Updated at 8:55 p.m. Feb. 7, 2013
Richard Louv wore blue jeans, black boots and a dark long-sleeved shirt. His whispy gray hair circled a bald spot. He spoke of despair.
Answering a question near the end of an appearance Wednesday night in Carlsbad, the author of eight books including the celebrated Last Child in the Woods said:
“If you ask (Americans) to describe the far future, what it’s going to look like, I think the image that pops up is … Blade Runner, Hunger Games—a post-Apocalyptic world in which nature is stripped.”
With dismay he recalled meeting a young woman during his campus speaking tours who said: “I’m 20 years old. All my life I’ve been told it’s too late,” referring to the ravages of climate change and environmental decline.
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Louv told an audience of 400 at the Cultural Arts Center that any movement will fail if it can’t paint a picture of a better world.
“We have to start developing an image of the future we want to go to,” said Louv, a former San Diego Union columnist who coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” and testified in 2007 before Congress on behalf of “No Child Left Inside”—schooling that connects kids with nature.
He stressed several times that a “child’s connection to the natural world should be considered a human right,” and hoped that Family Nature Clubs—with more than 100 in San Diego County—would become a worldwide movement.
At the ticketed event sponsored by Sanderling Waldorf School, Administrative Director Tim Connolly introduced Louv to a like-minded audience, many of them educators seeking inspiration.
Louv spoke of the growing movement of Family Nature Clubs—which give kids a chance to be outdoors while stanching the stranger-danger fears of parents.
“I don’t use the phrase ‘Back to nature,’” he said in a 45-minute talk. “Society needs to see nature as an opportunity—not as something in the past.”
Louv, a 63-year-old Scripps Ranch resident, was a liberal firebrand in his youth—a University of Kansas yearbook editor during the divisive late 1960s.
But he’s learned in recent years about what he calls “the special power” of nature to bring people together.
When he testified before Congress, “All they could do”—Democrats and Republicans alike—“was talk about their (childhood outdoor) special places,” he said. “You couldn’t shut them up.”
Developers have sought his counsel, said Louv, who signed copies of The Nature Principle at the event.
Two recent secretaries of the Interior—one under George W. Bush and outgoing Secretary Ken Salazar—have been disciples of Louv’s mission, even carrying dog-eared copies of his seminal book.
Louv said Sally Jewell, the REI executive nominated Wednesday to be Salazar’s successor at Interior, was a personal friend “who would be another friend [of his nature cause] at Interior.”
And despite fears that he’d be attacked by religious conservatives for touting “nature worship,” Louv said he was a celebrated guest on Pat Robertson’s Christian TV show The 700 Club.
“Smart religious people … almost always understand intuitively that special experience begins with wonder,” the kind he described having as a child in Rayton, MO—“crawling through the grass … seeing the life that was there.”
He said small children who discover that they aren’t the only species is powerful, a revelation that “stays with them their whole life.”
But watching CNN or Fox—with their emphasis on terrible crimes against children—gives the public an impression of a world reeking with danger, he said.
“This fear has been growing exponentially,” he said, even though he noted such myths as strangers putting razors in apples at Halloween. That may have happened among family members, he said he was told by a researcher. But it’s never been documented being done by a stranger.
He told of awards given “natural teachers”—one in the Bay Area earned a trip to the Galapagos Island—and suggested such efforts to seed the movement are “self-replicating.”
“The wave of the future is positive social change” at the grass roots of society, he said—not through government action or big-money donors.
Louv said the world crossed a line in 2008 when for the first time more people lived in cities than the countryside. But he held out hope for a re-imagining of city life that includes “nearby nature” for people to enjoy.
He asked audience members how many of them, as children, had found surveyor stakes in the woods—and removed them for play.
Dozens of hands shot up.
“I hereby induct you into the Secret Society of Stake Holders,” he said.