In his most recent book, The Nature Principle, author Richard Louv posits that a healthy dose of Vitamin N — in which that N stands for Nature — can make us happier, smarter and more creative. So why aren't we all out getting more of it? An Audubon Medal winner and founder of the Children & Nature Network, Louv talked to us about transforming cities into "incubators of biodiversity," balancing post-apocalyptic visions with nature-rich ones, and addressing so-called Nature-Deficit Disorder.
You coined the term "Nature-Deficit Disorder" in your book Last Child in the Woods and continue to discuss it in The Nature Principle. What is NDD, and how do I know if I have it?
I think it of it as more of a condition of society rather than any one person. I use it to describe the barriers that are put up between all of us and the natural world and the price we pay for alienation from nature — our physical health, our psychological health, our spiritual health.
So it's something that affects all of us, to some degree?
I think it touches on most people. As of 2008, more people in the world live in cities than in the countryside, and that's a huge moment in human history that goes largely unremarked upon. There are two directions it can go from here: Either our disengagement from nature will quicken because we're going to have more and more urbanization or we'll start seeing new kinds of cities — ones that are nature-rich — along with new kinds of neighborhoods, new kinds of homes, new kinds of schools, new kinds of workplaces.
How can we create these nature-rich cities?
By 'creating nature,' I mean new landscapes in cities that are naturalized, whether they're on school grounds or our backyards. I think one of our goals should be to transform cities into incubators of biodiversity. Neighborhoods — even dense urban neighborhoods — can be infused with nature. If you look at some of the eco-villages that have emerged in Western Europe, there are quite dense neighborhoods that are rich in green roofs, which are planted in a way that actually creates a natural habitat for birds and butterflies and focuses on native plants. There are streams made out of recycled rain water that go through these eco-villages.
What if we began to think about the redevelopment of inner-city neighborhoods and truly greening them? I think we would begin to see a different kind of life.
What do you think needs to occur in order for that to happen?
We need conservationists sitting down with residential developers, imagining a different future. We also need to challenge our perception of the way we talk to ourselves and our kids about the future. When most people are asked to conjure up visions of the far future, the images that most readily surface look a lot like the movie Blade Runner — the post-apocalyptic existence in which nature has been stripped or so unalterably changed it's unrecognizable. If that's the dominant image of the future that people carry around with them without a balancing image of a nature-rich society, then we're in trouble. We've got to start painting that picture of a nature-rich world, a nature-rich civilization.
In The Nature Principle, you write that time spent in nature can boost both mental acuity and creativity. How?
The science on this is fairly new. It's embarrassingly new. Science should have been looking at this long ago. Even though there are a lot of studies that have emerged, most are correlative, not causal. That's because nobody thought to ask questions 30 years ago, when they should have started 30-year longitudinal studies.
But quite a bit of correlative evidence is coming forth and it all seems to point in the same direction. That's pretty rare. There was a recent study on young adults who were taken backpacking. They factored out the effect of exercise on mental acuity and focused on the impact of the natural world itself. They found that after three days — and it seemed to peak at three days — cognitive skills went up significantly and creativity increased by 50 percent. That's just three days backpacking. So there's evidence that not only can we become healthier and happier, we can become smarter when we connect more with nature.
Do you have any theories of why?
Other than a New York subway, when else do we use all of our senses at the same time as we do in the natural world? That, to me, would seem to qualify as the ultimate state of learning in which you're using all your senses at the same time, taking in a lot of information, integrating it, and connecting the dots. Scientists no longer talk about five senses. They talk conservatively about 10 senses, sometimes as many as 30. We spend a lot of our days expending a lot of energy to block out many of those senses because we need to focus on the computer screen, on video games.
There's another question here: the question of feeling fully alive. That's one of the most important things about connecting with the rest of nature: It helps all of us feel more alive. I think that's the most important thing, and it ignites a sense of wonder, particularly in kids.
When you say 'nature,' does that just mean going outside wherever you are, or is there a specific natural setting we should be seeking out?
Science has a hard time defining nature. There are at least 30 definitions in science of what constitutes life. It's understandable that nature would be difficult to define. My personal definition is anywhere I'm in a meaningful relationship with species other than my own. That can be a backyard, that can be the trees at the end of a cul-de-sac, that can be a city park, that can be wilderness, that can be a greenhouse. It can take many forms.
Is there a certain amount of nature-time we should aim for daily to best reap these benefits?
There's one study that came up with five minutes. They didn't say that's the minimum daily requirement of what I call Vitamin N. They did say that people show psychological improvement just after five minutes in a natural setting. But we really don't know the answer. The best answer I can give at this point is that some is better than none and more is better than some.
Photo by Robert Burroughs