“If we're not careful, environmentalists will carry nature in their briefcases and not in their hearts.”

“If we're not careful, environmentalists will carry nature in their briefcases and not in their hearts.”

“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

 

On hot summer evenings, many adults can relate to feeling nostalgia for summertime as a child: playing on a balcony filled with potted tomatoes, catching whiskered catfish from a muddy creek, or climbing trees to find getting up is easier than getting back down again. Through outdoor exploration we discover new things about nature, each other, and ourselves. Years later the memories triggered by the electric buzz of cicadas can stir up poignant feelings.

There are many people devoted to ensuring that children today have these same types of transformative experiences. Earlier this year, the WPF-funded Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE) hosted renowned author and journalist Richard Louv at a conference, who is credited for helping to inspire an international movement to reintroduce children to nature. Richard’s remarks struck a chord with AWE, which consists of 23 environmental centers that provide outdoor education and experiential learning to people of all ages in the Delaware River watershed, to create a sense of connection between people and the water and inspire them to protect it.

Richard has spent his career advocating for the importance of nature to our everyday lives, and his list of published work includes well-known books such as Last Child in the Woods and Vitamin N.

I had the chance to sit down with Richard along the picturesque Delaware River in Lambertville, NJ, to discuss the opportunities and challenges that many environmental organizations face with connecting children to nature in the 21st century.

 

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Genevieve Leet: Richard, it’s been a great joy to get to know you over the last couple of days. You've got a great perspective on the nexus of relationships between health, the environment, and the human heart. My first question for you is about technology. I found that in popular culture, technology is often idolized, but in the environmental movement it tends to be more vilified. What are your thoughts on how technology relates to environmental education? 

Richard Louv: It's an equation: the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. It's a balancing agent. Studies show that the very parts of the brain that get burnt out when we are spending too much time in front of screens are the same parts of the brain that are relieved of stress and really revived by time spent paying a different kind of attention – and that kind of attention often happens outdoors. So nature is a healing agent. 

GL: What can the environmental education movement here in the U.S. do to engage with the cultural capacity, treasures, and perspectives of diverse communities?

RL: We need to know a lot more about how different cultures connect [with nature], and what immigrant groups bring to the United States. So often we are talking about people from other cultures or other races as if they have some kind of deficit when it comes to nature, and often the opposite is true. They have wonderful ways of connecting with nature. It's just people who look like me don't ask them how they do it. 

GL: In a similar vein, what have you seen with the opportunities and challenges of connecting to nature in an urban environment?

RL: Conservation is no longer enough. Now we need to create nature, as strange as that sounds. As of 2008, more people in the world live in cities than in the countryside. That’s the first time in human history. It’s unprecedented. It changes everything. As we continue to urbanize, either we will lose whatever remaining connection as a species that we have to the natural world, or we'll create a new kind of city: a city that is permeated with nature. I don't call this a “sustainable city,” in other words, nothing is getting worse. I call it a city that is “nature rich,” with nature rich schools, nature rich places, nature rich neighborhoods and homes. 

GL: What can you tell us about how connecting to nature as kids or adults leads to stewardship behavior? 

RL: The studies of conservationists and environmentalists show that many people who identify themselves as a conservationist later in life had some kind of transcendent experience with nature when they were a child. There will always be environmentalism. But if we're not careful, environmentalists will carry nature in their briefcases and not in their hearts. And that's a very different kind of environmentalism, and I don't think it’s sustainable. On the other hand, what the Alliance for Watershed Education is doing by placing the emphasis on people and their connection to this water and how it flows through everything, what you're doing is you're reviving conservation in addition to reviving the watershed. You’re one of the first who’s doing that.

 

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Genevieve Leet is the Director of Special Projects for Upstream Alliance, and is an advisor to the Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE).

AWE is an initiative supported by the William Penn Foundation through its Constituency Building strategy. Funding in this area supports memorable and meaningful programs that connect people with the water and inspire them to care for it, with the belief that doing so can help grow the next generation of watershed stewards.