This is an archived article.

January 30, 2003

Nature nurtures physical and psychological well-being

Children need rich interactions with nature for their physical and psychological well being. However, nature is suffering, and so are our children, who are growing up in increasingly bleak environments far from the natural world in which humans evolved.


“Even more startling is that we, as adults, hardly know this is happening,” contends a UW psychology professor, Peter Kahn.


Kahn is co-editor of the recently published book “Children and Nature.” The book, published by MIT Press, was co-edited with Stephen Kellert, a professor of social ecology at Yale University.


Kahn asserts in a chapter that he wrote for the book that our impoverished natural environment is partly caused by a condition he calls environmental generational amnesia. By this he means that people take the natural environment they encounter during childhood as the norm against which they measure environmental degradation later in their life. With each ensuing generation, he said, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that degraded condition as the normal experience.


“The upside is that children start fresh, unencumbered mentally by the environmental misdeeds of previous generations,” said Kahn. “But the downside is enormous in that children think what they encounter is the norm in the environment. At some point you understand the baseline is wrong, but you don’t understand it at a visceral level.”


The concept of environmental generational amnesia stems from Kahn’s research, starting with a study that looked at the environmental concepts and values of black children living in Houston. At the time, Kahn was living in Houston, which he calls one of the most environmentally polluted cities in the United States. He remembers waking up many mornings and being “overpowered by the smell of oil refineries.” But the children he talked with in the study often said there was no pollution in Houston, yet they were waking up to the same smell.


Kahn conducted other studies with Brazilian children living in an urban and rural part of the Amazon jungle and with children and young adults in Lisbon, Portugal. In these locations, he found similar beliefs about nature.


People’s experiences with diverse natural ecosystems are rapidly diminishing, Kahn said, despite an ingrained need for it.


“We love nature, need nature and are drawn to the natural world,” he said.” Our connection to the natural world is so deep that some people drive for hours just to walk on the beach.

“The message of this book is that children need a diverse ecosystem for their human well being. Of course, we can adapt to impoverished natural conditions. We do adapt. But it comes at a tremendous psychological cost. As individuals and as a society we can — we must — make different choices.