A few weeks ago myself, my wife and a few friends went away for the weekend. As we live in São Paulo, the population of which is around 18 million, it was a relief to get back into nature, on the island Ilha Grande, a well-protected nature reserve with no cars. It was utter bliss, being on clean and well-maintained beaches lined by trees rather than buildings, diving in rock pools and waterfalls, swimming in lagoons, and exploring trails.
Brazil never invested in railways, and hence on public holidays there is a mass exodus out of São Paulo, and a mass crawl back to the metropolis which can mean many hours stuck in traffic which struggles to get up to crawling pace even in the middle of nowhere, and hundreds of thousands of cars jam the few singletrack roads through the tropical and sub-tropical Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica).
Our way there and back took us along a small road with insanely twisty and steep switchbacks, a plunging descent from the mountain road which claims the lives of many a car each day which do not have the mechanical strength or skills of the driver to negotiate it, clutches and brakes destroyed. As we made our way up the descent, we were stationary for over an hour or so, and as it was hot I opened the car window. Greeting me was the most joyful, sensuous, richly harmonious birdsong, reverberating the bright tones which sounded like monumental raindrops splashing on resonating crystal. I felt a deep connection with this enchanted symphony, and yearned to be free of cars, free of people, alone in the forest enjoying this sensory overload of nature’s music.
My enjoyment was rudely shattered by the sudden explosion of cheesy Brazilian techno erupting for the car behind us, deafening us all, destroying the moment with the repetitive banging of a sound system more suited to a stadium. But I had a made a reconnection to nature I desperately miss living in the dirty sprawl that is São Paulo, and I was grateful even for those few short moments.
In the photo above, of me under the waterfall on Ilha Grande, and my caption is about how jumping in waterfalls is just one of the ways to rapidly recover from Nature Deficit Disorder. This term was introduced by Richard Louv in 2008 in his book Last Child in the Woods, which highlighted the link between the technologically immersed lives of children, their lack of experiences in nature, and growing trends such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.
“The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
Louv has now followed up this work in his new book The Nature Principle, after hearing many adults speaking “with heartfelt emotion, even anger, about this separation, but also about their own sense of loss.” In my previous article I spoke about how I am running classes with business students on chaos and complexity, and shared some of their own thoughts having taken the classes. Teaching chaos and complexity in the classroom is one thing, but I really feel that these lessons need to be complemented with more experiential teachings out in nature.
There is no greater artist than mother nature
– Simon Robinson
I told you the story at the start of this article for good reason. Sometimes as adults we can be so lost in our thoughts, lost in our egos, lost in technology, that we fail to notice what is around us. We are so stuck “in our heads” that we are losing the capabilities of our senses, and our ability to really feel nature. Thus that part of our selves which comprehends nature through our intuition gets lost, and we become so far removed from nature that we have no feeling for the livingness of nature, for how we are embedded in nature, and we lose sight of any notion of the destructive forces of human beings on our delicate ecosystem.
The Nature Principle describes a philosophy, at the heart of which are the following precepts, which Louv suggests describe “a single force.”
- The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need to achieve natural balance.
- The mind/body/nature connection, also called vitamin N (for nature), will enhance physical and mental health.
- Utilizing both technology and nature experience will increase our intelligence, creative thinking, and productivity, giving birth to the hybrid mind.
- Human/nature social capital will enrich and redefine community to include all living things.
- In the new purposeful place, natural history will be as important as human history to regional and personal identity.
- Through biophilic design, our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and towns will not only conserve watts, but also produce human energy.
- In relationship with nature, an expanded ecological consciousness in the high-performance human will conserve and create natural habitat — and new economic potential — where we live, learn, work, and play.
In the first chapter Louv addresses our need to live a fuller life in the senses. This is something I always cover in my teachings on complexity, via Jung’s mandala, a deceptively simply framework for describing four ways of knowing; thinking, sensing, feeling and intuition. Louv discusses much new research which looks not only at the much wider conception of human senses, which is far higher than the normal five of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. It seems that a life drenched in technology is having a dramatic impact on the more subtle human senses such as proprioception, the awareness of your body’s position in space. Of the many interesting studies quoted, one from the US Army shows how narrow a field of experience some of us may be living in:
In separate research, the U.S. military has studied how some soldiers and Marines can apparently use their latent senses to detect roadside bombs and other hazards in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Military researchers have found that two groups of personnel are par- Nature N e u r o n s / 1 7 ticularly good at spotting anomalies: those with hunting backgrounds, who traipsed through the woods as youths looking to bag a deer or turkey; and those who grew up in tough urban neighborhoods, where it is often important to know what gang controls which block,” reported Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times.
A common factor seemed to be at work: plenty of experience outside the home and outside the electronic bubble, in an environment that demands better use of the senses. Army Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, conducted the research. The eighteen-month- long study of eight hundred military personnel at several bases found that the best bomb-spotters were rural people, familiar with hunting, who signed on with the South Carolina National Guard. According to Burnett, “They just seemed to pick up things much better. . . . They know how to look at the entire environment.”
And the other young soldiers, the ones who were raised with Game Boys and spent weekends at the mall? By and large, these enlistees lacked the ability to see nuances that might enable a soldier to spot a hidden bomb. Even with perfect vision, they lacked the special ability, that combination of depth perception, peripheral vision, and instinct, if you will, to see what was out of place in the environment. Their focus was narrow, as if they were seeing the world in a set format, “as if the windshield of their Humvee [was] a computer screen,” Perry wrote. Sgt. Maj. Burnett put it this way: The gamers were “focused on the screen rather than the whole surrounding.”
– Richard Love The Nature Principle, p16 – 17
Louv has written his book to inspire us to remember that we need to balance our technological lives with time spent in nature. Louv contends that “a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival.” It can be hard not to sound evangelical when discussing Nature Deficit Disorder, and adults who I recognise as suffering from it can have no recognition that this is in fact the case. For me immersion in nature is the difference between discussing sustainability from an intellectual perspective, from talking about pattern and relationship, emergence and self-organisation, and a deep connection and reverence for nature, one of knowing that there is no greater artist than mother nature, nature as a teacher of the principles of life and human values.
I often talk in classes about mental models and how our different mental models can give us a different way of seeing reality to those we work and live with, literally. But the Nature Principle shows us how a connection with nature can dramatically augment our reality, make it richer, more rewarding and sensuous, opening us up to new experiences, insights and wonder. If you are not familiar with Louv’s work he has made Chapter One available as a free download. It strongly resonates within me, and perhaps it will with you too?