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A closeness to nature promotes creativity and health

"I have long advocated connecting with nature as a human right," Richard Louv told Wednesday in the courtyard of National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. gathered audience. Louv was invited to tell employees about the benefits of being outdoors.

Louv, author of the bestsellers “The Last Child in the Forest” (2005) and “The Principle of Nature” (2011), coined the term “Nature Deficit Syndrome”. He describes the increasing alienation of children from nature. "The nature deficit syndrome is not a clinically recognized condition," he explains, "but rather a term that calls to mind the lost communication with other living beings." Nevertheless, he argues that "the nature deficit Syndrome affects health, mental wellbeing, and many other areas, such as the ability [of people] to feel alive. "

The triggers for this syndrome are the loss of open seats, increasingly full appointments, the promotion of group sports as opposed to the neglect of individual play and discovery, competition from electronic media and the “culture of fear”, as Louv and others call it. With the latter phenomenon, people fear nature and go outdoors due to extensive media coverage of violent events. For a deeper insight into Louv's ideas, National Geographic did a short interview with him.

It has been a few years since you published your book "The Last Child in the Forest" in 2005. What has happened since then?

Quite a lot. I have written a new book called “The Principle of Nature”. In it, I extend the idea [of nature deficit syndrome] to adults. I was inspired because I kept hearing adults say: "This affects us too". There were a lot of great nature projects going on at the time, but never heard of them in the media, especially not in the headlines.

I did not expect the book to be so well received. I'm not saying that The Last Child in the Woods caused anything, but it was a useful tool and got the ball rolling. If you take a look at today [the website of the Louv-founded Children & Nature Network], you can see countless projects across the United States and increasingly internationally. For example, there are more and more pre-schools with a nature-based approach. In the United States and Canada, 112 regional, provincial, and state campaigns are campaigning to bring children closer to nature. Many of them are new.

It doesn't seem to matter what religion or political direction someone belongs to: if they are old enough, everyone tells me about the tree house they had as a child. In the younger generations, however, this seems to be less and less the case. This topic brings people together, because nobody wants to belong to the last generation, in which it is normal for children to play outside.

This week, at an event held at the Center for American Progress in Washington, you spoke to US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell about the importance of getting children and adults back into nature. How did that go for you?

Sally Jewell is the former head of the American sports and outdoor retailer REI and is one of the people who took the initiative when my book "The Last Child in the Forest" was published. She grabbed a REI backpack, filled it with copies of the book, and distributed them to MPs and the President at the White House.

She is the third interior minister in a row who has committed herself wholeheartedly to this issue. The first home secretary to do so was Dirk Kemthorne, a Conservative Republican under President [George W.] Bush. Ken Salazar [under President Obama] and now Sally followed suit, arguably of the three having the most experience in this area. The event on Tuesday made it clear that this problem continues to grow in importance.

Can you give us a few specific examples of the positive influence that contact with nature had on a person's life?

Juan Martinez, a National Geographic employee, is one example. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood where he inevitably got involved with gangs and got into trouble. His headmaster gave him a choice: detention or join the eco-club. Even if the club sounded like a bunch of nerds to him, he joined it. At first he hated him. But that changed when he was given the task of planting something.

He knew his mother had broken into the concrete floor behind their house to grow chili peppers. So he grew a jalapeño plant that he would later take home to show his mother. This plant and a subsequent trip with the eco-club to Grand Teton National Park changed his life. He is now an environmental activist and chairman of the Natural Leaders Network, which is part of the Children & Nature Network. He also works for National Geographic and has given two speeches at the White House.

So nature can really change a life. Juan Martinez not only found his way to nature, but also to people through nature. He was able to establish a whole new connection with his home district.

How can city dwellers find access to nature?

Since 2008, more people have lived in cities than in rural areas. A significant turning point in human history that can mean two things: Either the connection between man and nature will continue to fade, or a new urban concept will be implemented.

One possibility is “biophilic design” [design inspired by nature], in which nature is not only visited from time to time, but is also integrated into our lives, work, learning and play. It's not just about parks, but also about how we design our neighborhoods, gardens and buildings.

I am convinced that cities have the potential to promote biodiversity. As a first step, many native plants should be planted that will revitalize the food chain and restore the migration routes of butterflies and birds.

The word “sustainability” is problematic because most people associate it with stagnation, survival and energy efficiency. These points are also quite correct, only they do nothing more than stimulate the imagination. I like to use the term “nature-rich society” - another way of looking at the future that is not just about survival, but about something even more positive.

How do we achieve a greener future?

Yesterday I visited the Martin Luther King Memorial. King showed how to do it. He said any movement will nip in the bud if it fails to draw a world that people would love to live in. The world must be more than just energy efficient: it must also have a better civilization.

I think we are in a cultural depression. The literary genre most popular with young people is called "dystopian fiction". It depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which not even vampires have fun. In my theory, most Americans envision the distant future much like the films Blade Runner and Mad Max.

If that's the prevailing notion, without a balancing vision of a great future, we'd better be careful with our imaginations.

You have written about the effects of time in nature on problems such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and obesity. How important is that

A recent study of depression, ADHD, physical health, childhood obesity, and the lack of exercise epidemic found that nature acts like an antidote to all of these ailments. The saying did not come from me, but I still find it very apt: “Sitting is the new smoking”.

According to new research, sitting for hours on end can be just as harmful to health as smoking. Scientists at the University of Illinois are investigating the question of whether forest walks could be used as a supplement to the treatment of ADHD. According to a study by the University of Kansas, teenagers showed higher levels of creativity and awareness after backpacking or traveling for three days.

People who could see nature from their hospital bed made a faster recovery. Given their healing properties, even in the age of technology, we need to find ways to spend more time in nature. It has to be a conscious choice.

Keyword technology: To what extent are television, internet, video games and smartphones to blame for children spending their time indoors?

I always refuse to demonize technology in general, and video games in particular. The reason for this is that people always speak directly to this topic when dealing with this problem. It neglects other aspects such as "the danger of the stranger" [according to Louv, parents are scared of letting their children play outside through the sensational media] and poor urban design - as well as the facts that our education system needs to be overhauled and that we cancel breaks and trips.

So there are plenty of other good reasons. Nevertheless, the electronic devices naturally contribute to the problem. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that children spend 53 hours a week with an electronic medium - and I assume that it is hardly any different for adults.

I have an iPhone and an iPad myself and spend a lot of time in front of screens. The more high-tech we have in our life, the more nature we need to compensate.

How can parents tell that their children are suffering from Nature Deficit Syndrome? Are there any warning signs?

I don't think it breaks down into symptoms that individual children have. Rather, it is a general problem - a problem in society that has consequences for all of us.