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Why The Young Are Not Leading The Fight Against Climate Change

November 29, 2012 5:03 p.m.


Richard Louv, author, The Nature Principle and The Last Child In The Woods.

Related Story: Why The Young Are Not Leading The Fight Against Climate Change


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: …The resolve of nations to find ways to mitigate climate change seems to have stalled. One reason could be the very people who should be agitating for solutions don't even know what the problem is because of their disconnect from the natural world. San Diegan Richard Louv, the author of nature's at principle, and child in the woods. . Welcome back to the program.

LOUV: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You've been focused for sometime on the nature deficit disorder that you've recognized in children's lives, this is now translating into a lack of understanding or even caring about what's happening to the world's environment?

LOUV: I think to a degree it is. Nature deficit disorder as wee talked about before is not a known medical diagnosis.

CAVANAUGH: I know, I know.

LOUV: But it's a handy way to talk about this disconnect that's been going on. For the first time in human history, young people are disconnected from the natural world. They may do some extreme sports outside, etc, but from the minute they grow up, some of them are told that -- they begin to associate nature with devastation and the apocalypse, etc. There's a phrase for this Antioch uses, which is ecophobia. They begin to associate it with fear because the their parents don't want them to go outside because there's strangers out there, nature becomes scary itself. And that plays right into the fear later as older children, again their parents tent to want them to stay inside, often. That kind of sentences these kids to associate nature with destruction and the increasing coverage of big weather events, of course, feeds into that. That's not producing the kind of ideas and commitment to the environment that we want if we're going to deal with climate change.

CAVANAUGH: I was going to ask you, the kids seem to be very involved in things like recycling and learning about endangered species, learning about climate change. But are you saying now that that way of learning about nature as the problems in nature, the fact that nature is a problem is actually removing kids more from a deep connection with the natural world?

LOUV: Yeah, and I'm not speaking against telling them the bad news, saying that if you disassociate nature from joy, there's not a lot of joy in grappling with these issues. There's recent study, not all of them, but millennial, young people in high school and college age have found that they care less about the health of the environment than their parents and their parents did. It's not -- whatever is happening is not working. Let me give you an example of this. I spend a lot of time as you know around the country because of these books, particularly nature principle, recently I've been talking at college campuses a lot. I talked to Columbia and DePaul, at both universities students took me out and wanted to talk to me. DePaul university, it was a group of young people in environmental studies who wanted to take me to lunch. One of them says, and the other ones are all nodding, I have no sense of relationship with the big environmental organizations. I've gone to some of their meetings. But 1 thing is everybody is old. And in truth, one of the biggest environmental organizations in the world, I won't name it, I don't want to embarrass them, the average age is 67, the average age of a new member is 64. I guess the new members haze the old ones.

LOUV: But there's one reason. A gen racial gap. The second reason, I'm 20 years old, all my life I've been told it's too late. That really struck me. She's been told one way or another that it's too late. Now, she's holding onto her idealism by a thread. And yes, there are a lot of students who are doing recycling, etc. But if we're really going to relegate this climate change to energy efficiency, that's not enough: Yes, it's important to have energy efficiency, but the argument I've been making is that particularly Americans, but many people around the world, if you ask them to come up with images of the far future, what's it going to look like, most of those images look a lot like Blade Runner, and Mad Max, and the hunger games, a postapocalyptic future in which nature has been stripped. If that's the dominant image that we're carrying around about the future even subconsciously with no balancing of a nature-rich future, we're not going to make it to sustainability. We're not even going to get close. &%F0

CAVANAUGH: In your latest article, you describe sharing a stage with David Suzuki, the Canadian naturalist. As he described his disengagement with public engagement in climate change, he made a statement about young people.

LOUV: He's interesting. I think KPBS ran his series a while back. Suzuki is the No. 1 environmentalist in Canada, and he is hardcore. He's very, very angry. He takes no prisoners. He was saying on that stage, he and I were on the stage having this conversation, he said we shouldn't be fighting these fights again that we thought we won 20 or 30 years ago. And he said 20 years ago, people came to me and said, David, you need to talk more about connecting the next generation to the natural world in their daily experience. And he said to them, no. We don't have enough time. And on the stage that he and I were on, he said that was one of the biggest mistakes he's ever committed in his life

CAVANAUGH: Remind us what you're talking about when you say children need to be connected with nature. How?

LOUV: Well, it's not just video learning or book learning or computer learning. It's getting hands wet and feet muddy. It's actually learning in nature about everything, not just about nature. It's about having joyful experiences in your become yard or in the trees at the end of the cul-de-sac or our park. It means being connected. And the nature principle is more about adults. The last child in the woods was more about kids. This is true for all of us. When you begin to look at the emerging science on this, there's no doubt that more engagement, personal, intimate engagement with nature in some cases dramatically improves our health, particularly our mental health, it impacts our ability to learn and be creative. The schools that are catching onto that are doing wonderful things and the kids are getting better test scores. This has to happen, not as some abstraction on a videotape or BLU-ray. It can't be just a media abstraction, and it can't be an academic exercise or just ringing our hands about the future. It has to be a joyful, intimate, experience where we live, work, learn, and play. It can't just be out in the Cuyamacas, it has to be in our neighborhoods, school, and homes.

CAVANAUGH: Right. You make a point that's seldom made, but I think it's quite interesting and important in that whenever kids are introduced to anything having to do with nature and the natural world these days, it always seems to be with the caveat, we're losing it! This is all disappearing, we'll never see another antelope, that kind of thing. So there's always this dark cloud hovering above everything that has to do with experiencing nature.

LOUV: And it's not just kids. I've talked to a lot of wildlife biologists who say they deal with this sense of grief and loss every day. And one wildlife biologist, a close friend of another one they know very well committed suicide because he was so depressed about this, so deeply disturbed by the disappearance. Every day he dealt with loss. The wildlife biologists, and this is in British Columbia, who now has gotten engage would with the children in nature movement and is really pushing that in Canada where it's really come alive said that when he read last child in the woods, when he began to think about this and get involved, he didn't know why, but it gave him hope. It dealt with that despair. It was kind of irrational that it would give him that much hope, but it did. And I think as people have gotten involved with this, they begin to see the glimmer of a different kind of civilization, different kind of life, different kinds of yards with native species. It can get very exciting. There's a whole set of jobs. I gave the keynote speech a few months ago at the first White House summit on environmental education right after they cut $35 million from the budget for environmental education. And we need a bigger boat. It's kind of like in Jaws. We need more people and a greater vision. I talk about particularly in the nature principle, and I hear this from those students that I talk to, etc, as of 2008, more people live in cities than in the world, than in the countryside, in the world. That's a huge moment in human history. That means one of two reasons. Either the quickning of this disengagement between humans and nature, or it means the beginning of a new kind of city, new kinds of workplaces that actually incorporate nature. And studies have shown that people get more productive in those kinds of workplaces. New kinds of homes. We can have a different and even better life, simplization, than we've got right now if we make it nature-rich. Cities should become engages of biodiversity, and they can.

CAVANAUGH: You also talk about the fact that the way the various environmental sciences are taught need to change too to become more observational. Students need to be able to observe nature rather than trying to form different kinds of organisms in the laboratory that are going to fight against oil spoils and so forth. There's that disconnect even among higher education students in the environmental studies.

LOUV: And in some Quay, that change in higher education is setting the standard for high school and grade school, and so forth. Paul Dayton, a very famous oceanographer, I quote him in last child in the woods, buttive talked to him since, and he is angry. He says the student who is come through Scripps, they don't know how to identify anything. He says this may be the last generation to really be able to identify marine species as they come into college. Even after they have been in college, the emphasis has been taken away from the observal sciences and placed on the laboratory where, and this is true for UCSD and other research environments, they can produce organisms or do approaches to biology that can be patented. It's no longer publish or perish. It's patent or perish. So there's a big economic interest in moving that direction. Of the traditional biology, the traditional observational sciences have taken a distant backseat.

CAVANAUGH: As you've identified, the nature deficit disorder has been going on for quite sometime. Is it too late to turn it around? What can we do to make sure that this connection is reestablished with young people and kids and grownups to the natural world?

LOUV: I think part of it is to begin to talk more about this alternative vision of the nature-rich world, not just a sustainable world. The great green designer William McDunna asked the question do you really want a sustainable marriage?

LOUV: Don't you want something better than that? Well, sustainable works for a lot of people. But when we begin to imagine this different world and be able to see it in our mind, Martin Luther King said any culture, any movement will fail if it cannot paint a picture of the world that people will want to go to. That has to be part of it. The students that I sat with, when we start to talk about that world, about their goal, all kinds of new jobs emerging to create that new civilization, they get very excited. A light comes on in their eyes. If they're only talking about energy efficiency, the same light doesn't come on. Yes, there's hope. The children in nature network is now registered I think it's 109 regional state campaigns, including one in San Diego, the children and nature collaborative. In North America, it's spreading across to Canada. There are family nature clubs spreading all over the country where multiple families get-together to get out. And family adventures in San Diego, or FAN, has a website you can find and sign up here. In September, the world Congress of the international union for the conservation of nature, the IUCN, they declared that the connection to nature for children should be considered a human right. That's progress.

CAVANAUGH: I have to stop it there. Thanks so much for coming in and speaking with us.

LOUV: Oh, thanks.