The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof on the Importance of Getting Outdoors

The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof is one of our favorite columnists. Each year he writes about his family’s backpacking vacation trips, reflecting on the importance of preserving our environment and experiencing nature. In all of these columns he’s mentioned Richard Louv, whose seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, launched a nation-wide movement to get kids outdoors. In Kristof’s latest column, “We’re Rich! (In Nature.),” excerpted below, he promotes Louv’s newest book, The Nature Principle, which convincingly argues that adults need nature just as much as children do.

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The National Park Service reports that the number of recreational visits to our national parks was lower in 2010 than a decade earlier — lower even than in 1987 and 1988. There were 35 percent more backcountry campers in the national parks in 1979 than in 2010.

“Fewer and fewer youth are heading outdoors each year,” the Outdoor Foundation concluded in a “special report on youth.” It added that “the American childhood has rapidly moved indoors, leading to epidemic levels of childhood obesity and inactivity.”

It’s tougher to make the argument for wilderness when Americans show less relish for it. Hunting and fishing were once the gateway to outdoor activities, but they’re declining, and backpackers, cross-country skiers and rock climbers haven’t been able to pick up the slack.

Conservationists need to expand their focus from preserving nature to encouraging the public to experience it. The only way to protect wilderness in the long run is to build a constituency for it, to grow the number of people who revel in camping under the stars (I’m not a fan of tents!), Americans who accept mosquito bites as a cheap price for some of the world’s freshest air.

A few years ago, a writer named Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the way children grow up deprived of wading in muddy creeks. He has followed that up with a new book, “The Nature Principle,” arguing that adults need nature as well — as a tonic, as a balancing force, as therapy.

I’m convinced of that. Our family backpacking trips leave us exhausted, blistered, filthy and sweaty, and drinking from creeks and ponds that make my wife shudder. Yet we also gain perspective.

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