Champion Your Fundamental Human Rights by Reclaiming a Meaningful Connection to Nature
by Richard Louv
Generous future historians may someday write that our generation finally met the environmental challenges of our time—not only climate change but the change of climate in the human heart, our society’s nature-deficit disorder—and, because of these challenges, we purposefully entered one of the most creative periods in human history; that we did more than survive or sustain, that we laid the foundation for a new civilization, and that nature came to our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our homes, and our families.
Few today would question the notion that every person, especially every young person, has a right to access the Internet, whether through a school district, a library, or a city’s public Wi-Fi program. We accept the idea that the “digital divide” between the digital haves and the digital have-nots must be closed.
Recently I began asking friends this question: Do we have a right to a walk in the woods?
Recently I began asking friends this question: Do we have a right to a walk in the woods? Several people responded with puzzled ambivalence. Look at what our species is doing to the planet, they said. Based on that evidence alone, isn’t the relationship between human beings and nature inherently oppositional? That point of view is understandable, given the destructiveness of human beings to nature. But consider the echo from folks who reside at another point on the political/cultural spectrum, where nature is seen as an object under human dominion or as a distraction on the way to Paradise. In practice, these two views of nature are radically different. Yet, there is also a striking similarity: nature remains the “other”; humans are in it, but not of it.
Several years ago, while researching my book Last Child in the Woods, I visited Southwood Elementary, the grade school I attended when I was a boy growing up in Raytown, Missouri. There, I asked a classroom of children about their relationship with nature. Many of them offered the now-typical response: they preferred playing video games; they favored indoor activities—and when they were outside, they played soccer or some other adult-organized sport. But one fifth-grader, described by her teacher as “our little poet,” wearing a plain print dress and an intensely serious expression, said, “When I’m in the woods, I feel like I’m in my mother’s shoes.” To her, nature represented beauty, refuge, and something else. “It’s so peaceful out there and the air smells so good. For me, it’s completely different there,” she said. “It’s your own time. Sometimes I go there when I’m mad—and then, just with the peacefulness, I’m better. I can come back home happy, and my mom doesn’t even know why.” She paused. “I had a place. There was a big waterfall and a creek on one side of it. I’d dug a big hole there, and sometimes I’d take a tent back there, or a blanket, and just lay down in the hole, and look up at the trees and sky. Sometimes I’d fall asleep back in there. I just felt free; it was like my place, and I could do what I wanted, with nobody to stop me. I used to go down there almost every day.” The young poet’s face flushed. Her voice thickened. “And then they just cut the woods down. It was like they cut down part of me.”
When she referred to her woods as “part of me,” she was describing something impossible to quantify: her primal biology, her sense of wonder, an essential part of her self.
I was struck by her last comment: “It was like they cut down part of me.” If E. O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis is right—that the human attraction to nature is hardwired—then our young poet’s heartfelt statement was more than metaphor. When she referred to her woods as “part of me,” she was describing something impossible to quantify: her primal biology, her sense of wonder, an essential part of her self.
To reverse the trends that disconnect human beings from nature, actions must be grounded in science, but also rooted in deeper earth. “When making a moral argument, there are no hard-and-fast rules, and such arguments can always be contended,” according to philosophy professor Lawrence Hinman. “But most moral arguments are made based on one or two points. These include a set of consequences and a first principle—for example, respect for human rights.” Science sheds light on the measurable consequences of introducing people to nature; studies point to health and cognition benefits that are immediate and concrete. But a “first principle” emerges not only from what science can prove but also from what it cannot fully reveal: A meaningful connection to nature is fundamental to our spirit and survival, as individuals and as a species.
In our time, Thomas Berry presented this inseparability most eloquently. Berry incorporated Wilson’s biological view within a wider, cosmological context. In his book The Great Work, he wrote: “The present urgency is to begin thinking within the context of the whole planet, the integral Earth community with all its human and other-than-human components. When we discuss ethics we must understand it to mean the principles and values that govern that comprehensive community.” Berry believed that the natural world is the physical manifestation of the divine. The survival of both religion and science depends not on one winning (because then both would lose) but on the emergence of what he called a 21st-century story—a reunion between humans and nature.
Speaking of absolutes may make us uncomfortable, but surely this is true: As a society, we need to give nature back to our children and ourselves.
Speaking of absolutes may make us uncomfortable, but surely this is true: As a society, we need to give nature back to our children and ourselves. To not do so is immoral. It is unethical. “A degraded habitat will produce degraded humans,” Berry wrote. “If there is to be any true progress, then the entire life community must progress.” In the formation of American ideals, nature was elemental to the idea of human rights, yet inherent in the thinking of the Founding Fathers was this assumption: with every right comes responsibility. Whether we are talking about democracy or nature, if we fail to serve as careful stewards, we will destroy the reason for our right, and the right itself. And if we do not use this right, we will lose it.
Van Jones, founder of Green for All and author of The Green Collar Economy,maintains that environmental justice groups are overly focused on “equal protection from bad stuff”—the toxins too often dumped in economically isolated neighborhoods. He calls for a new emphasis on equal access to the “good stuff”—the green jobs that could lift urban youths and others out of poverty. However, there’s another category of “good stuff”—the benefits to physical, psychological, and spiritual health, and to cognitive development, that all of us receive from our experiences in the natural world.
Our society must do more than talk about the importance of nature; it must ensure that people in every kind of neighborhood have everyday access to natural spaces, places, and experiences.
Our society must do more than talk about the importance of nature; it must ensure that people in every kind of neighborhood have everyday access to natural spaces, places, and experiences. To make that happen, this truth must become evident: We can truly care for nature and ourselves only if we see ourselves and nature as inseparable, only if we love ourselves as part of nature, only if we believe that human beings have a right to the gifts of nature, undestroyed.
The little girl in Raytown may not have a specific right to that particular tree in her chosen woods, but she does have the inalienable right to be with other life; to liberty, which cannot be realized under protective house arrest; and to the pursuit of happiness, which is made whole by the natural world.
So do you.
From The Nature Principle by Richard Louv. ©2011 by Richard Louv. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.