Do We Suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder?

Do We Suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder?

Some say mine is the last generation to know what it means to engage in unstructured outdoor play. Though I grew up in the city, I enjoyed plenty of endless summer days on my cousins’ farm in Missouri. My favorite childhood memories include building hay forts in their barn, riding dirt bikes on back roads, and jumping off the dock into the muddy pond. Limited adult supervision and vast woods to be explored assured that the words “I’m bored” never crossed our minds.

Nighttime brought new adventure. We often camped outside with nothing but our sleeping bags and a million stars hanging over us. The darkness of the open Missouri sky may as well have been a whole different world—this Southern California girl had never seen such a spectacular display. I took it all in as my cousins pointed out various constellations and planets, even satellites.

These sweet summer memories flooded back to me when I stumbled across the book Last Child in the Woods by child advocacy expert Richard Louv. The author’s thesis is that as children spend less time living in natural surroundings and more time interacting with electronic media, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically. This broken bond between children and nature produces a deficit and that must be addressed, he says. Louv even goes so far as to say that our mental, physical, and spiritual health is at stake. He calls this state the “nature-deficit disorder.” The author’s remedy for this lack of exposure to nature is simple: build tree houses, explore gullies, experience the outdoors.

Though Louv’s ideas are not widely known among mainstream culture, aspects of his thesis are shared by other education researchers, such as Neil Postman. Louv’s book caused me to reflect on the differences between urban and unindustrialized people groups and their views about the existence of a Creator. From a Christian worldview, God has revealed Himself two ways: through nature (Psalm 19:1–6; Romans 1:27–29) and Scripture. I wonder, then, what effect city living has on people in terms of their appreciation of general revelation (nature).

Is the percentage of belief in God higher among those living in rural areas (closer to God’s creation)? And is the percentage of atheism higher in urban areas? Does urbanization cause a lack of general revelation awareness? On the surface, the idea that nature—not just a theoretical knowledge of it but an experiential interaction with it—is foundational to facilitate humanity’s proper spiritual development seems compelling. It makes me curious about whether this has actually been studied. (A cursory Google search didn’t turn up much.)

When I read words in Psalm 19 that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” there is a part of me that is swept away once again to those warm summer nights sleeping outside in my cousins’ homemade fort, looking up at the stars. But I came to realize (after working at Reasons to Believe for several years) the breadth of the ways that being a lifelong city dweller had stunted my knowledge of general revelation. My experiential knowledge of the night sky is severely limited. I’m not in tune with the movements of the sky because I spend almost zero time outside.

Without agrarian experiences, our appreciation of the record of nature becomes increasingly stunted—even our understanding of Scripture can become truncated. Unlike the authors of Scripture, many of us (myself included) have virtually no firsthand knowledge of even the most basic agrarian experiences. Growing up, the ancient Israelites likely would have witnessed the birth of a calf, experienced the death of a loyal work animal, walked a worn path in the woods, seen a bird nested in the rock crags, waded into the Jordan River, slept on their roof on a hot summer night, and gazed into the night sky. Observations based on nature permeate Scripture, especially the wisdom literature.

The author of Proverbs repeatedly calls on readers to consider the world around them. The author of Job includes a wide array of descriptions of animal behavior. And so on. Consider how you can take time to dwell in the outdoors and expand your experiences of God’s creation. A family trip to the beach or camping can become much more meaningful when it’s viewed through the lens of general and special revelation.