The journalist and writer Richard Louv has coined and popularized an extremely catchy way of diagnosing something that is going wrong with our technology-rich, time-poor and ever more urban lives. Starting with Last Child in the Woods in 2005, and followed by The Nature Principle last year, and along with a host of media coverage and some creative engagement with public policy in the US, the idea is really taking hold: somehow, in some prosaic and ill-defined way, we are in the grip, collectively and individually, of a nature deficit.
Oh I know you may sigh, kids play too many computer games, and grown-ups are all too busy at work. Well yes, but that is only the start. In fact if we are to rethink what we mean by a happy, fulfilling and worthwhile life, then getting out and about in the fresh air is hardly a radical idea. By all means go for a jog around the park, walk the dog, go camping, plant a flower or grow some vegetables; will it do you good? Probably, but this is no way to treat your nature deficit.
In his memoir Nothing To Be Frightened Of the novelist Julian Barnes talks carefully and brazenly to his brother about death. The conversation forces him to question what we really have as a secular modern ideal of the well-lived life:
‘the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it - doesn’t it?”
You may add in your own extras - making a difference, raising a family, reading, gardening and so on - to flesh out his caricature of the good life, but what the idea of a nature deficit does is quite arresting. It is not simply that nature-stuff is missing from the list, but that revelling in our freedom, choice and individualism has allowed us to compartmentalize our lives to such an extent that the very idea of making ‘a list’ does not actually seem that preposterous. But it is. Given a post-it note, of course we would all make different lists. The point is not what is on the list, but rather how we integrate everything we do in our lives, and how we connect our awareness of ourselves to the wider world that grants us our tiny, extraordinary lives.
If we dissect this word ‘nature’, we find a far more curious and illuminating word hibernating inside: ecology. In a recent edition of the British Medical Journal there is a headline essay by a team from City University called Ecological public health - the 21st Century’s big idea? They argue that public health policy up until now has typically been preoccupied with sanitation infrastructure (sewers), mass-vaccination programs, private spending on medicine and efforts to change behaviors (nudge them), as well as an overall expectation that a general growth in knowledge (following from general economic growth) will lead to a generally more healthy population.
These policies have dramatically transformed our prospects, but the team argue that such models are ill suited to the current scenario: with water, biodiversity, soil structures, energy, and biological resilience all now increasingly problematic, public health policy needs to remember that human health ultimately depends on the health of the ecosystems that encompass and support us.
In other words, we might say, our dominant modes of conceptualizing and promoting public health suffer from a nature deficit; not that there is not enough greenery in there, but that its too narrowly focussed on just the actions and consequences of humans - too anthropogenic - and does not consider the wider ecosystems on which our very health depends. Preoccupied with our own fate, we have marginalized the health of the living, natural and physical world when in fact our health is proportional to its vitality.
Ecological thinking is not just about carbon emissions and biodiversity; it is about systems thinking, about relationships, interrelationships and the multilayered overlapping dimensions of the different aspects of existence. Ecological thinking theorizes complexity. To diagnose and engage with our nature deficit, on an ecological understanding, is actually to theorize the complexity of our own socially, culturally and biologically continuous life in a concrete, graspable way. One act - a jog, a walk, a deep breath of dawn breeze - cannot shift the concepts and categories in our own heads; just getting out and about is a necessary, but not a sufficient treatment for our nature deficit.
To really get connected we need to clarify and synthesize; to blend and merge the way we think, believe, speak and act. In ecosystems, as in our own lives, there are always fissures and seams, but nothing is wasted and everything matters. In friendship, in work, and in love: can you say the same for yourself?