As technology progresses at an ever accelerating pace, more and more people around the world are losing – or indeed, never developing – their fundamental connection to the natural world.
Update 2/2017: I have covered this topic in much greater detail in episode #6 of the Good Life Revival Podcast, which you can stream or download HERE:
Author Richard Louv coined the term “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in his 2005 book Last Child in The Woods, arguing that this radical societal disconnect has led to a rise in many physiological, behavioral, and developmental issues, such as attention problems, obesity, anxiety, and depression.
“Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis,” Louv wrote in a 2009 article for Psychology Today, “but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years.”
Humans instinctively derive comfort and pleasure from our interactions with nature. Renowned ecologist E. O. Wilson popularized this “biophilia hypothesis” in his 1984 book, Biophilia, but I, like many others, came to this understanding through my own spiritual journey.
We crave stimulation from the natural world because our minds and bodies are hardwired for it; the concrete jungles of our cities confuse our senses. We were built to interact with the trees, the herbs, the animals, and the landscapes that surround us.
Humans are not above nature in any way, nor are we its stewards – we are nature. As Aldo Leopold put it in 1949’s A Sand County Almanac, humans are “plain members of the biotic community,” nothing more.
But this is a far cry from the way we structure our lives. The average person in the modern era spends nearly every hour of the day indoors, and the vast majority of those hours are spent staring at electronic screens, whether computers for work, cell phones for socializing, or TVs for entertainment.
Outdoor recreational time is as rare for children as it is for adults – “go play with mommy’s smartphone” has replaced “go play out in the backyard.” We are psychologically drawn indoors by highly addictive forces of distraction and consumerism that we don’t fully understand, and we’re training our children to be entranced right along with us.
There is a fierce, unyielding anthropocentrism which runs through nearly every facet of our globalized culture, leading us to operate under the assumption that the Earth and all of its resources are here for human consumption.
This anthropocentrism, when combined with the rise of entertainment technology capable of artificially stimulating our senses, has led to a dramatic increase in the number of individuals who are wholly cut off from their natural surroundings.
This disconnect manifests itself throughout all facets of our modern lifestyle, across all age groups. We are more anxious and emotionally imbalanced than ever before; more overweight and prone to illnesses; more narcissistic and selfishly driven; less thoughtful, caring, and respectful of the natural world; less self-confident, self-reliant, and spiritually developed.
Research with children during their developmental years indicates that spending time in nature stimulates creativity and imagination as well as logical thought and observation, improves social and emotional development, and increases self-esteem.
But I would argue the more abstract and difficult-to-quantify state of being that arises when feeling connected to one’s ecosystem is absolutely critical to the wellbeing of any creature, human or otherwise.
Consider the implications of our current global nature-deficit – I submit that this pernicious undercurrent drives irrational and unhealthy behavior in myriad ways.
Viewed through this lens, it becomes more understandable why violent crime is the status quo in our cities; why we medicate ourselves with drugs and pharmaceuticals throughout our entire lives; why industrialized factory farms myopically threaten to collapse our ecological systems; the list goes on.
Recognizing that this issue is as ubiquitous as it is embedded in our culture, how do we take action to mitigate it?
As with all things, change begins with you, the individual.
You must resolve to diagnose and treat your own nature deficiency. Thankfully, the treatment is simple, if not always easy: you must adjust your habits and your perspective.
As with elsewhere on this blog, I emphasize daily activities for making gradual changes, and urge you to take your time with this process.
Give yourself thirty minutes, every couple of days, to get to know the living things in your backyard or a local park. Observe how the plants grow and change through the seasons; listen to the bird calls and note how the different species are active at different times of the day. Take a notebook with you and reflect on your feelings with words or drawings.
Eat with the seasons, growing whatever you can for yourself and buying the rest from local farmers’ markets. The more you explore, the easier it will become to find the time that you need to feel connected.
There are many ways to appreciate the splendor of the natural world, but remember that it doesn’t have to be exotic or distant to be special – it can be as simple as marveling over the innumerable creatures living under a rock.
Most importantly, these experiences must be consistent and habitual. Don’t be turned off by exceptionally hot or cold or wet weather – each can be appreciated on its own terms, and the changing of the seasons is just another part of what’s so magical about living on Earth.
As “plain members of the biotic community,” we must embrace the deep ecology perspective first put forth by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss in 1973. This environmental philosophy is built upon Leopold’s foundational understanding that all living organisms have an inherent value that is unrelated to their human utility.
"The right of all forms of life to live,” says Næss, “is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species."
When we reclaim our ecological literacy and understand the world as a complex, interconnected network in which all living things depend upon all others for their own existence, we free ourselves from the shackles of anthropocentrism and begin to see our surroundings in a new light.
Such a shift in perspective takes time to cultivate, but it’s easy to begin right away by reframing our basic orientation. As Dr. Elizabeth Dickinson of UNC Chapel Hill stresses, it’s important to see ourselves as communing “with nature” rather than “in” it, which implies that nature is something like a room that we can exit.
But we are nothing if not nature-stuff . That is to say, we are only “in” nature insomuch as we are “in” our bodies, or “in” our minds.
We are nature, and if we are to lead healthy and fulfilling lives for generations to come, then it’s up to us to integrate this understanding into our worldview. Our ecosystems depend on it.