Can We Overcome Our 'Nature Deficit Disorder'?

I’ll admit that in the grand scheme of Washington politics, the news last week out of the Department of the Interior isn’t exactly earthshaking. During a news conference at the FDR Memorial in DC, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that retailer American Eagle Outfitters will contribute $1 million to her effort to create a “Twenty-first Century Conservation Corps” that will, as a DOI press release explains, “put America’s youth and veterans to work protecting, restoring, and enhancing America’s natural and cultural resources.”

Maybe it’s not as headline generating as the Chris Christie contretemps, but for people who care about the environment, it’s the start of something potentially big. Here’s why.

The environmental movement faces a serious challenge. More people are more disconnected from natural systems than at any other time in the history of humanity. The reasons and evidence for this are so obvious that they hardly bear repeating. In short, most of us live in vast urban areas where the rhythms and patterns of wild nature are almost totally obscured. Nor do we have much interaction with what I would call “pastoral nature,” meaning agricultural landscapes. I think it’s fair to say that most Americans couldn’t tell a spruce from a hemlock, or an adolescent cabbage from an adolescent beet. In our post-industrial world, such knowledge is superfluous. If all of your basic needs are met through the modern magic of fossil fuels and industrial farming, then it’s easy to ignore nonhuman nature, to forget that it even exists.       

There’s a name for this: Nature Deficit Disorder. According to journalist Richard Louv, this “disorder” is increasingly common among young children today, who have few, if any, opportunities for unsupervised play time in natural settings. Those kids will therefore have less of an appreciation for nature, whether of the wild or pastoral variety. Such ecological illiteracy isn’t limited to Americans.According to a study conducted last year, a quarter of Japanese university students do not know which direction the sun sets. (Spoiler: The answer is west.)

Society’s disconnection from the living system is a major hurdle for environmental advocacy. If you’ve never enjoyed the sublime experience of being in the wilderness and feeling immersed in the more-than-human, then you’ll have little interest in fighting for the conservation of wild lands. If you don’t know that your food comes from the living wilderness of the soil, you’ll have less of an appreciation for how our civilization depends on natural systems. Modern people’s alienation from nature poses a threat to the entire environmental agenda, from creating sustainable economies to protecting wildlife and wild places.

I know that Jewell gets all of this. When she was the CEO of outfitter REI, Jewell was a key player in the Children and Nature Network, a group founded by Louv with the aim of getting more kids into the outdoors. During a speech at the National Press Club last October outlining her agenda, Jewell closed with an impassioned call for “engaging the next generation in understanding and stewarding our public lands.” As she told the press club audience, “What happens when a generation who has little connection to our nation’s public lands is suddenly in charge of taking care of them?”

The challenge of the task is further complicated by optics. Tens of millions of Americans engage in outdoor nature activities annually. There are an estimated 47 million anglers in the US and about 42 million mountain bikers. Some 34 million hit the hiking trails every year. But, like it or not, activities such as hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, and fishing have a reputation for being something just for older white guys. (If you doubt this, check out a recent post by Brentin Mock over at Grist.) According to the most recent survey from the Outdoor Industry Association, youth participation in outdoor activities dropped between 2006 and 2009.

Jewell’s Twenty-first Century Conservation Corps aims to reverse that trend. If all goes according to plan, the corps will provide 100,000 young people with work and training opportunities in public land management over the next four years. Additionally, Jewell hopes to get 10 million students to take advantage of the educational opportunities in our public lands, “the nation’s best natural classrooms,” as she puts it. And she wants to enlist at least one million young volunteers in outdoor work such as trail building. If Jewell manages to hit even half of those marks during her tenure, it will be a significant success – and do much to polish her reputation among environmental groups.

Secretary Jewell’s relationship with environmentalists has been rocky so far. According to The Washington Post, at one of her first meeting with greens leaders she managed to get into an argument with Sierra Club chief Michael Brune over gas fracking. Nor does it look like the relationship will get smoother anytime soon. As Jewell, a former oil and gas engineer, makes decisions about fossil fuel extraction on public lands, she is bound to tick off many greens.

But she should be applauded for her outdoor engagement advocacy. I saw Jewell speak at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club last year (and I happened to have dinner with her once when she was still at REI) and it’s clear to me that she has a real passion for getting young people out on the trail. She feels the issue in her bones. It seems to me there’s a good chance that, looking back years from now, Sally Jewell’s legacy at Interior won’t be her decision on this gas lease or that renewable energy installation, but rather her accomplishments in introducing a new generation of people to the wonders of America’s wild places.


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