Losing touch with nature

by Terence Jeyaretnam

How many hours did you spend last weekend out in nature, trail walking or bird-watching? In fact, how many hours did you spend last year? You are likely to count the number of hours with ease. It seems intuitive, but confirmed in published research that the link between humanity and nature is at breaking-point.

Why is nature worth maintaining contact with, and preserving? The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital has been estimated on average to be US$33 trillion, nearly double the annual global GDP output, which is around US$18 trillion. This cannot be underestimated despite most of us not fully appreciating the true value of essential life nutrients such as clean water and air, food, medicinal plants and cultural and health benefits afforded to us by mother nature.

Why is this an issue for us as professionals? Not only does nature represent our greatest asset, but our innate need for nature, known as biophilia means that connecting with nature is an important primal urge that is in us today, as it was for our prehistoric ancestors. Continuing to further distance our children from nature is a future environmental catastrophe in the making – those young people who we are depending on to save the environment would know even less about it than us.

This unfortunate outcome is a syndrome known as nature deficit disorder. The significant collapse of children's engagement with nature, which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world, is recorded in Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust called Natural Childhood. The statistics are telling. At least in the UK, since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. Statistics also confirm the widespread perception that children have a largely screen-based lifestyle:

  • On average, Britain’s children watch more than 17 hours of television a week: that’s almost two-and-a-half hours per day, every single day of the year. Despite the rival attractions of the Internet, this is up by 12% since 2007
  • British children are also spending more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites
  • As children grow older, their ‘electronic addictions’ increase. Britain’s 11–15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade.

The National Trust Report also discusses the multitude of health, community, environmental and educational benefits that result from children’s contact with nature. These recommendations need to be considered seriously in policy, planning and design of future communities.

Sources: Stephen Moss, 2012. Natural Childhood. The National Trust.
and Richard Louv, 2009. Last Child in the Woods. Atlantic Books, London.

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (terence@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.