Science, Science and Society, Technology

Disagreeing with Monbiot

An hour or so ago, the Guardian’s George Monbiot published a new article, with the following headline and tagline:

If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it

With half of their time spent at screens, the next generation will be poorly equipped to defend the natural world from harm

I’ve given a brief comment on it elsewhere, and considered a longform comment on the Guardian’s site, but felt this platform would be the easiest.

Now, before you read further, of course, please do go and read the article. I’m not going to reprint it in its entirety, but want to pull out a few specific bits where, I have to say, I disagree.

He begins with talking about various environmental…problems (to say the least). Climate change, the loss of UK bird species, terrible plant diseases and so forth. He then asks where the marches and protest action are - where the political pressure is.

All fair points, and fair questions. It’s where he goes from there that I have a problem with:

…a second environmental crisis: the removal of children from the natural world. The young people we might have expected to lead the defence of nature have less and less to do with it.

OK, so, a couple of things here. Environmental crises generally relate to, well, a crisis in our natural environment. Not kids interacting with technology. Also, I am confused.  His tagline references ‘the next generation’, whatever that is.  I’m assuming he means people who’ve grown up with the internet and whatnot - people under 20, say. Or does he mean people like me (late twenties/thirties)? Or does he mean our pre-teen people?

Because the funny thing, in such groups, is just how many young people do acknowledge the importance of the environment. Who are spearheading movements on the subjects of climate change, sustainability, and so forth. And what about amazing projects like Minimonos, where screentime is helping kids to better understand the issues around sustainability and the environment, and how to be good guardians of our planet?

More to the point, though - really? You expect our young people to spearhead the defence of nature? What about the older people in our civilisation? You know, the ones who’re running it, and who keep making the policies which keep damaging it.

Anyway, he goes on…

We don’t have to disparage the indoor world, which has its own rich ecosystem, to lament children’s disconnection from the outdoor world. But the experiences the two spheres offer are entirely different. There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.

Do you think he’s aware that that those things are something that children often didn’t get to experience even before screens? Or EVER? I’m thinking urbanised children, for example.And the rustle of a snake in the grass, George, is not often counted as a marvellous experience. It’s generally a terrifying one. Not all natural things are automatically fantastic or beautiful, either. Many are humdrum, or downright dangerous/terrifying/deadly. Sometimes that latter set of characteristics can, sure, make them amazing. It can also kill, main or permanently traumatise people. This sort of elevation to paradise of of the natural world is something I generally see from extremely urban people, not people who actually spend their time in nature, and understand it. If raw nature was so wonderful, after all, why has humanity spent so much time trying to interact with it as little as possible*?

As to experiencing the joys of nature - my most astonishing natural moments have been experienced through things like the BBC’s incredible documentaries, where luminaries like Richard Attenborough explained what was happening, and we got (and still get) to see the most extraordinary things. Things that, were I to put down all screens now, I would still not get to see. Certainly not without getting onto a plane which, as we know, George doesn’t approve of either.

But on to the next point.

The remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature – which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world – is recorded in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust. Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.

There are several reasons for this collapse: parents’ irrational fear of strangers and rational fear of traffic, the destruction of the fortifying commons where previous generations played, the quality of indoor entertainment, the structuring of children’s time, the criminalisation of natural play. The great indoors, as a result, has become a far more dangerous place than the diminished world beyond.

I’m not sure what the ‘criminalisation of natural play is’. I’ve certainly never heard of anyone being held up on criminal charges for it. But yes, the outside world has become more dangerous due to increasing populations and the concommitant pressures (amongst other things).  Of course, I’d point to media hysteria about subjects (like tech and how our ways of doing things are changing, or strangers) for helping to scare people. And you’re right - kids are having their time restructured as they have to do things like study harder and longer. Because the world is getting tougher and tougher as we keep packing more people into it.

The rise of obesity, rickets and asthma and the decline in cardio-respiratory fitness are well documented. Louv also links the indoor life to an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other mental ill health. Research conducted at the University of Illinois suggests that playing among trees and grass is associated with a marked reduction in indications of ADHD, while playing indoors or on tarmac appears to increase them. The disorder, Louv suggests, “may be a set of symptoms aggravated by lack of exposure to nature”. Perhaps it’s the environment, not the child, that has gone wrong.

Awesome, so he quotes this chap Louv ‘s work (I’ve not read the book, so have no idea what his citations are for this assertion), but uses terms like ‘links’ and ‘suggests’. Which sounds not at all like empirical evidence and proof, but rather correlations and possibilities which need to be looked into further.

Monbiot then goes on to talk about the potential importance of exposure to nature in creativity and so forth.  Again, I’m not able to disagree, as I haven’t read his sources.  Certainly, I can see how a concrete playground may be a more mentally constrained space than something with a bit of greenery (although again, I think he needs to be extremely careful here about conflating environment with socio-economic status).  And, in fact, modern urban  planning does place a very emphasis on green public spaces, and people of ALL ages enjoy them. They’re also good environmentally, of course.

Onto the finale, though, and this is my primary issue with the article:

And here we meet the other great loss. Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.

Fantastic.  There are a great many people, though, who believe in its importance and do what they can for it, who didn’t have this immersion. To take your experience and extrapolate it into a general principle which comes across as very strongly anti-technology, seems a bit unfair. Also, how do you count fighting?  I’d argue that recycling and trying to consume as little as possible count as fighting for the environment, for instance. Many of the people who do so are heavily urbanised, and I imagine a great many spend a lot of their time behind screens. If nothing else, potentially because they’re highly educated.

And there’s a flip side to that, too - just because someone spent a lot of their childhood in nature, doesn’t necessarily mean they fight for or respect it. I’m thinking here of countries like New Zealand, which has a green reputation not actually borne up by the behaviour of many of its inhabitants. And yes, childhoods spent in Nature are a major thing over here.

The fact that at least half the published articles on ash dieback have been illustrated with photos of beeches, sycamores or oaks seems to me to be highly suggestive.

OK, so, who wrote those articles? What were their ages? What were their sources? Can you tie their lack of knowledge to the fact that they spend time in front of screens, or that they simply don’t know enough about trees?  Of course, if you’re talking here about journalism, I’d suggest it’s because journalists tend to be time- and specific-knowledge poor. Journalists spend time writing and opining about all sorts of things about which they know very little.

Forest Schools, Outward Bound, Woodcraft Folk, the John Muir Award, the Campaign for Adventure, Natural Connections, family nature clubs and many others are trying to bring children and the natural world back together. But all of them are fighting forces which, if they cannot be turned, will strip the living planet of the wonder and delight, of the ecstasy – in the true sense of that word – that for millennia have drawn children into the wilds.

I wouldn’t blame it on screens*,though.

I think the point is to have a range of resources (including incredible docos like the BBC’s) which allow people of ALL ages to engage with nature and our environments. How they do so is immaterial.

If nothing else, and I think this is part of what prompted my riposte here - _I’m_ a screen kid.  I spent my childhood heavily urbanised (in a city so dangerous I couldn’t leave the house and simply go and explore nature) reading books. When screens became available, I started the move in that direction. Despite this appalling gap in my spiritual and creative development, I’m fine - I’m very environmentally aware, believe passionately in living responsibly, and do what I can. In fact, I’m extremely strongly into the left/Green side of the political spectrum, and very much looking forward to people of my generation coming into power. At no point has my lack of pootling around in woodlands meant I don’t have an understanding of nature’s importance.  The same goes for people I know.

The other part, I think, of what prompted me to write this piece is this - I am increasingly tired of people who moan about the fact that the world is changing, and people are doing things differently to how it was done in their childhoods, and seem to think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

It’s not, quite simply.

Perhaps George, next time you want to opine like this on a subject, you might actually talk to some of this next generation? Or research further our engagement with environmental issues, before you insult us?


* I don’t mean the typical wealthy Westerner thing of going to “experience nature”, where said experience has been planned, is voluntary, and often comes with all sorts of modern conveniences.

** There’s also a potentially giant difference between types of screens.  Watching bad TV constantly?  Not great, no (although I doubt it’s necessarily making people more indolent than they may already have been).  However, there is a lot of fantastic television out there.  And then we come to the other screens - computers and now tablets and smartphones. Which are often used as educational devices, allowing young people to know far more about the world than they might have otherwise, and be in contact with people all over the world. They can provide perspective.


If it wasn’t clear - I’m not saying people shouldn’t spend time outdoors, in our various beautiful environments. I’m simply saying that making enormous generalisations such as this one, may be a little, well, unfair.