Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

On Nature-Deficit Disorder

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-11-06

My Scientific American Mind and Brain RSS feed (choose one for yourself here) pointed to an article that went in a very different direction than I expected from it’s title.

I thought Does consumerism make us crazy? (2008-11-05) would discuss the stress from being in the rat race, climbing the greasy pole, etc, but instead, it went on to point out that a lack of childhood exposure to nature, associated with consumerism (I’d be specific and say "urban consumerism"), makes us crazy, even without the stressors associated with being an economic work unit rather than a human..

Richard Louv, author of the book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder", argues that kids are so plugged into television and video games that they’ve lost their connection to the natural world.  This disconnect, Louv maintains, has led not only to poor physical fitness among our youth (including obesity), but also long-term mental and spiritual health problems.

The SciAm post introduced me to a new word, "ecopsychology" (see wikipedia) which "suggests that there is a synergistic relation between planetary and personal well being; that the needs of the one are relevant to the other" (definition from  It can sound all mumbo-jumbo touchy-feely new-agey, but the premise makes a lot of sense to me.

I certainly notice the difference when I’m in town, and cannot see the stars at night, compared to the glorious Milky Way I viewed as a child, or I revel in when I visit my daughter and grandson.

Even though I’m in a leafy inner suburb that let me teach my daughter how to charm possums (females, especially when pregnant, are pushovers), I miss the cows (not the rabbits!) over the fence at my parents’ place until I went to uni, and I certainly enjoy sitting and watching the birds at my daughter’s (mainly magpies, wattlebirds, various parrots and even an ibis is a regular).

Reading the article at SciAm, and the links around it, made me very grateful than my grandson (20 months old) is fascinated with the birds, and at least some of them have an interesting relationship with him.  One ("Trav") even seems to play with him – coming within arms reach when the toddler is constrained, but hopping (not flying) to keep a constant 2 seconds away from an unconstrained toddler chasing the magpie around the yard.

If my daughter moves up to Melbourne sometime next year, my grandson will be devastated at the loss of his birdy buddies.  While I’d enjoy my grandson living with me for a while, he is still too young to stay up until the possums are active, and to be sure of seeing them, we’d have to take him to one of parks that are luckily within a short walk.  The problem is, that the nearest real duck pond is half an hour’s walk away, and there are many fewer birds there than there were a few years back when the dry started biting.

Even if he only has a short time living in a small town (about 1500 people) with lots of birdlife, my grandson will have been much better off than most of the population.

Commons (there were a few areas called "The Commons") are becoming ever rarer in urban areas, and the unmanicured ones that form a haven for diverse plants and insects, and therefore birds, are rarer still.  With the urban sprawl, authorities have neglected to maintain green reserves, either as grassed parks with swings and cricket nets, and have allowed houses to be built almost up to the edge of rivers and creeks.

When we replace low-density housing stock with the medium and high density housing necessary to minimize transport costs and carbon emissions, it is important to recreate green reserves, both to make up for the shrunken or absent back yards for children to play in, but to provide a place that can run somewhat wild, maintaining a population of flora and fauna (even if the largest are only birds) that our children can commune with.

IMHO, urban wildlife (not feral cats and dogs) can offer a better way for city kids to commune with nature than simple pets because it is more of an equal relationship – the non-human remains in control even when it becomes "buddy buddy" with the humans it trusts.  Learning how to behave so that urban wildlife lets you get close to them is a good thing.  I just wish more of our kids had the opportunities presented to me, my daughter, and my grandson.

I’ve just decided: I’m staying with my grandson this weekend.  I’ve got to see the stars again.

See Also/Notes:

  • Review of Last Child in the Woods at EarthEasy – a Canadian site.
  • Previous posts on the antics of the birds my grandson adores:
    • "Magpie Morality" (2008-09-17) discusses reciprocal altruism by the magpies – with the food-offerings still happening (last weekend my daughter was offered a moth rather than a worm).
    • "Evolving magpies: do they model different humans?" (2008-10-25) asks what "Trav’s" behaviour implies about his modelling of human minds and capabilities.
    • "Trav" seems to want the fledglings to not trust most humans, or get used to "junk food".  He won’t let his kids come close to the house for the scraps, but picks up titbits and flies across the yard and drops the food at his kids’ feet.  While it would be nice to have the fluffballs coming close, I’ve got to admire "Trav’s" good sense: not all humans are as friendly as we are!

One Response to “On Nature-Deficit Disorder”

  1. […] was looking back at an earlier post, "On nature-deficit disorder" and grateful that, over the last week or so, I’ve been able to sit with my nearly-2-yo […]

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