I was at a conference recently when someone asked me how I came to be interested in environmental and sustainability issues. The run-of-the-mill answers came to mind: a course I took in university, jarring news stories about environmental destruction and the alarming statistics about climate change. While all of these answers are true, they are not the real reason I became interested in these issues.
I grew up on a tropical island in south-east Asia. The South China Sea was my backyard, and monkeys and hornbills wandered across our front porch at all hours of the day. I spent my summers collecting pet snails, exploring rainforest trails and climbing trees to pick mangoes. I say this not to brag but because spending time in nature was natural to me- it didn’t seem like a luxury or a punishment but simply a taken-for-granted fact of life. I could see the obvious, tangible consequences of personal and public environmental decisions: littering meant that the beach would be dirty the next day and I wouldn’t be allowed to play there and deforestation meant no more hornbill visitors. In an instinctive way, I grasped that nature was to be respected and protected.
The term Nature Deficit Disorder was first proposed by Richard Louv in 2005 and describes a spectrum of conditions that result from a lack of access to nature. These conditions are prevalent in children who may spend limited time outdoors and include concentration disorders, anxiety and aggression.
In his book Last Child in the Woods, Louv writes, “Environmentalists in the future will carry nature in their briefcases, not in their hearts.”
So what are the solutions? Well, on a personal level - spend more time outdoors. I often spend hours hunched over my laptop when I could easily choose to play an outdoor sport or go for a walk. Camping trips, hikes and community gardens are a great way to re-connect with the outdoors. On a broader scale, there are many nonprofit and environmental organizations that work to improve access to green spaces in urban environments and advocate for more outdoor education in elementary schools - in the hopes that the next generation of environmentalists will know what it’s like to climb a tree before they attempt to save one.