Richard Louv was born in 1949, a card-carrying member of the baby boomer generation. He has been a newspaper reporter, syndicated columnist, and author of nine books. The father of two sons, his writing often covered issues of family life. Over the years, he interviewed thousands of parents, children, and social science experts. Working on the front lines of American culture, he became increasingly aware that the children of boomers were moving down a path far different from their parents.
“They are the first daycare generation, the first post-sexual-revolution generation, the first generation to grow up in the electronic bubble, the first for whom nature is often an abstraction rather than a reality,” he says. A fourth grader shocked him when he announced, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Louv came to understand that boomers were probably “the last generation of Americans to share an intimate, familial attachment to the land and water.” This inspired him to write Last Child in the Woods.
He imagined three phases in American culture. The first frontier started with the European invasion of North America. Wave after wave of settlers exterminated natives, destroyed forests, and created farms. In the 1790 census, nearly 4 million were counted. By 1890, we had exploded to 63 million, and the wild frontier was gone. The era of free land for homesteaders had ended.
The second frontier spanned from 1890 to 1990. America was urbanizing, and life in industrial cities was noisy, stinky, and chaotic. It was an era of dust storms, robber barons, the great depression, and two world wars. Folks took pleasant imaginary voyages to “the good old days” of rugged pioneers, cowboys, Indians, and little houses on the prairie.
In 1990, there were 248 million of us, and the government ended its tradition of taking annual surveys of farm residents. Most small farmers had sold out and moved to town. The third frontier was born — computers, cell phones, video games, and a cornucopia of other excesses.
In the first frontier, most Americans spent their lives in direct contact with the natural world, working hard to survive. In the second frontier, for many Americans, the relationship with nature evolved into something like romantic attachment. The third frontier became an era of electronic detachment from nature, digital space aliens.
“Not that long ago, the sound track of a young person’s days and nights was composed largely of the notes of nature. Most people were raised on the land, worked the land, and were often buried on the same land. The relationship was direct. Today, the life of the senses is, literally, electrified.” Childhood has shifted from loving streams to loving screens.
Louv was born into an America of 151 million. As I write, it’s 324 million. In his lifetime, lots and lots of fields and forests have been erased by vast swarms of nature-devouring consumers. The pleasant rural countrysides where many boomers grew up have been replaced by rumbling six-lane thoroughfares lined with malls, burger joints, convenience stores, suburban sprawl, and homeless camps.
He once interviewed a fifth-grade girl for whom nature remained precious. She adored her sacred grove, a place of peace, sweet air, and freedom. It had a creek and waterfall. She went there almost every day. “And then they just cut the woods down. It was like they cut down a part of me.” Adults tend to speak fondly of nature, but their actions display a remarkable disinterest in defending it. Children clearly understand the unspoken message. Progress is sacred. Don’t make a fuss. It reminds me of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who created a monster that nobody could control.
Like many boomers, Louv spent much of his youth playing outdoors without supervision. This had been the norm for all children everywhere — throughout all human history — until now. Today’s poor kids have been herded indoors, where they get fat and depressed. Stepping outdoors is simply too dangerous. The nightly news is a constant horror show of psychopaths, gushing blood, and crazy politicians. All kids are issued cell phones so that paranoid “helicopter parents” can know where they are at every moment.
Tree houses and tree climbing have been banned. Fishing ponds are now off-limits. Dangerous merry-go-rounds, swing sets, and basketball courts disappeared from playgrounds, and “No Running” signs are multiplying. Large flocks of personal injury lawyers soar overhead, waiting for a child to get hurt. With breathtaking speed, they dive into courthouses and file huge lawsuits.
Liability insurance rates are skyrocketing, and many communities are working hard to eliminate the menace of outdoor play. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are selling off wilderness camps, because insurance is too expensive. Parents no longer expect scouting organizations to nurture healthy relationships with nature. They prefer safe indoor activities, where kids can learn about technology or weight loss.
Public education has become obsessed with boosting test scores. Consequently, “nearly 40 percent of American elementary schools either eliminated, or were considering eliminating recess.” Playgrounds are a waste of precious time. As kids get older, nature loses its wonder. Many unlucky kids live in homes where TV is on most of the time.
Louv mentioned a program for children with AIDS. Kids who had never been out of their urban jungle were taken to a camp in the mountains. One night, a nine-year old girl had to go to the bathroom. Stepping outdoors, she gasped! She had never seen the stars before. Wow!
On the third frontier, most teens will not effortlessly glide from high school graduation to living wage jobs. Ten-year olds worry about college. Parents now expect their kids to be high-achievers, tightly focused on success and careers — more computer time and study time, and little or no time for unstructured play. Fanatical young achievers are determined to race up the golden ladder to Trump Valhalla and live in infamy.
Under relentless pressure to perform, kids who stumble contemplate suicide. A stunning number of children are now gobbling antidepressants. Obesity rates for American adults are skyrocketing, and rates for children are growing faster. In communities isolated from nature, cultural autism is on the rise — reduced senses, feelings of isolation, attention fixated on glowing screens. We are losing direct experience of the world, living like burned out zoo animals.
This is a crisis. Louv is famous for coining the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), a serious physical, emotional, and mental health issue. It is curable. Being close to nature boosts a child’s attention span and self-confidence. It fosters creative play. Contact with nature seems to be as important as good nutrition and adequate sleep. We desperately need a movement to leave no child indoors.
Schools have been herding the kids down the dead end path of technology, status seeking, and high impact living. The young are well aware of overpopulation, deforestation, mass extinction, climate change, and so on. What can they do? The wonderland of glowing screens can provide hours of escape from their anger, despair, and powerlessness.
Louv blasts readers with a fire hose of full strength hopium. His recommendations range from simple commonsense strategies to soaring flights of magical thinking. Meanwhile, around the clock, Mother Culture shouts at the herd. “Fear not! Everything is under control! Shop like there’s no tomorrow! The best is yet to come!”
I’ve spent decades trying to understand reality, a lonely path. I have come to accept it, in the fullness of its darkness. Being present in reality is not fatal. On the other hand, denial, disconnection, and nonstop rage are soul killing and crazy making. Louv introduces respectable suburban consumers to nature connection lite. Jon Young goes further, encouraging dirty, sweaty, full strength, howling at the moon nature connection. He says, “The future belongs to those who are deeply connected to nature.” I agree.
Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2008.