A few days ago I found on the BBC website an article about “nature deficit disorder” (NDD for short). The term comes from a 2005 book by Richard Louv titled “Last Child in the Woods”. The condition is not strictly a medical one but a cultural one. Still, Louv sees it as a reason for increasing obesity, stress and decreased emotional wellbeing among children. Louv’s book triggered a number of nature education programs for children, aimed to have children practising outdoor sports, learn to name things they encounter in nature and take a scientific interest. That sounds all pretty good, doesn’t it? Yes it does, and still, there might be a fundamental misunderstanding at work.
When reading up on the topic I came over an article by Elizabeth Dickinson. Dickinson criticizes Louv’s approach not for what is there (being in nature and education programs), but for what is missing: an analysis of the human vs. nature dualism that is not a recent issue. For Dickinson, alienation from nature is not a phenomenon that can be approached rationally only. In addition she asks for inward self-assessment and an emotional confrontation with our attitude towards nature and ourselves.
At that point I got quite interested as this comes close to what I have been trying to say repeatedly also on this blog. The very moment, when we differentiate between the “human sphere” and the “natural sphere” we build artificially separate domains where in fact there is no separation. Even in our highly organized societies, we fundamentally remain a species of mammals, with mammal needs and desires. We too are nature and nature is us. I don’t mean this in an only abstract sense either. Our genetic programming, our symbiosis with other living things from microbiomes to plants and animals makes us players, not spectators in nature. How could we ever forget this? Especially as forgetting makes us sick in mind and body.
In his book “Sapiens” historian Yuval Harari has speculated that our estrangement from nature started with the introduction of agriculture, an evolutionary recent event. Of course, we can’t know this in any certain way, but we can follow in history how nature has become something to be fearful of and something to be tamed and named by man. But this means the deficit is emotional, not rational. This deficit has serious consequences. As long as we believe that nature can be engineered and is not something we have to wholly integrate with, it is difficult to see how we collectively could find the resolve to implement the radical changes that might be necessary for our survival (like to stop using carbon as energy source completely).
The question then is: what can we do? I mean other than writing articles and blog posts. Dickinson mentions an approach where touching and feeling nature comes before naming. I would add: simply breathing and watching in nature help as well. But I think also art as a form of emotional communication has a role. This is where I think that landscape photography including my own photographs can really “matter”.
Of course you’ll say, shouldn’t people be out there by themselves instead of looking at pictures? Oh yes, they can and should. But the alienation is real, as are cold and heat, mosquitos and discomfort. Many people simply don’t enjoy being outdoors anymore. Art, however, sees nature through an aesthetic, and in case of my work hopefully also poetic, filter. Still, the best landscape artists felt strongly about nature and successfully communicated that feeling through the aesthetics to the viewer. Thus, I would claim, the emotional connection to nature is not something that can only be built by “being there”. It can be transmitted from one human to another. In fact, so prepared we might be better able to look through the discomfort and see how wonderfully each of us connects to the cycle of being.