Forward to Nature: New Nature Movement Isn’t About ‘Going Back’ to Nature

For many people, thinking about the future conjures images from movies like Blade Runneror Mad Max: a post-apocalyptic dystopia stripped of nature and human kindness. We seem drawn to that flame, but it’s a dangerous fixation.

There are many reasons for the attraction – global threats to the environment, economic hard times, decades of disconnection between children and nature – but there’s a fundamental problem with it. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that any movement – any culture – will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world people will want to go to.

Despite undeniable successes, environmentalism is in trouble: Many recent polls describe a public with diminishing regard for environmental concerns. What we need now is a new nature movement, one that includes but goes beyond the good practices of traditional environmentalism and sustainability, and paints a compelling, inspiring portrait of a society better than the one we live in – not just a survivable world, but a nature-rich world in which our children and grandchildren thrive.
This new nature movement, inchoate and self-organizing, is already emerging.

It revives old concepts in health and urban planning (Frederick Law Olmsted, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Muir come to mind). It also adds new ones, based on research showing the power of nearby wilderness and natural areas to improve our psychological and physical health, cognitive functioning and economic and social well-being. Colorado University professor Louise Chawla describes the basis of the movement as “the idea that as humans we can not only make our ecological footprints as light as possible, but we can actually leave places better than when we came to them, making them places of delight.”

Among the movement’s tenets, which I suggested in my book, The Nature Principle, are that the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. Cities must become engines of biodiversity. Natural history is as important as human history to our regional and personal identities. Conservation is no longer enough; now we must “create” nature where we live, work, learn and play. Nor is energy efficiency enough; now we must create human energy – in the form of better physical and psychological health, higher mental acuity and creativity – by making our cities truly green.

This movement isn’t about “going back to nature,” but going forward to nature.

Participants include: traditional conservationists; proponents and producers of alternative energy; physicians (particularly pediatricians) who prescribe time in natural areas and green exercise to patients; ecopsychologists and wilderness therapy professionals; park professionals who help families fulfill their “park prescriptions”; public health professionals and urban designers who work to increase the number of natural amenities near where we live.

Other participants are citizen naturalists salvaging threatened natural habitats and creating new ones; community gardeners and urban farmers; organic farmers and “vanguard ranchers” who restore as they harvest; urban wildscapers replacing suburban yards with native species; nature-aware champions of walkable cities and active living; deep green design professionals, including biophilic architects, developers, urban planners and therapeutic landscapers who transform homes, workplaces, suburbs and city neighborhoods – potentially whole cities and their transportation systems – into restorative regions that reconnect us to nature.

None of those ideas is truly new. For examples and precedent, we can look to earlier social movements, including those promoting healthy cities and nature studies in the early 20th century, and today’s movement to connect children to nature.

The World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in September passed a resolution declaring children have a human right to experience the natural world, an essential ingredient if nature is to be protected from human excess – and a step toward seeking a similar declaration at the United Nations. At the same World Congress, leaders of national parks and protected areas throughout the world approved the “Jeju Declaration on National Parks and Protected Areas: Connecting People to Nature,” committing them to create a global campaign that recognizes the contribution of these natural treasures to the health and resilience of people, communities and economies.

The children and nature movement has far to go before it can declare anything approaching victory. But it has already made inroads in policy and, more important, has planted the seeds for self-replicating social change, including at least 109 regional and state campaigns that have brought together businesspeople, conservationists, healthcare providers and others, who have all found common cause. The children and nature movement, like the larger, new nature movement, is surprisingly diverse. Recent immigrants and inner-city youth are among the most persuasive advocates for nearby nature and outdoor experience – once they get a chance to have such experiences.

Not all the individuals and groups I mention would identify themselves as environmentalists. They do not necessarily see themselves as part of one movement – yet.

But consider the collective power if these forces came together to craft a positive vision of the future, a newer civilization based on a transformed human relationship with the natural world. We certainly don’t have to agree on everything to reach that goal. But we must agree that our species’ connection to nature is fundamental to our shared humanity – and to the future of Earth itself.

Richard Louv is author of “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network.

This column is adapted from an essay that originally appeared in “Thirty-Year Plan: Thirty Writers on What We Need to Build a Better Future,” published by The Orion Society, 2012.