Critique of Last Child in the Woods

By Eli Witek

Author Richard Louv provides a heartfelt if flawed case for the necessary existence of what we refer to as ‘nature’ for the healthy growth of a child in the United States in his book Last Child In the Woods, published 2005.  His argumentation style presents his position as commonsensical, which unfortunately doesn’t allow for a clear elucidation and assessment of the opinions held by dissenters.  Without counter-arguments, the author comes off as if he is preaching to the choir.  Louv also overly relies on nostalgia and cheesy imagined scenes, and thus undermines his strongest point–the need for nature in human existence–which is further undermined by being presented as obvious.  Louv manages to quite thoroughly describe what he calls a ‘nature-deficit disorder’ without truly examining the underlying causes.  The purposes of the book seem to be more oriented towards convincing the general public of the authenticity of a link between our current problems (obesity, ADD, depression) and our increasing disconnection from the environment, than examining the disconnection itself.  The author argues that this disconnection is a disease, while discussing and proposing solutions that only address the symptoms (disease indicators).  Without a closer analysis, the book and Louv’s position feels massively lacking, arranged (such as it is) in alternating statistics, anecdotes, and blanket unquestioned assertions.

Ultimately, Louv’s points are entirely colored by traditional Western, Christian beliefs, which suspiciously poke out of the corners of otherwise coherent arguments until the last section in the book, where Louv finally extends his argument from necessity of human-nature connection to encompass the usual, and ill-advised, notion of ‘God.’  Here is his real thesis: “We cannot care for God if we do not care for his creation.” (299)  By presenting the above as an unquestioned fact, he is almost, but not quite, saying that we cannot care for nature if we do not care for God.  Like many believers, Louv is unable envision a world in which the absence of a God character (used virtually interchangeably with the term ‘spirituality’) does not immediately dissolve ones morals, identity, and connection to the world.  He quotes ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan, “‘Science is the human


endeavor in which we are frequently reminded how wrong we can be.’  If scientists rely only on reason, then ‘our work has no meaning.  It needs to be placed in some spiritual context.’” Louv begins a new paragraph and writes, “So does the environment. Children are the key.”  (303)  Louv commits the logical fallacy ‘begging the question,’ which follows a line of reasoning whereby a conclusion is claimed, or assumed, and is therefore true.  Obviously, just assuming something is true does not provide evidence that it is.  The fact that one fellow happens to think science is meaningless without a spiritual dimension is not a proof that either he or the author are correct in this assumption.  One would imagine than anyone buying the idea of God in the first place would think anything without spiritual context is meaningless.

Another example of Louv’s leaps in logic is his attribution of the radical difference in the way children now experience nature to a kind of technological anti-naturism.  Blaming technology oversimplifies our society’s’ trajectory—a “bad habits” argument that fails to actually question why we have arrived where we are, which also nicely avoids blaming anyone specifically while blaming almost everyone generally.  From the onset, Louv is as vague on what nature actually is as he is on why, exactly, we have engendered such a de-natured society:  “For the purposes of this book, when I use the word ‘nature’ in a general way I mean natural wildness: biodiversity, abundance — related loose parts in a backyard or a rugged mountain ridge.  Most of all, nature is reflected in our capacity for wonder.  Nasci.  To be born.” (8)  Although we instinctually “know” what nature is, what Louv is referring to, perhaps it is that very assumption of knowing that needs to be examined.  After all, is it not likely that our basic assumptions on nature and humans have led us to our present disconnect between the two?

And, what, exactly, do those last three lines mean?  “Most of all”—so, most importantly– “nature is reflected in our capacity for wonder.”  Nature is understood in our anthropocentric (human-centered) terms, for what it inspires in us, which seems like another disconnect from the actual ‘nature.’  Nasci is Latin, often used in the full phrase nascor, nasci, natus– to be born, to spring forth.  Louv employs weak sentimentality to contend that the way we can reconnect with nature is through rekindling our wonder and


admiration of being born, of our origins.  At the very least, Louv is revealing how the distinction between the human and the natural world is part of the fundamental structure of our language.  But Louv’s actual point behind his emphasis on wonder and birth in solving our broken relations with the world is revealed through the words of the religious environmentalist Paul Gorman in Louv’s final section; “(The future is) about awakening to creation… The most important thing is the awakening.  That joy of awakening and discovery is what it’s like to be a child.” (302)  In the middle of quotes by Gorman, Louv says, “Through nature, the species is introduced to transcendence, in the sense that there is something more going on than the individual.  Most people are either awakened to or are strengthen in their spiritual journey by experiences in the natural world.” (302)  The statement is not put in terms of what Paul Gorman believes, or even the author’s own opinion, but rather presented as simple fact.  The implication is that not only are the non-religious not truly connected to nature, but that if only they were, they would of course be ‘awakened to their spiritual journey.’  Maybe this would not be such an issue if Louv gave an explanation of what spirituality actually is, for him (at least within the book) rather than using it in a way that is interchangeable with “connection to nature” and belief in God.  Spirituality does not necessarily equate to transcendence, and contrariwise, transcendence does not have to be tied to spirituality, and neither must hew to traditional Western conceptions of a deity.  Like the term ‘nature,’ an exact definition of ‘spiritual’ is elusive and easily malleable to suit purposes and philosophies.  The author is remiss in utilizing this term without at least acknowledging its tricky, multi-faceted character.

Louv continued to demonstrate a continuance of Western ideology and the incredibly familiar and deeply ingrained hierarchy imposed by religion.  The collected history of Occidental Christian thought has instilled the basic perception that humans are experiencing the world in a way that is superior to all other things (and not even all humans, more like just white men), which is not only an obvious source of our disconnection from nature, but also serves and has served as the justification for many kinds of oppression throughout the whole of human existence.  Louv’s own ingrained human/nature divide is evidenced when he, talking about educational programs that incorporate the natural world, abruptly wonders: “What message will the students take


home about human involvement in nature?  Will they learn that humans have always shaped nature in order to sustain it, in order to survive?  This question is at the heart of the future of environmentalism.” (233)   Here is another statement that appears virtually out of nowhere – this time smack in the middle of a pile of anecdotes.  Louv’s seemingly innocuous wondering obscures his basic assumption that humans and nature are two separate things.

Even for beloved Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, humans are the only being to substantially alter the world:

“Considering the whole span of earthly of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.”  (Carson, The State and Nature, 236)

The fact that she is writing from 1962 should only shock one at how, even less than 50 years ago, almost everything in the Western world was determined in terms of and through the eyes of, men.  And even though Carson is telling a cautionary tale, the quote reveals our ingrained collective assumption of uniqueness.  We often involuntarily ignore that all creatures alter their environment in order to sustain it, and in order to survive.  The fact that we were much quicker at altering things hardly seems like an indication of our superiority, especially as it seems to have been generally for the worse.  We only see through our limited eyes, and with our limited sense of time.  And of course, the Bible tells us that the earth is less than 7,000 years old and God created the bunny rabbits just as they are now. The earth then is not conceived of as dynamic and forever changing, of which we are just a part, but as a static resource, God-given.  There are traditionally only two choices: humans may abuse the earth (nature) as they see fit, or they assume stewardship. In his afterword, written in 2008, Louv makes it clear that the idea of stewardship, for him, is not far away from that of ownership.  Pulling on heartstrings with an anecdote about an old rancher: “And then the man began to cry.  Despite his embarrassment, he continued to speak, describing the source of his sudden grief—that he


might belong to one of the last generations of Americans to feel that sense of ownership of land and nature.” (Notes from the Field 357)

When we consider ‘nature’ or ‘the world’ in traditional Western terms, we are subconsciously distancing humans from all other living things, sorting ourselves into one category and everything else into another.  Humans and nature become an I/Other relationship, where humans are of course the “I” and the “Other” is not-I.  Although Othering does not necessarily equate to oppression, it often provides the basic justification.  To define ourselves by what we are not has gone hand in hand, historically, with baseless suppositions on what is superior and what is inferior, the latter of which is presumed to not deserve the same privileges as the former, and moreover, actually deserves to be exploited.

Louv quotes Jennifer Wolch, who actually examines this issue of the human/nature as a false dichotomy, and deserves to be quoted in full (along with Louv’s response):

“‘Agreement about the human/animal divide has recently collapsed,” she writes.  “Critiques of post-Enlightenment science have undermined claims of human-animal discontinuity, and exposed the deeply anthropocentric and androcentric roots of modernist science.  Greater understanding of animal thinking and capabilities now reveals the astonishing range and complexity of animal behavior and social life, while studies of human biology and behavior emphasize the similarity of humans to other animals.  Claims about human uniqueness have thus been rendered deeply suspicious.’

“Some of us, myself included, are less comfortable with a total rearrangement of the relationship.  We’re not quite ready to pass laws requiring equal housing for possums.” (249)

Like those who make the argument that legalizing gay marriage will lead to people marrying donkeys and rocks, Louv is being dismissive and reductive.  When he finally invokes God five chapters later, Louv degenerates into improvable patter and sentimental claptrap.  When Mister Rogers, of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, tells the


authors young son that Mother Earth and God are kind of like your mom and dad, Louv attempts to defend this useless and ridiculous story by saying “Maybe this statement isn’t exactly politically correct (what about single parents?) But it worked for Matthew. Then Mister Rogers said something so quietly only my son could hear, and Matthew smiled.” (306)  Even besides the fact that this story only contains a thin metaphor about Earth and God and tells us exactly nothing about anything he’s been talking about, Louv forgets about kids with gay parents, kids with a lot of parents, few parents, no parents, and any other possible way there is to be in a family.

While I appreciate and actually agree with Louv’s greatest point–leave no child left inside–his arguments were all too often based on faulty reasoning, assumed paradigms, and touchy-feely appeals to emotion.