Meet the Man Who Named Our Growing Disconnect With Nature

The award-winning journalist, commentator, and activist who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to refer to people, especially children, spending less time outdoors, talks about the urgent problem of human disconnection from the natural world, and how COVID-19 has created an opportunity for a greener future.

Richard Louv

It took a pandemic to remind us that the absence of nature coupled with an overreliance on technology and screens delivers real emotional, physical, and spiritual deficiencies in our lives. This prompted many to act on that realization. During the early months of the pandemic, nearly 26% of people that visited their local natural areas rarely or never visited them prior to COVID-19, 69% of people increased their visits to natural areas and urban forests, and 80.6% of people felt increased importance of these areas, and access to them. In fact, people ranked mental wellbeing, exercise, nature’s beauty, sense of identity, and spirituality as the most important values during the COVID-19 restrictions.

And they acted on those values. Outdoor recreational activity has significantly increased. A study published by the University of Vermont found walking, gardening, relaxing alone, watching wildlife, relaxing with others, and hiking to be the most significant increases in outdoor activity.

But this green epiphany has been a long time coming. Since the 1950s, people have noted a growing disconnect from the natural world. Unlike previous generations, our dependence on technology, urbanization, industrialization, and transportation fails to provide opportunities to interact and engage with the natural world. Because of this, people don’t develop a caring, loving relationship with the outdoors. Veteran journalist and author Richard Louv first identified this problem in 2005 in his landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to reflect the health and societal costs of children spending less time outdoors, and he received the Audubon Medal for identifying this issue.

Louv’s work is informed by ecopsychology, which combines ecology and psychology to examine humans' relationship with nature. This field of study continues to document how a strong connection with nature develops people’s awareness of their impact on the planet. It also plays a role in reducing anxiety, depression, and aggression while boosting mood, innovation, and self-esteem, says Dennis Kiley, the founder and president of the EcoPsychology Initiative, a team that provides ecopsychological services for individuals and organizations. And Kiley feels positive about our collective, post-pandemic future. “There’s some extraordinary opportunities for some really meaningful changes to happen in terms of people's relationships with themselves and each other and our planet,” he says.

That positivity mirrors the spirit of Louv’s push to create the New Nature Movement, one that allows future generations to thrive in a nature-rich world and inspired the non-profit Children & Nature Network, which he co-founded in 2006 and for which he serves as chair emeritus. Over the years, the Children & Nature Network website has compiled a research library with summaries of over 1,000 studies, reports, and publications available for viewing or downloading, at no charge.

As the world continues to open up, social distancing diminishes, and people begin to be lured away from the natural escapes that buoyed them during the pandemic, Upstate Unearthed spoke to Louv to learn more about nature-deficit disorder, the outdoors ability to soothe our minds and bodies, and his vision for a new kind of city.

Upstate Unearthed: You coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” in your book Last Child in the Woods. What does that mean, and why is it important?

Richard Louv: “Nature-deficit disorder,” as I defined it in Last Child in the Woods, is not a medical diagnosis, but a useful term — a metaphor — to describe what many of us believe are the human costs of alienation from nature, as suggested by recent research. Among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies. Disconnection from nature is not the only reason for these health trends, but we believe it is part of the cause.

U.U.: How can people, especially city dwellers, reconnect with nature?

R.L.: Ideally, natural spaces — and potentially, cities — should serve as incubators of biodiversity, a sanctuary to wildlife and native plants, and be restorative to human health and wellbeing. But any green space will help to foster creativity and provide some benefit to mental and physical wellbeing. Connection to nature should be an everyday occurrence, and if we design our cities to work in harmony with nature and biodiversity this will be a commonplace pattern.

U.U.: How does having more contact with nature improve a person's life?

R.L.: The research indicates that experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, and the ability to learn and create, for children and adults. The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves, reduce the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, calm them, and help them focus. Schools with natural play spaces and nature learning areas appear to help children do better academically and socially. There are some indications that natural play spaces can reduce bullying.

I believe that positive access to nature, including in cities, should be considered a human right, especially for children.

Nature experience can also be a buffer to child obesity and overweight, and offers other psychological and physical health benefits. And nature experience helps grow conservation values, now and in the future. It’s hard to truly value nature unless you learn to love it in person. Time spent in nature is obviously not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for kids and adults who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control.

There are many other benefits, and more supportive research comes out almost weekly. The Children & Nature Network website has compiled a research library with summaries of over 1,000 studies, reports and publications available for viewing or downloading, at no charge.

U.U.: What do you think is the most significant driving force behind the rise of nature deficit disorder in the past few decades?

R.L.: Human beings have been moving more of their activities indoors since the invention of agriculture and, later, the Industrial Revolution, and through a continuing increase in urbanization. Social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated that change — not only in cities but in rural areas as well. Among them: Poor design in neighborhoods, homes, schools, workplaces; media-amplified fear of strangers, and real dangers in some neighborhoods, including traffic and toxins; and fear of lawyers. In a litigious society, families, schools, communities play it safe, creating “risk-free” environments that create greater risks later.

Also, the “criminalization” of natural play through social attitudes, community covenants and regulations, and good intentions. Much of society no longer sees time spent in the natural world and independent, imaginary play as “enrichment.” Technology now dominates almost every aspect of our lives. Technology is not, in itself, the enemy. But our lack of balance is lethal. However, I should add that our culture may be changing. We’re seeing new appreciation for these issues among parents, educators, pediatricians, mayors, and others.

U.U.: How do you think the coronavirus pandemic has impacted people’s connection with nature and this growing epidemic of inactivity?

R.L.: Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection — and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families, and communities to nature. In July, I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times about our need for other animals, domestic and wild, during a time of greater social distancing, and a parallel epidemic of human loneliness that began before the pandemic — one that I believe is rooted in even deeper isolation, our species’ loneliness. With the current health crisis, the hunger for nature connection may be at an all-time high, and it’s building.

When home restriction lets up, the demand for outdoor connection will likely be far greater than before the pandemic. Will there be capacity to meet that demand? All of us need to do what we can to help the programs that provide direct experience to nature, particularly the children and families that otherwise would not have that connection. One troubling pandemic trend appears to be that while millennials and other adults are spending more time in nature, children may be going outdoors even less than before the pandemic began.

U.U.: Do you think the coronavirus pandemic has created an opportunity for a greener future?

R.L.: Conservation is no longer enough. Now we need to create nature — restore it in order to protect the biodiversity that all creatures need, humans included. We can start in our backyards by replacing lawns with flowers and native plants that will bring back sustainable migration routes for birds and butterflies. This is an optimistic way of looking at the future. It’s not just about sustainability, which most people interpret as energy efficiency. It’s about creating a nature-rich city.

If we are going to have meaningful experiences with nature, we are going to have to rethink nature within cities. The coronavirus is forcing more thought to this. For example, it’s encouraging more thinking about natural schoolyards as places for children to learn and play. Much is already known about the positive impact of natural learning environments — outdoors — on cognitive functioning.

Now, during the pandemic, these environments are also gaining notice as safer for children and teachers because outdoor classrooms offer more possibility for social distancing and circulating air than closed classrooms. We also know that access to nature is healing in itself for those and other reasons. We yearn for contact with plants and animals — especially now. And we know that parks and other natural places are not available equitably. We now know how important that access is for the public. For this and other reasons, I believe that positive access to nature, including in cities, should be considered a human right, especially for children.

We all can create new natural habitats in and around our homes, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, cities and suburbs so that, even in inner cities, our children grow up in nature — not with it, but in it. We must imagine a future in which our lives are as immersed in nature every day as much as they are in technology, and this includes a new kind of city that incorporates nature into every building and on every block, which serves to restore residents psychologically, physically, even spiritually. This isn’t about getting back to nature. It’s about going forward to nature.

Land Acknowledgement

Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.