Monday, January 12, 2009

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition, it is a term Louv has coined to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. This book brings together research that shows how direct exposure to the natural world is essential for healthy childhood development.

I grew up on a farm adjacent to a lake and spent a lot of time outdoors, exploring, observing birds, plants and insects and just sitting. I'm very lucky. According to Louv, I can thank these experiences for being the confident, well-adjusted, creative adult that I am today. I am a self-taught naturalist, always keenly interested in the life forms around us. When I was 10, I was given a book of Alberta wildflowers and I was determined to find every one of them outdoors. Native Alberta plant species remain a passion for me and can be found in my garden.

But natural history is apparently out of favour in the ivory towers. Louv quotes experts claiming that biology undergraduates at many universities are not taught classic botany or zoology. The focus on theoretical population biology and molecular biology results in many first-year graduate students having little or no knowledge of major phyla or of the life history biology of the very organisms they are studying. This is deeply troubling at a time when we need ecological literacy more than ever.

Other alarming news includes the child obesity statistics from the U.S. and the increasing rate at which American children -- including preschoolers! -- are prescribed antidepressants. Louv writes about the barriers that prevent parents from allowing their children to enjoy unstructured outdoor activities. He admits that fear of strangers kept his own children indoors more often than he would have liked. He advises that parents give their children cellphones for peace of mind. (Hmmm. I'm not convinced, but then, I'm not a parent.) Litigation in the case of injury is also apparently a great fear. Louv's solution is for landowners to increase their liability coverage to 1 million dollars. (Another hmmm.)

There is much in the way of good news here. Trends like green urbanism, livable communities, a neo-agriculture movement. We don't have enough space on this planet for everyone to grow up on a farm, but it is entirely possible to live in an urban environment with nature in proximity. And we will be happier and healthier citizens.

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