At a dinner one night in 2006 at Royal Roads University in British Columbia, Bob Peart, a well-known wildlife biologist, spoke to a group of conservationists and scientists from around the province. He described the despair with which such scientists and other conservationists live, often unstated, as they watch the nature they love slip away. He told how a friend, overwhelmed in part by that relentless sense of loss, had taken his own life.
As Bob told this story, he choked back tears. And then wept.
On Sept. 22, a Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, described his journey from despair to hope: “After spending more than 30 years engaged in environmental battles, working both inside government as a chief of staff and outside for NGOs, Bob Peart was feeling physically and emotionally beat.
So he took a break—and he might not have returned to the fray if he hadn’t been inspired by a book that reminded him of the joy children experience playing outdoors.”
Bob’s statement was personally gratifying because the book was Last Child in the Woods, but more important, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work. With the help of Canadian artist Robert Bateman and others, he launched the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, and has worked tirelessly for the cause. As The Globe and Mail reports, “Now Mr. Peart, 64, is poised to make a comeback as the new executive director of the Sierra Club of British Columbia, starting Oct. 15.”
Bob Peart is not alone. His experience illustrates one way to support the conservation of conservationists—and the preservation of conservation itself.
The children and nature movement and its extension, the new nature movement, which is about creating a nature-rich future, has given wildlife biologists, park administrators, environmental educators and others a new or sharpened set of tools. Among them:
1. The children and nature movement offers conservationists a powerful new way to make their case. We see news story after news story about people and organizations that have galvanized public and political support to protect or create urban parks, school gardens, environmental education budgets -- by pointing to the real threat of nature-deficit disorder to human psychological and physical health, and to children’s ability to learn. (And on this front, we've had some recent good news.)
2. The movement is helping build and strengthen the long-term conservation ethic. Past studies show that adults with such an ethnic fell in love with the natural world when they were children. What happens if the lives of young lives are defined more by the virtual than the real? Among other groups, land trust organizations have realized that, unless future generations learn to love the land, then the legal agreements to preserve land won’t be worth the paper on which the contracts are written. The children and nature movement is, in a sense, a form of insurance, a way to ensure that future generations will value the nature that conservationists have worked so hard to preserve.
3. Connecting children to nature will increase the diversity of conservationists. Today’s conservation and environmental organizations tend not to look like the face of America; the children and nature movement, though it has work to do on this front, too, is arguably more culturally and racially diverse. It could expand ways to engage inner-city residents and the young at a faster rate. By emphasizing the human right to the health and cognition benefits of time spent in nature—whether in wilderness or cities—the children and nature movement broadens the case for environmental justice.
4. The children and nature movement brings people to the same table who usually don't want to be in the same room. In a polarized political, social and religious climate, this issue has a special, almost primal power to bring people together. We see local, regional, state, national and international campaigns bringing liberals, conservatives, pediatricians, businesspeople, environmentalists policy makers, parents, grandparents and young people coming together to assure that future generations will experience the joys of the natural world.
5. Overall, this new nature movement gives fuel to those, such as biophilic designers, who want to extend environmentalism and sustainability to a vision of a nature-rich future—with nature-rich homes, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, cities. It offers an antidote to despair.
Ron Swaisgood, a San Diego conservationist often credited with helping save the giant panda from extinction, has, like Bob Peart and others, found a parallel calling: a new devotion to an endearing species—the endangered human child in nature. In the journal BioScience, Swaisgood and fellow conservationist J.K. Sheppard have written, “If we do not embracehope, we risk falling into the vicious cycle of ‘learned helplessness….” As for the human disconnect from the rest of nature, they ask, “Who better to meet this challenge than conservation professionals? If conservation professionals do not answer this call to action, who will?”
A strong conservation movement is essential to connecting people to nature. Likewise, the preservation of nature depends on the success of the new nature movement to assure the right of all people—especially children—to a healthy environment and the psychological, physical and spiritual benefits that come with it. As we grow this movement, the funding pie—for the conservation of all species, including humans, will grow.
The three great environmental challenges of our time—climate change, the threat of biodiversity collapse, and the disconnect between humans and children—are intertwined. We cannot do much about one without addressing the others. Environmental groups have made great strides in recent years to connect future generations to nature. And their support is growing for the conservation of conservation through the rejuvenating cause of connecting children to the natural world.
Meanwhile, here's some good news about the movement to reconnect children to nature—from the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and the Department of the Interior.
Richard Louvis Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
Photo by Michelle Woo Bowman