The Star June 17, 2012
Stephen Bede Scharper
There were no brilliant lightning flashes, no deafening thunder claps, and the earth did not tremble, but a seismic shift in the environmental movement was nonetheless on display last week in downtown Toronto.
David Suzuki, the dean of Canadian environmentalism, was joined last Thursday by U.S. journalist Richard Louv, author of the bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, for a public conversation at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
As these two environmental pioneers parleyed, it became clear that an environmental agenda centering chiefly on conservation, government policy and an urgent, doom-laden, sword-of-Damocles advocacy was quietly morphing into one focused on relationships, children, education, wonder, joy and the healing power of nature.
In both our private interview and the public colloquy, Suzuki and Louv reflected on the milestones and missteps of the environmental movement, which, as Suzuki notes, is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, having been spawned by Rachel Carson’s watershed 1962 publication Silent Spring, which sounded the alarm on the pernicious proliferation of pesticides.
While Suzuki noted that the first 30 years of the movement saw many successes, with DDT banned, clean air and water legislation passed, critical wildlands preserved and a global awareness raised about eco-concerns, he also noted that certain proposed pipelines and dams, defeated decades ago, are again back on the table.
“When we started the Suzuki Foundation in 1990,” Suzuki recalled, “we thought we had only 10 years.” Influenced by data provided by the Worldwatch Institute, which publishes a much-cited annual State of the World report, Suzuki rebuffed suggestions that the foundation focus on schools, deeming there was “no time” given the grave and imminent threats to our ecosystems.
He now calls his decision quite candidly a “fundamental error.”
Louv echoed Suzuki’s sentiment, recounting a recent meeting with a group of U.S. university students, all focusing on environmental studies, but none connecting with any mainline environmental organizations. One factor was age — the average member’s age of the Nature Conservancy is 68 — but a second reason was articulated poignantly by one of the students. “I’m 20 years old. All my life I have heard we’re finished. The planet is doomed.” Such eco-nihilism is rarely an effective recruitment tool.
Happily, Louv’s work is decidedly non-apocalyptic. Last Child in the Woods helped inspire a growing movement reconnecting children with nature.
Harvesting clinical research showing that children suffering from attention-deficit disorder, depression and suicidal tendencies are often greatly helped by exposure to nature, Louv co-founded the Children & Nature Network, whose vision is to foster “a world in which all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives.”
In 2010, Louv was invited to address 5,000 pediatricians at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting. They not only warmly received his words, but in some cases have begun to give “nature prescriptions” to children, recommending taking in nature rather than just taking pills to get well. In Portland, Ore., Louv reports, an urban park has become a veritable wellness centre for children, with park staff seeing themselves as “para-health professionals.” Adopting a “climb two maples and call me in the morning” approach, park staff sign off on doctors’ health prescriptions after children have taken their recommended dose of nature.
His most recent book, The Nature Principle, is a cogent plea for a newly imagined future — one that eschews obsession with ecological armageddon and instead focuses on the restorative powers of the planet.
Citing Martin Luther King, Louv states, “Any cultural movement will fail if it can’t paint a picture of a world where people want to go to.” Louv is gravely concerned about the rash of popular, post-apocalyptic cultural images of the future. If, when we think of the future, we only envision some “Blade Runner-Mad Max-Hunger Games scenario,” Louv comments, “we are in real trouble.” Such a post-apocalyptic framing of the future, he fears, is almost as great a threat as climate change.
As these seasoned environmental leaders are seeing, their movement is not ultimately a protest movement against government and corporate policies, but primarily a movement that strives to embrace with joy the sanguine mystery and beauty of life.
Stephen Bede Scharper teaches at the Centre for Environment, University of Toronto, and is author of the forthcoming book, For Earth’s Sake: Toward a Compassionate Ecology (Novalis).