lays the foundation for a worldwide discussion, not about legality but about what is right, and about what is next. Inspired by new scientific research but also by a renewed moral sensibility, people are already taking action.
Families are exploring new ways to experience nature or reviving traditional ways. Conservation and community groups are sponsoring programs to connect people to nature. Educators are creating outdoor classrooms. Public health officials and pediatricians are beginning to prescribe green exercise at local parks. Pioneering local governments are encouraging community gardens, urban farms and the true greening of inner-cities and suburbs.
This new nature movement is powered by a shared and sometimes subconscious belief that our everyday connection with and protection of the rest of nature is fundamental to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This human right is not lost. It is remembered.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age, from which some of this essay is adapted, and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.