By Jim Miller
Over the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at a variety of forums along with folks from other activist groups about what needs to be done in the age of Trump. During one of these events at Grossmont College, I was struck by something a colleague of mine who leads nature expeditions for the Sierra Club said about his students and their relationship or lack thereof to the natural world.
Ten years ago, he observed, about half of the students he dealt with had had some experience hiking in the backcountry, roaming the desert, or visiting a state or national park, but that number has been consistently shrinking over the last decade or so.
He told a few stories of students on their first venture into the wild being afraid of getting attacked by mountain lions. Initially many of them are not sure what to do or how to act outside of the city. The experience, he explained, is uncomfortable for them at first, but, after some reassurance and education, they open their eyes to the wonder of the world.
The question this raises, he noted, is how can we get young people, for many of whom the idea of nature is an abstraction at best, to care about the destruction of the environment or climate change? How do you get worked up about losing something you never knew existed no less had any affection for in the first place?
Forget about polar bears, what if you’ve never even seen a real forest or ventured past a river or lake?
All those endangered birds and beasts along with the costs of climate change for the natural world are things that only exist outside of your bubble. They might be something you see in the movies or as a screen saver on your laptop, but they are not something that is part of your lived experience. Indeed, not just children, but many young and not so young adults are fundamentally alienated from the world.
So as those of us who care about the natural world and what climate change will do to all things wild and domesticated bemoan the rise of the fossil fuel plutocrats in Washington, D.C., one of the things that might be a barrier to building a movement to stop them is the basic fact that to millions of Americans, the natural world may just as well not exist.
Richard Louv explains this problem in his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder:
In some ways, environmental organizations face the same force of attrition that newspapers now encounter with the aging of their readership. On average, American newspaper subscribers are in their early and mid-forties, and climbing, as subscription rates fall. The Sierra Club members’ average age is now pushing fifty, and climbing. In a country whose young are more culturally and ethnically diverse than ever (and nature is valued in radically different ways and degrees among some of these cultures), environmentalists look increasingly old and white. All the more reason for environmental and conservation groups to triple their efforts to reach the young . . . The immediate challenge, however, is for such organizations to ask themselves if their policies, and cultural attitudes, are subtly adding to the separation.
If young people with “nature deficit disorder” are suffering from increased rates of obesity, ADHD and depression, and more alienation from one of the things that make us fully human than kids with the good fortune to have access to nature, then it is a moral obligation to do what we can to open the doors of the world to them—and do so in a way that speaks their needs.
It is also now abundantly clear that in the age of Trump, just as teaching critical thinking skills and respect for fact-based, free inquiry has been politicized by a cabal that rejects them, the simple act of taking kids into nature might be both good for our physical and mental health as well as a form of resistance to the heedless murder of the earth brought to us by the new regime.
So, when your social media feed has driven you to despair, take a hike with a young person. Beyond the screens–the beach, the woods, the desert, the gorgeous endangered wild.
You need to learn to love it to want to save it.