About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of eight books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

RESTORING PEACE: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, we’ve talked about gun laws and mental-health treatment, amid a host of other responses. But one potential tool has not been mentioned.

Now, let me say right off that I don’t pretend that nature is a paragon of peace. Writer Herman Melville once challenged the idea of nature as “the grand cure,” as he put it, and asked “who froze to death my teamster on the prairie?”  The violence of nature is a fact, but this is also true: by assaulting nature, we raise the odds that we will assault each other. By bringing nature into our lives, we invite humility.

“In our studies, people with less access to nature show relatively poor attention or cognitive function, poor management of major life issues, poor impulse control,” says Frances Kuo, a professor at the University of Illinois, adding that humans living in a neighborhood stripped of nature undergo patterns of social, psychological, and physical breakdown similar to those observed in animals deprived of their natural habitat. “In animals, what you see is increased aggression, disrupted parenting patterns, and disrupted social hierarchies.”

On the other hand, in some settings the natural world does have the power to heal human hearts and prevent violence. That statement isn’t based on modern Romanticism, but on a growing body of mainly correlative scientific evidence, with a tight focus on the impact of nearby nature.

Here are six reasons why meaningful relationships with nature may — in concert with other approaches — bolster mental health and civility, and reduce human violence in our world.

1. Green exercise improves psychological health.

“There is growing . . . empirical evidence to show that exposure to nature brings substantial mental health benefits,” according to “Green Exercise and Green Care,” a report by researchers at the University of Essex. “Our findings suggest that priority should be given to developing the use of green exercise as a therapeutic intervention.” Among the benefits: improvement of psychological well-being; generation of physical health benefits by reducing blood pressure and burning calories; and the building of social networks.

2. In some cases, greening neighborhoods may help reduce domestic violence.

In a Chicago public housing development, researchers compared the lives of women living in apartment buildings with no greenery outside to those who lived in identical buildings—but with trees and greenery immediately outside. Those living near the trees exhibited fewer aggressive and violent acts against their partners. They have also shown that play areas in urban neighborhoods with more trees have fewer incidences of violence, possibly because the trees draw a higher proportion of responsible adults.

3. Natural playgrounds may decrease bullying.

In Sweden, Australia, Canada and the U.S., researchers have observed that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, they established their social hierarchy through physical competence; after an open grassy area was planted with shrubs, children engaged in more fantasy play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language skills, creativity and inventiveness. Such play also provided greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways.

4. Other species help children develop empathy.

We’ve known for decades that children and the elderly are calmed when domestic pets are introduced in therapy, or included in rehabilitative or residential care. We also know that children can learn empathy by caring for pets. Some mental-health practitioners are taking the next step: using pets and natural environments as part of their therapy sessions. Cherie L. Spehar, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Play Therapist, who has served as executive director of The Child Abuse Prevention Center in Raleigh, N.C., recommends to therapists, “Bring nature play into your sessions, as it is a resource rich in opportunities for practicing kindness. Introduce them to every form of life and teach respect for it.”

5. Greater biodiversity in cities can increase social and family bonding.

Scientists at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. report that the more species that live in a park, the greater the psychological benefits to human beings. “Our research shows that maintaining biodiversity levels is important . . . not only for conservation, but also to enhance the quality of life for city residents,” said Richard Fuller of the Department of Animal and Plant Science at Sheffield.

 In related work, researchers at the University of Rochester, in New York, report that exposure to the natural environment leads people to nurture close relationships with fellow human beings, to value community, and to be more generous with money. By contrast, the more intensely people in the study focused on “artificial elements,” the higher they rated wealth and fame. One of the researchers, Richard M. Ryan, noted, “[We’ve] found nature brings out more social feelings, more value for community and close relationships. People are more caring when they’re around nature.”

 6. More nature in our lives can offset the dangerous psychological impact of climate change.

Professor Glenn Albrecht, director of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University in Australia, has coined a term specific to mental health: solastalgia, which he defines as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.” Albrecht asks: Could people’s mental health be harmed by an array of shifts, including subtle changes of climate? If he’s right in suggesting this is so, and if climate change occurs at the rate that some scientists believe it will, and if human beings continue to crowd into de-natured cities, then solastalgia will, he believes, contribute to a quickening spiral of mental illness.

We are not powerless in the face of planetary or societal challenges. Granted, we will not be able to prevent every violent tragedy, but we can surely make our lives greener and gentler. And that positive influence may ripple outward in ways we cannot immediately measure or see.

 “Simply getting people together, outside, working in a caring capacity with nature, perhaps even intergenerationally, may be as important as the healing of nature itself,” suggests Rick Kool, a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia. “Perhaps, in trying to ‘heal the world’ through restoration, we end up healing ourselves.”


Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorderfrom which some of this essay is adapted.

 Photo by Jon Beard

 

Additional reading: AFTER THE TRAGEDY, by Tamra Willis.

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  1. When I was a kid my family moved to eastern Quebec. My dad was in the air force at the time, and we lived a mile from the entrance to the base and five miles from the nearest town, on a dead-end road that ultimately served as a maintenance corridor for the railroad line at the end. All around me were fields, forests and pastures, and I’d come home from school, drop my books on the counter by the back door and be gone until dark. I was immersed in a world of swamps and trees, moose and bears, berries, birds and more. It was heaven.

    Three years later my family moved to a city in eastern Ontario. I’d never lived in a city before and had no idea what cities or city kids were about, so I endeavoured to find out. I joined a gang as a means of self-preservation, but always stayed on the outside of it. I watched kids my age throw away their lives on drugs, others caught up in the violence and repercussions of day-to-day existence. Fortunately for me there was a wooded area within a short walk of our home, and after four years I left the streets and returned to the woods. I was fifteen, and that literally saved my life. The wooded area wasn’t large, only a couple of miles long, and there were no moose or bears, but there was a swamp, muskrats, fields, birds, trees, wildflowers, spring berries… It became my solace, my escape. And when I got older I became a biologist.

    That wooded area is pretty much all gone now, slowly devoured by encroaching development, but for a kid it doesn’t take much to experience a sense of wonder. Even a ladybug crawling on a finger in someone’s garden or an earthworm fresh from the soil can be enough to entertain and to educate. It can change views, and it can save lives.

    Mike.

  2. SM Scott says:

    We lived in a shed on our block of land while we built the house so the area around us was cleared of greenery, the shed was grey metal. Before long we noticed how our emotional state deteriorated, feeling frazzled and argumentative. By bringing plants in around the area and once some grass grew and we painted colour inside the shed we noticed how much it restored our own emotional sanity. The value of greenery can’t be underestimated.

  3. I completely agree with your theory, Richard. I see the almost-immediate calming effect on my own children when they head outdoors after school. They are out in the fresh air, they are free to roam and explore, to use their senses. It’s an amazing transformation.

  4. tim skoglund says:

    Denser cities not dependent on autos for transportation might leave more adjacent land available for nature. Confr. “Arcology: the City in the Image of Man” (MIT 1969)by Paolo Soleri.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcology

    http://www.thepeakeffect.com/2011/02/arcology-new-urban-dimension-part-ii.html

  5. Brent Wilson says:

    Great article…couldn’t agree with it more. My dad took I and my brothers into nature on a regular basis. The camping and hiking trips we took as children definitely helped us to gain respect and a reverence for the natural environment and all the creatures and plants within it, including human beings. Now we’ve been in the nursery and landscaping business for over 30 years. I appreciate the Internet as well, but there must be a balance if humankind is to maintain its sanity.

  6. Andrea Chlupp says:

    Absolutely agree with you, Tim. Yes, denser cities might take “space”away in some sense, as people have less own backyard, yet humans need society, community, thus being able to explore TOGETHER. Big difference if my kids explore their own backyard alone, or shre that experience with other kids. But we do not enable them to meet anymore, for everybody lives so far apart. In Germany, Switzerland, Austria you have denser cities, yet more nature easily accessible for everyone to enjoy. And less cars needed…
    Love your article, Richard! Totally believe in it. Thanks =)for summing it up!!

  7. jayne Tainsh says:

    I am trying …………..if only we can get enough of the next generation to GET OUTSIDE ??????????????

  8. Erica Stux says:

    It was a library book about birds that first got me interested in nature at age nine. Many years later, as the mother of 3 children, I began to write books about nature myself I hope that my books will get kids interested in nature, like that bird book inspired me as a kid

  9. Thank you for writing all that you do. I have recently completed a doctoral dissertation on early childhood educators’ perspective of spiritual development. My dissertation question came to me (an early childhood educator) when a very young child in an urban head start program came to me holding a worm. I realized that this experience was about the importance of nature and more. I thought that this might also be about spiritual development as I observed a deep connection being made between this child and the worm. It showed on his face, his stance, his inner glow. Next, I discovered that in the US there was no mention of spiritual development. In fact, when I interviewed early childhood educators for my study they all hesitated and in a variety of ways said that they had never been asked this question. They had never thought about it. Yet, once ignited they had much to say. My research did not include a discussion of God and religion but focused on other attributes of spirituality-those that might be present at birth. Through my doctoral work I now define spiritual development as deep connections, basic dispositions (wonderment, awe, joy, and inner peace), and complex dispositions (caring, sharing, empathy, and reverence) that are nurtured by caring relationships, positive modeling, and time spent in spiritual moments (one of which is nature).

  10. [...] violence is one of the human responses to nature deficit. I am inspired by Louv’s reflections on ways nature in our lives can reduce the violence in our world. Osprey in [...]

  11. Mark Richards says:

    Not to be overlooked is that out of doors time means exposure to sunlight. And exposure to sunlight, depending upon latitude, season, and the amount of unnecessary worry that sunscreen and clothing covers, means Vitamin D synthesis takes place.

    Inadequate Vitamin D status is significantly linked to depression and other emotional/mental disorders. D deficiency is also strongly associated with upper respiratory infection prevalence.

    Although there’s lots of common sense in Richard Louv’s ideas, we might also wish to consider this basic premise.

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