Well, the news doesn’t sound good, some say.
There’s really no way to candy-coat it – the future looks pretty bleak for the wild places we love. It’s a message we’re more than familiar with by now. But, according to Richard Louv, the guest speaker at the Outdoor Industry Association’s kickoff breakfast this morning, perhaps the most potent threat to future environmental protection comes not from loggers, miners or the captains of industry, but rather from apathy.
It turns out we’ve been starving the nation’s young people of contact with the natural world. And it turns out that it matters.
Louv is the author of the recently published Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The Outdoor Industry Association invited him to address attendees at this summer’s Outdoor Retailer as part of their ongoing effort to provide commentary on broad cultural trends that have an impact on the outdoor industry. And given what Richard Louv had to say, it is clear that present trends in how kids relate to the natural world could have a monumental impact, not just on the outdoor industry, but on the future of wild places as well.
According to Mr. Louv, for tens of thousands of years kids have had an abundance of unstructured experiences in the natural world by going out into the woods to play. Meanwhile, during the past few decades there has been a dramatic reversal of this process, as kids spend increasing amounts of time indoors, plugged in, and cut off from the possibilities of wonder and engagement that the natural world has to offer them. Mr. Louv reported that American kids now spend an average of forty-four hours a week in front of computers, playing video games or watching television. And if they’re not in front of some kind of screen, there’s a good chance that they’re doing homework, practicing an instrument, or engaged in some other structured activity that keeps them inside.
In addition to having both feet firmly planted in the media culture and suffering from chronic over-scheduling, kids also have to contend with the changing nature of the places they live. Louv cited examples of Homeowners’ Associations that have outlawed much of what used to be considered normal outdoor child activity. In many planned communities forts and tree houses are forbidden, and in some neighborhoods children are no longer allowed to go outside and simply draw on sidewalks with chalk. Louv also argues that in addition to crowded schedules and social norms that are increasingly hostile to the existence of unfettered children, there has also been a dramatic increase in the perception of what he calls “Stranger Danger.” Parents are frequently gripped by the fear that unsupervised children will be abducted or otherwise harmed by strangers if they are allowed to stray too far from home. The result is that most kids will never know what it feels like to explore the natural world on their own terms as many of us did when we were growing up.
So what does all of this have to do with the future of wild places, or maybe even more pointedly, with backpacking? The upshot seems to be that as fewer and fewer kids have compelling experiences in nature, we are likely to see a corresponding collapse in environmental constituency as these children mature into adulthood and become the future’s majority. And without a committed constituency, it is unlikely that the places we love, which are already so frequently threatened, stand much of a chance over the long haul. So while this summer’s Outdoor Retailer is the largest show in the event’s history, and while thousands of retailers, manufacturers, and media people exhaust themselves trying to catch the latest and most likely trends in the industry, the most significant trend may be that the industry itself faces an uncertain future.