Losing Our Connection to Nature: Is Sustainability at Risk?

Sustainability is often defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The focus of this article is on those “future generations” and how they might feel about nature when they grow up. Will the children who inherit the Earth, and the potential issues that might still remain unresolved, feel the innate desire to preserve it? Or is our connection to nature being lost?

This interesting and thought provoking concept was introduced to me by Kim Marshall McLean, a PhD classmate of mine at George Mason University and a NOAA Biologist. Kim is researching how exposure to the outdoors and the lessons learned in nature shape our understanding and even our intelligence. The sociological and environmental information gathered from this kind of research is far reaching and has implications for business as well. It is the hope that future leaders, especially those in business, will retain the close kinship with nature. But if our childrens’ ability to connect with the natural world is replaced by greater exposure to technology and less interactive learning environments and recreation, will future generations be able to adequately preserve the Earth that is left to them?

Why is the Connection to Nature Important?

A concern and care for the Earth is typically sparked as children experience the grandness and amazement found in nature. As budding environmental stewards, our passion for preservation and dedication to sustainability stems from a desire to continue enjoying what nature has to offer. Even more than that, our connection to nature and the lessons we learn being in the “wild” not only keeps us dedicated to its preservation, but nature provides us with many benefits, not simply the natural resources we rely upon.

The biophilia hypothesis, introduced and popularized by Edward O. Wilson, suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. This bond is formed from the time we are born and is nurtured as we grow and play. The research conducted in this area further drives home the importance of environmental education. Research shows that children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature (Taylor et al. 2001) and that exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills (Pyle 2002). Recent research even shows that play in a diverse natural environment reduces or eliminates bullying (Malone & Tranter 2003).

What is Happening to the Connection?

Today, adults and children alike are “plugged in” most of their day. Between computers, video games, television and texting, our lives are tied more to technology than ever before. This change is also evident at school, where programs involving field trips, recreation and outdoor learning have all been significantly limited, primarily due to strict policies set forth in legislation like No Child Left Behind. How and where will future generations get their love and appreciation for the outdoors?

Award winning naturalist, Richard Louv, talks about nature’s evolving frontier and its impacts on future generations. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Louv claims that “in the space of a century, the American experience of nature…has gone from direct utilitarianism, to romantic attachment, to electronic detachment.”

Reconnecting Ourselves

There are ways to correct this electronic detachment and connecting to nature can be done in many ways. Parents have the ability to teach their children about the importance of our environment by simply taking them outdoors and exposing them to the overwhelming beauty of our world. Educational systems, primarily K-12, need to re-institute recreation and field trips outside of the classroom to reinforce the lessons taught from books.

Finally, business has an important role as well. Implementing sustainability plans, making genuine commitments to environmental protection and engaging employees in the cause will ensure that the connection we feel to nature and its recognized importance will be sustained. Future generations will therefore be expected to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives. If sustainability can become a common thread woven into our lives, it will effectively become second nature.

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.

4 responses

  1. Excellent article. This is a topic that needs more attention, and an area of school curriculum that should be integrated with all others. In fact, when it is, learning becomes experiential, and thus more effective.

    I would love to get involved in implementing the findings of research in this area within education. Any recommendations for how to do this?

    1. Alethea-

      Thank you for your comment!I will put you in touch with Kim Mclean…even if she doesn’t need assistance now, she very well might in the future and she will know who else is doing what. I think it is super interesting too and not an area I was previously focused on.

      Can you send me an e-mail at wesselca@gmail.com with your contact info?



  2. I am very grateful for bringing this topic to the discussion. I definitely adhere to your opinion that contemporary elementary education is becoming more and more removed from so called nature-loving concept of education. Instead of that children are more tied to technology. However I think that not only the government should be held responsible for improving children´s positive relationship with the nature but it should be an inseparable part of parents’ initiative.

  3. I think its time for a serious wake-call for all interested in ecology, sustainability and education; There is simply no proof that there is such a thing as a “connection” to nature. This has been the main thrust of the environmental movement, going back 40+ years, and contrary to popular belief (as opposed to knowledge) teaching children to be good stewards of the earth by taking them out into the wilderness has proved to be a dismal failure. Just look around at the state of things.
    Educators need to equip students with skills to turn the economic tides so that sustainability is simply profitable-even if that means adopting long term outlooks. Anything else is irresponsible.

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