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Op-Ed: This Earth Day, We Mustn’t Forget the Nutrient Young People Are Deficient In – Vitamin N

Opinion Article
CRISIS - Viability of Life on Earth by Daniel Kaul Global Commons Apr 22nd 20244 mins
Op-Ed: This Earth Day, We Mustn’t Forget the Nutrient Young People Are Deficient In – Vitamin N

Nature, or ‘Vitamin N’, is essential for physical and mental well-being. However, many young people spend less time outside than prisoners. Beyond the health benefits, spending time in nature helps to turn the younger generations into stewards of nature. That’s why on this Earth Day, we must remind people to get an extra dose of this vitamin. 

Nature, or “Vitamin N”, is humanity’s original medicine. Spending every day indoors, staring at a screen for hours, has become the norm. In reality, this is a modern experiment we are running on young people, and the results are coming in. We cannot separate the rise of youth ADHD, depression, diabetes and anxiety symptoms from our increased disconnection from the natural world. 

Beyond the obvious physical and psychological benefits of time spent in nature, we have forgotten nature’s original role as our primary teacher. The natural world teaches us eternal lessons about patience, resilience, adaptability, and stewardship. 

For older generations, lockdowns were seen as an opportunity to make the outdoors great again. In a Gallup poll from 2020, nearly half (48%) of all US adults said they would prefer to live in the countryside over a city or the suburb, up from 39% the year before. 

Yet the opposite can be said for children; outdoor time is on a permanent downward trend. A growing body of research suggests that children are spending far less time outside and more time on a screen. 

A 2018 study from Sanford Health News suggests that, on average, American children spend less than ten minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play compared to seven hours in front of a screen. Similarly, a global study revealed that children worldwide spend less time outside than prisoners. 

It is not hard to see why this is. Today, socialising happens online, while Covid-19 supercharged the rise of e-learning. Technology was undoubtedly a Godsend throughout the homebound doldrums of the pandemic. However, shaking its shackles is harder now the doors are open and the restrictions are lifted. 

Unfortunately, this lack of nature is not limited to children. Young professionals are spending less time outside too. Bupa research reveals that in the UK, 2 out 5 adults spend insufficient time outside, with limited access to green spaces. 

The same factors are at play. Those in education can do the bulk of their learning online. As many professions can be done online, workers have increasingly less impetus to get outside, even for their commute. Similarly, many young professionals are far more likely to live in urban jungles than anywhere near real ones. 

“Nature-deficit disorder” may sound like a pseudo-scientific, fad phrase. However, the research that supports it is robust. The word, along with Vitamin N, was coined by writer Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. He argued that many behavioural problems are caused simply by the sharp decline in how much time children spend outdoors. 

Studies show that time spent among plants or near water reduces stress and boosts attention spans. In fact, a meta-analysis of the relationship between nature exposure and health can improve brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, and sleep

Japan provides an interesting example. In the only nation to have a word for “death by overwork” (Karoshi), forest bathing, or basking in the presence of trees, seems to have profound psychological and physiological effects.

More on the topic: Forest Bathing: What Is it and How Does it Work?

Between the wildly popular Blue Zones Netflix documentary or techno-billionaire Bryan Johnson’s “Don’t die” mantra, longevity is the flavor of the month. Yet, we shouldn’t see nature as simply another companion to our workout regimes or multi-vitamin arsenal. Our interaction with nature should go deeper than that. 

That is because nature teaches patience. Increasingly, life does happen online, and it happens fast. Our modern brains, addicted to instant gratification, go haywire when our videos or web pages don’t load instantly. Growing is nature’s version of buffering; if you peer at a century-old oak tree, we know this magnificence did not occur overnight. 

Similarly, nature teaches us that not everything is controllable, nor should it be. We have near-total control over the pixels that appear on our screen. Minecraft and other “open-world” games give young, digital natives a sense of total dominion over our surroundings. 

Yet, in the entangled complexity of the natural world, random order is the norm. Our brain is soothed by the sound of rain or the hum of a waterfall because the rhythm is itself rhythmless. Equally, the bark of a tree or even the shape of a cloud exhibits the same designless design. 

Similarly, nature teaches us about the inevitability of change. We cannot prevent or avoid the change of the season, we can only prepare and adapt to it. The online world may give us the illusion that the total power of our surroundings is desirable. However, as many sages have taught us for millennia, change is the only constant. Nature reminds us of this everyday, if only we cared to look. 

Finally, nature teaches us the importance of stewardship. Never before has our natural world been under so much threat, and it is only by learning about something that we can truly understand the importance of its protection. As famously stated by Robert Pyle, “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?” 

Nature, or Vitamin N, is invariably the balm that can soothe young people’s technology-ridden bodies and minds. Yet just as nature can preserve us, we need to learn to preserve it. The protection of our natural world is a responsibility that now falls to the younger generations. That’s why this Earth Day, younger generations need to learn the value of nature, and get an extra dose of Vitamin N. 

Tagged: earthday nature

About the Author

Daniel Kaul

Daniel Kaul is the founder of Natucate, an agency specialised in the organisation of selected projects for nature travel, wilderness experiences, voluntary work, internships and sabbaticals.

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