Back to Nature
05 Jun 2017 by Tharuka Dissanaike, Policy Specialist UNDP Sri Lanka
Why overcoming the nature-deficit-syndrome is important to create a better, more harmonious tomorrow
This year’s World Environment Day has a simple yet confounding message. It urges us to reconnect with nature. In suggestions on how to celebrate the day this year, the UN implores us to get outdoors and into nature, to appreciate its beauty and its importance, and to take forward the call to protect the Earth that we share.
This message may resonate most with developed countries- where parents and teachers agree that children no longer spend time in the great outdoors and scientists/ educationists have already detected signs of nature-deficiency. Children, more often than not, are weaned on electronics and toddle with real gadgets in hand. A recent blog in Columbia University’s Earth Institute says that on average children between 8-18 in the USA spend over 7 hours a day on a computer or devise or television. Whatever interaction they have with nature is structured and pre-packed such as a trip to the Zoo, a national park, a school project or family vacation. There is an associated utilitarian value attached to nature. Gone is the wonder of a sunset or a star filled sky on a dark night. Children would be much more astute towards Disney’s most recent fantasy release or the latest video game.
Connecting to nature is good for the individual- and then to society. There are studies to show that with a connection to nature are healthier, happier, and perhaps even smarter and more creative and they grow up to be more socially and environmentally conscious. Nature, studies have shown, has positive effects on children with attention deficit disorder, asthma, and improves physical health. furthermore, as many of us have experienced first hand, relieves both physical and mental stress. Nature can be found in both rural and urban settings- a small park, a beach, a wetland, a forested garden or even an agricultural landscape can be full of natural wonder. The best time with nature, many scientists believe, should be unstructured and unpackaged. In his book The Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv reminisces a childhood spent roaming along wooded creeks, climbing trees, building tree-houses and collected bugs -contrasting it with his own sons’ overly-sanitized upbringing 30 years later. He laments the broken bond between children and nature, and warns that unless put right we may be bringing up generation of self-absorbed and technology dependent young for whom nature has the ‘use and dispose’ thrill of a trip to Sea World. He coins the condition a near malady -the nature-deficit disorder- and argues that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.
It is clearly not just kids in the USA who suffer this. Many of us, parents of the post-millennium generation, can identify very well with symptoms of nature deficiency. Kids today, especially those in urban or suburban neighbourhoods, have very little daily contact with nature and very little appreciation of ‘being with’ nature. Children have over-scheduled days and weekends are worse. Tennis, ballet, music, Sunday school, tuition, revision etcetc. There is no value attached to allowing children to spend quiet, unsupervised time pottering to themselves and observing nature. There is value to letting children roam or cycle around with a few friends discovering practical and social skills while they connect with nature. In fact, many parents would not dare let out kids out of the house without adult supervision- even when they are pre-teen. Even when, these very parents have enjoyed a much less structured and much more enjoyable childhood connected both to nature and society.
We have all had that car ride with a bored kid begging for the phone to play a game on. Asking kids to look out the window and appreciate nature out there is not enough. Today’s kids grow up knowing more about issues like deforestation in the Amazon and climate change affecting polar bears. Not many of them can identify trees, flowers and birds in their surrounding. If children are to care about protecting nature, they need truly to connect and immerse in nature to develop that empathy towards the natural world. To wonder at natures thrills- such as the iridescent colour on a drangon fly’s wings or the dung beetle’s supreme effort to build its home- they need to spend quiet time observing these first hand- not in a classroom and certainly not on Animal Planet. If this empathy and appreciation is not built; the future generation will care less and less about protecting nature and the wilderness will have a mere economic value. There is already of trend of declining public support to nature conservation and environmental activism- the result of nature-deficient generation shaping the funding landscape.
Our definition of nature needs to be broader. We need to get away from the idea that nature is “out there,” that it’s something you have to go visit, and rethink nature’s role in everyday life. Over-taming nature in homes and neighbouroods will give kids the idea that nature is to be feared and avoided. Over-packaging the experience will lead children to think of nature as a distant, exploitable resource – not a daily necessity. Reconnecting nature will not be easy. It will require us adults to take real action; it will require us to step out of the in-built comfort zones and breaking down the walls between our homes and nature. We need restore or create natural habitats in our cities, neighborhoods, commercial buildings, gardens, and even in balconies and roofs, to protect both plants and animals that are crucial for the wellbeing of all creatures, including humans. This will require all of us to switch off those gadgets, put away the remote control and step out in to the great outdoors.