Nature-Deficit Disorder?

Ashley Thorne

The University of Chicago is offering a winter course called “Sustainability and Social Justice.” Centered on the book The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, the January-February course will teach students “how to achieve social justice though sustainability and increase sustainability through social justice.”

Of course, any eco-based emphasis seems out of place at the university founded by an oil tycoon, but I’ll move past that irony to take a look at this course.

One of its goals is “to leave students feeling concerned” about how their choices affect the environment and the balance of power in our society. It will use the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rio Declaration, and the Earth Charter “as a framework for understanding the connection between human and environmental rights.”

NAS keeps a list of both books on sustainability’s place in higher education and books more broadly focused on environmentalism and climate change, many of which are used in the college classroom to teach sustainability. So a book I hadn’t seen before—especially one that apparently “rivals Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring”—caught my eye.

The Last Child in the Woods seeks to open adults’ eyes to the dangers of what Louv calls “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in the children of today. Instead of healthy outdoor play, Louv writes, children are spending more and more time indoors in front of videogames and other screens. They are growing up without really experiencing the full wonder and joy of playing outside. And because they don’t know what they’re missing, they won’t miss it when it’s gone.

Louv’s book has inspired a Chicago-based movement, Leave No Child Inside, which published the “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights,” declaring that children should have the opportunity to:

  1. Discover wilderness -- prairies, dunes, forests, savannas, and wetlands
  2. Camp under the stars
  3. Follow a trail
  4. Catch and release fish, frogs, and insects
  5. Climb a tree
  6. Explore nature in neighborhoods and cities
  7. Celebrate heritage
  8. Plant a flower
  9. Play in the mud or a stream
  10. Learn to swim 

I see the value of a movement to restore children to the outdoors. It’s an old-fashioned sort of movement, which is probably why I like it. I’m not a parent yet, and my outlook may change once I have to deal with injuries, mud, and grass stains, but now in my pre-child idealism I do intend to steer my kids away from the TV and out into the sunlight.

So I think it’s creditable that Richard Louv is encouraging parents to take their children outside more often. But what does that have to do with sustainability? Or with social justice?

There’s a clue in the course description:

Finally, we will explore the concepts of biophelia [sic] (the psychological and developmental need for nature) and ecopedagogy (the betterment of self and society through using ecology to promote critical thinking skills).

Ecopedagogy is a familiar term, though not one I’ve looked at closely. It sprang from Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, which is based on the notion that educating means “liberating” the student by opening his eyes to the ways he is being oppressed. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Following Freire, ecopedagogy's mission is to develop a robust appreciation for the collective potentials of being human and to foster social justice throughout the world, but it does so as part of a future-oriented, ecological political vision that radically opposes the globalization of ideologies such as neoliberalism and imperialism, on one hand, and attempts to foment forms of critical ecoliteracy, on the other. Additionally, ecopedagogy has as one of its goals the realization of culturally relevant forms of knowledge grounded in normative concepts such as sustainability, planetarity (i.e. identifying as an earthling) and biophilia (i.e. love of all life).

It’s still not clear how social justice fits in with eco-teaching. Even less clear is the need for Freirian radicalism to enter the classroom of higher learning. What place has politics in academe, where logic and evidence—not ideology—should form the basis for knowledge?

Social justice has long been a key component of sustainatopians’ advocacy. The idea is that life on earth can never be truly sustainable unless we fix our social systems as well as our ecosystems. But the proposed means of fixing them fall plainly on one side of the political spectrum: they call for big government, economic redistribution, and loss of individual freedoms.

Biophilia means “love of life.” It is also the title of a book by Edward O. Wilson published in 1984. Wilson defines biophilia as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” He co-authored a subsequent book, The Biophilia Hypothesis (1995) in which he further developed the theory of human attraction to other living organisms. The hypothesis says that “when human beings remove themselves from the natural environment, the biophilic learning rules are not replaced by modern versions equally well adapted to artifacts.”

I haven’t read either book, but I’m willing to agree that people are attracted to nature. As a whole, we care about the humane treatment of animals, and we are always fascinated to spot them living in the wild. We praise the grandeur of mountains, the majesty of canyons, the awesomeness of oceans, the intricacy of seashells, the vibrancy of flowers, the splendor of the solar system.

But all is not gentle and lovely when you get close to nature. Annie Dillard, in her famous memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, describes witnessing a giant water bug suck the innards out of a frog until all that was left was “a frog skin bag.” She was horrified by the cruelty. “It was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled.”

We love to think that nature is a place of harmony and peace, but in reality it is the seat of savagery. Spending long periods of time in nature can be dehumanizing. Only in the company and customs of other people are we really civilized. And higher education exists to transmit civilization’s legacy to the next generation – not to denigrate civilization in favor of nature.

That’s why I’m wary of a philosophy that elevates the natural world to the status of an enchanted utopia, and especially one that elevates its good above that of humans.

So while I am keen on getting kids to play outside, I worry that a class focusing on radical “ecopedagogy” and romantic biophilia can distort a right understanding of nature. It may even lead to Nature-Distortion Disorder.  

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