A NEW GENERATION OF ENVIRONMENTALISTS: Fighting global warming by reconnecting people to nature

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 ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

Young people care about the future, and many are leaders in the fight against global warming. Organizations such as Energy Action Coalition have galvanized thousands of students in an impressive effort to build what it calls “the youth clean energy and climate movement.” The success of future environmentalism also depends on connecting more people personally to the natural world. Especially children.

This is why C&NN’s youthful and diverse Natural Leaders are encouraging people of all ages to work for energy efficiency, to protect wilderness and urban nature, to connect other young people and their families to nature to promote health, well-being, and the ability to learn and be creative; and to bring more nature into neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.

A few months ago, I shared a stage with David Suzuki at a public event in Toronto, and the topic of climate change came up. Known around the world, Suzuki is a Canadian icon who is the longtime host of the television series “The Nature of Things,” and a fierce warrior for environmental causes. The focus of our discussion was the future relationship between humans and the natural world.

Suzuki talked about his deep disappointment that the conservation battles thought to have been won two decades ago are now back up for grabs, even as the polar icecaps melt faster than predicted. Then he said something remarkable. Twenty years ago, people came to him and said he should be doing much more to connect children to nature. No, we don’t have time for that, he told them. And that, he said on the stage, was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

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Today he is deeply committed to the work that folks around the world are doing to connect future generations to the natural world. He’s not alone in this thinking.

Consider a piece that ran last week (Nov. 19, 2012) in The Guardian, a British national daily, which was then reprinted in other major newspapers, including three in Australia. Columnist George Monbiot decried the “remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature — which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world,” and argued that one collapse hastens the other.

One can question the premise that young people are required to be the primary leaders against global warming. What about the rest of us? It’s our job, too. Nonetheless, many young people are working hard to undo the damage of earlier generations, not only to the environment but to the climate within the human heart. They, and many older people, too, are working to reduce the barriers of fear, poor urban design, a blind faith in technology, lack of access to nearby nature, defunding of environmental education programs, the canceling of field trips, the inequality of park distribution, and an over-structuring of everyday life .

The nature deficit in people’s formative years hasn’t made the fight for nature any easier. Researchers report the people who identify themselves as conservationists almost always experienced joy and wonder in the natural world when they were children, which raises this question: What happens if the chance for that personal experience radically fades in the future?

To paraphrase the singer Joni Mitchell, we won’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone — especially if we never knew it existed in the first place.

Paul Dayton is professor of oceanography in the Scripps Marine Life Research Group at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and is famous for his seminal studies of the sustainability of the living benthic (sea bottom) communities in the Antarctic, now threatened by human actions. I interviewed him at length while researching “Last Child in the Woods.”

He expressed fury over his students’ nature deficit, and said that higher education is aiding and abetting that disconnection. Observational science is devalued. Research unversities have dramatically reduced the  teaching of natural history, instead favoring the study of lab-created organisms that can be patented for profit.

“In a few years there will be nobody left to identify several major groups of marine organisms. I wish I were exaggerating,” Dayton said. “A guy in Catalina sent me photos of a snail he found. The snail is moving north. It’s not supposed to be where the guy found it. Something is going on with this snail or with its environment.” Global warming? Maybe. “But if you don’t know it’s an invasive species, then you detect no change.” In “The Nature Principle,” I called this phenomenon “place blindness,” which might also be called species blindness. To protect anything, you first have to love it. To love anything, you first must get to know it.

Dayton hopes that greater public knowledge about the generational nature gap will encourage politicians to “start demanding that universities teach the fundamentals of biology and explicitly define these fundamentals to include real natural history.”

Monbiot expressed a similar view. “The fact that at least half the published articles on ash dieback (a disease threatening ash trees in Britain) have been illustrated with photos of beeches, sycamores or oaks seems to me to be highly suggestive,” he wrote. Meanwhile, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, aimed at 7-year-olds, has dropped words such as: “magpie,” “vine,” and “beaver” from its lexicon. Among the newly added words: “mp3 player,” “voicemail,” “blog,” and “chatroom.” Young people didn’t do this to other young people; an older generation did.

An inability to recognize the natural world around us is just one reason why our major environmental challenges and our daily experiences in nature are inalterably related, and why an increasing number of scientists and organizations are taking action. As of 2008, more people in the world live in cities than in the countryside — inviting either more human alienation from nature, or an opportunity to create new kinds of nature-rich cities, ones that become incubators of biodiversity and human health. That’s a huge, hopeful challenge for future urban planners, architects and policy makers — and other careers, for which we do not yet have names, that connect people to the natural world.

Our resilience as a species will depend on our ability to move faster on both fronts: global warming and the human disconnection from nature. It will also rely on our ability to think larger, to imagine something beyond sustainability — a nature rich world.

This is why David Suzuki in Canada, and David Attenborough in the UK, who is perhaps best known for his BBC “Life on Earth” series, are now devoting much of their time to healing the broken bond between humans of all ages and the natural world. This is why Britain’s National Trust has launched a major campaign to connect people to nature, thus joining emerging regional and national efforts around the world that have been initiated by parents, pediatricians, educators, students and others.

This is part of the reason why, in some national public opinion polls, including a recent one by the Nature Conservancy, the disconnection between children and nature ranks alongside and sometimes higher than climate change as a top environmental issue.

The issue of nature-deficit disorder can bring people together across political, religious and generational lines. We can disagree about the causes of climate change, but agree that pollution and our destruction of natural habitat is radically reducing biodiversity and harming our health. We can agree that our children’s nature deficit, and our own, can drain life and spirit from the human experience. It’s already happening. We can build on that.

And this is also why, in September, the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) cited “adverse consequences for both healthy child development (‘nature deficit disorder’) as well as responsible stewardship for nature and the environment in the future,” and then passed a resolution titled “The Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment.” This is, indeed, a human right.

A few years ago, Paul Dayton lamented the fading of our birthright, not only our knowledge of but also our joy in the natural world. He said, “Nobody even knows that this wisdom about our world has been driven from our students.”

Now they know. And people of all ages, whether they received that wisdom when they were young or are building it now, are taking action. For this issue, as well as that of global warming, the climate has changed.


Richard Louv 
is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorderfrom which some of this essay is adapted.



More information.

Energy Action Coalition

C&NN’s Natural Leaders

From Gloom to Gladness: The Future of Environmentalism, The Toronto Star 

 Save Children’s Relationship With the Outdoors, National Trust News

David Suzuki Foundation


  1. I love your work. Sorry for the promotion – but check this out if you get time. Over 1200 kids have posted eco-projects they have done . It is inspiring to read their comments. We have to give kids the sense they can make a difference and that they have the ability to influence things for better. Without a connection to nature that will be so much harder. Keep up your awesomeness 🙂 Melissa (AlphaMonkey)

  2. Jessica Groenendijk

    Thank you, Richard, for reminding us that we have reason, and a need, for hope.

  3. I know a lot of children in their early teens who completely reject climate change alarmism. They accept that the climate changes but do not accept that it is anthropogenic. You might think that they have been indoctrinated perhaps at school, but you’d be wrong. All of them go to liberal public schools which have been showing “An Inconvenient Truth” over and over with no opposing films or opinions, the teachers openly blame humans for climate change and they ridicule any opposing views from their students. It is presented as a threat, designed to scare them out of their wits and as a result most of them reject it all. I have been an environmentalist since 1970, and I have never seen anything like this.

    I have been saying for years that AGW alarmism will kill the environmental movement in the end, and now I’m seeing how. There is a whole new generation of kids who will not fill the ranks of the green movement in the future. They reject environmentalism. They reject it partially because it’s rammed down their throats everyday in school and in the media. They reject it because they are fed up with being intentionally threatened and terrified about it. They reject it because they believe it is an adults’ problem, something for old people to worry about (and old is not cool).

    This is a disaster in the making.

  4. @Klem People don’t respond appropriately to anything that sounds too scary; it’s the reason why sex education campaigns focus on chlamydia instead of HIV. In many ways the environmental movement might do well to focus upon energy efficiency and a reduction in the use of resources due to the growing scarcity and expense of fuel, rather than upon the much scarier prospect of a dystopian future where we’re all running terrified from enormous weather events. Telling children that the world is going to die and that there’s nothing they can do about it is counter productive, possibly even promoting the opposite behaviour to that which is required.

  5. Klem, that is a daunting observation and there is much truth in the part about teens rebelling against ideas that are forcefully fed to them. However, my main takeaway from Louv’s article was this point: “To protect anything, you first have to love it. To love anything, you first must get to know it.” If we nurture children from a very young age (long before they hit the teen years) and let them more fully experience and explore nature, then that is more than half the battle. I don’t have the answer for what to do about the problem of youth who have made it out of their early childhood years without having been encouraged to explore and appreciate nature, but just as in learning a foreign language, the earlier we can start the process, the better the chances it will stick.

    Richard, you continue to inspire. Thank you.

  6. Dear Richard,

    More I read your work more I get inspired and wanting to speed up my work here in Sri Lanka. Our children are still connected with nature but living in semi urban environment I see how fast they go away from natural environment. Therefore I really want to apply your work here in Sri Lanka. Please assist me. Its very nice to meet Jeff Williamson who encouraged me immensely and sorry I could not meet you but very nice to get connected virtually. I want to conduct all your CN&N work here and I am ready now. Keep up all inspiring work for us to follow and show our people that world is going back to reconnect with nature. Good luck!

  7. My school is to transition to a STEM school next year in a desperate attempt to try anything to get our test scores up. It’s all ‘they’ care about, test scores. You should come to our school, contact our Board and/or principal and bring Dave with you and talk about the values of this great move and how much it can make a difference in the lives of so many kids and their education and not just on test scores. We would love to have your input on this. On a sad note…much of the CA native habitat garden i created and maintained for over a decade was mowed down by a well meaning parent group, at the direction of the district. It was overgrown and shabby looking but many mature, large CA natives were torn out. How ironic the garden gets a mow down right before we could use it as a school for its educational value. The value of this outdoor laboratory and wildlife habitat is seen by no one but me…and now that we are transitioning to a STEM school where we could use it, most of it is gone.

  8. This is a great article. Thank you! I shared the opening paragraph on my blog ( with a link to the article on your website. I hope that is okay. If not, please let me know. Thank you for the great work you are doing!


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