Review of the book “Nature Principle” by Richard Louv

For some of us, the need for studies and research to prove what we already know in our hearts to be true—that spending time in nature is good for us—may seem a bit silly and unnecessary. But for author Richard Louv, it’s a way to substantiate his claim that kids aren’t the only ones suffering from nature deficit disorder. Adults need nature, too. Lots of evidence to follow…

In his best-selling book, “Last Child In the Woods” Louv proclaimed that more than ever, children were suffering from what he calls “nature-deficit disorder.” Children are spending less time playing out of doors, more time in front of electronic devices, and therefore are being denied the physical, emotional and intellectual benefits of a relationship with the natural environment. After the book became a best-seller, Louv was approached by fans and readers who wanted to point out, “You know, adults need nature, too.”

Louv agreed, and “The Nature Principle” became his next book.

I attended a public talk by Louv a few months ago in Boulder. I listened to a man who was obviously a seasoned journalist and perhaps a very cerebral person, describe ways in which his time in nature changed and molded him. The most important point he made during the talk, which he didn’t make strongly enough in his book in my opinion, was that in order for us to move into a new paradigm and get away from the “doom and gloom” of apocalyptic visions for the future of humanity, we need a solid, positive vision of what the future should hold. In other words, we need something to work toward, not run away from. What does a nature-infused, sustainable society look like, specifically? The book offers glimpses, and certainly stays away from doom and gloom, but the glimpses are just that – short vignettes here and there. There isn’t a larger, integrated vision. But there doesn’t need to be, because that’s not what Louv’s intent was in writing the book.

After listening to him speak in person and reading his book, Louv doesn’t strike me as a particularly “frou frou” person or someone who drips with poeticism and abstract thought. Therefore, it came as no surprise that his book isn’t the kind I’d cozy up to or read for spiritual inspiration. It is written in line with the modern pseudo-psychology genre popular these days, similar to books by Malcolm Gladwell. In fact, The Nature Principle reads much like a combination between a graduate term paper and a script for a documentary.

In each chapter of the book, Louv doesn’t just offer anecdotal evidence or personal observations, although those resonated with me best, he also cites study after study to prove that:

1. Nature is good for our intellect, our spirit, our creativity and our physical well-being.

2. Nature can be many things, and one doesn’t need to go far to experience it.

3. People who have a close relationship to nature are more likely to want to protect it.

4. Biomimicry and a new paradigm of living in nature, as opposed to suppressing or controlling it, is the salvation for humanity.

He understands that a paradox exists in human’s relationship to nature. On one hand, we are about as disconnected from our true nature and from the nature around us as we have ever been as human beings. We don’t grow our own food, don’t hunt for a living, barely experience the weather in our climate-controlled homes and offices, and rarely venture outside on any given day. On the other hand, we need nature more than ever. Our very survival is at stake. He states, “The natural world’s benefits to our cognition and health will be irrelevant if we continue to destroy the nature around us. However, that destruction is assured without a human connection to nature.”

While he doesn’t cite any studies that show that not spending time in nature causes disease and depression, he does cite many studies that show that doing just about anything in a natural setting improves mood and physical health. In 2006, for example, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that seven Colorado counties –most along the Continental Divide—were the top-rated in terms of life expectancy of its residents. Louv’s interpretation of this study is that there may be a correlation with living in a rural, scenic setting (such as Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs) and well-being.  While I myself don’t deny the regenerative aspects of hanging out in the mountains, and the invigorating qualities of taking a walk in the woods, I have to ask, why are we conducting all these studies? Do we need a study to tell us, for example, that having friends makes us happier? That being loved is good for our state of mind? That eating fresh fruits and vegetables is healthy?

Apparently, we do.

The ability to offer intrinsic, peer-reviewed evidence about the benefits of a walk in the woods or living near a scenic, natural setting by showing the correlation between environmental health and human health, makes it easier to quantify nature in terms of monetary value, or dollars. This, in turn, makes it easier to present a case to government and other agencies that we should make room for parks and open space or to not cut down forests or shave mountains for minerals and fuel. While I grudgingly agree that this is unfortunately the reality, I don’t like it. I don’t need a study to tell me how depressing it’s going to be when all the big predatory mammals are extinct in 50 years, or how much better I feel when I exercise on a trail versus in the gym. I don’t like that we are continuing to think of nature in terms of dollars instead of thinking of nature as a part of us and as something fundamentally necessary to our very existence. Do we need a study to tell us that having air is a good thing? That sunshine is a key component of life on earth? That without our skin, we’d be dead?

Thinking of nature in terms of dollars only helps proliferate the insane notion that “jobs” are more important than a healthy environment and that “progress” means turning natural resources into personal or corporate wealth. It seems to dismiss the feeling we have as humans that it’s better to have a beautiful, natural, clean place to live than to live in chaos and pollution surrounded by concrete.

It’s not Richard’s Louv’s fault. He’s well-intentioned and is one of the few people to tackle this important topic, which is that we have lost our way and turned our backs from the very essence of ourselves, and we are turning a very dangerous corner as a result. Our action and in-action has not just doomed us, it has doomed millions of species of plants and animals that co-habitate this planet with us. War, poverty, politics, the economy – none of this will matter when we’re too hungry and too sick to do anything about it.

Louv mentions several people in the book who decided to sell their city homes and move to the country, where apparently they experienced the bliss they had been missing their entire lives. This isn’t for everyone. I know many people who would prefer to live in the hustle and bustle of a major metropolitan area than contemplate trees in the country. I myself feel the call to live more in connection nature, in a place where the loudest sounds are bird chirps and the rustling of the wind through the pines and junipers. For personal reasons, these stories were the most inspiring parts of the book for me. I also liked when Louv took a break from citing studies and interviewing people and just talked about his own experiences and insights. The vulnerability of these passages lent the book a bit of authenticity and heart, which I appreciated.

Although the subject matter of this book is near and dear to my heart, and I agree wholeheartedly with Louv’s thesis and musings, the style of writing felt tiresome after a while. Louv introduces us to dozens and dozens of individuals, often a new one each paragraph, to illustrate the points he’s trying to make. Here’s a woman who is living a very sustainable life in a suburb…here’s a man who’s done a marvelous job connecting families with nature…here’s a couple who went for it and bought a farm in the country and are now dedicated to preserving nature for others… The list is long, and it doesn’t make for a satisfying read. It feels like overkill for something that you “got” five paragraphs into the chapter. For the cerebral, logical types who need to see charts and statistics, this will be gratifying. But for me, it smacked of the same choppy pacing of a reality show with fast-forward zooms and punchy editing.

Toward the end of the book, Louv laments that there aren’t any educational choices for people who want to learn how to connect people with nature. I disagree, obviously, having attained a masters’ degree in ecopsychology from Naropa. Naropa used to have an excellent Wilderness Therapy program, which incorporated outdoor education with the principles of ecopsychology. I know that Naropa isn’t the only accredited school that is offering these kinds of programs. Of all the research Louv had done, he definitely overlooked this one.

Overall, The Nature Principle is a good read for someone looking for a few good reasons to get outdoors and experience nature, or needing hard evidence to cite for others who aren’t so inclined. I suspect, however, that Louv is preaching to the choir on this one. The only audience for this book is probably one that’s already well-aware of the human-nature connection.