A recent article by Kevin Armitage at The Solutions Journal resonated with me on a number of points:
It looks at the problem of the modern Western child’s lack of contact with the natural world, and the consequences of that. I worry about this problem myself, partly because I’ve got two young children of my own and I want them to have as much contact with nature as possible; but also because I’m a teacher of teenagers and I can see the frightening disengagement from nature which seems to be very typical of Hong Kong kids. I sometimes think it’s a waste of time trying to persuade adults of the need to change our way of life as they are so determined not to countenance anything that will involve any disruption of their comfort zone. Consequently, if anything is going to be done about climate change and peak oil, it will have to be done by the next generation, assuming we have enough time left to wait for them. The big problem, though, which Armitage refers to in his article, is how to get kids, or anyone else, interested in environmental activism if they have no perception of what nature really is because they’ve had no real contact with it. I see this at school on a regular basis: if a bee or wasp or any comparable-sized insect flies into the room, you have to stop teaching until it has been removed because everyone’s attention has shifted to the intruder. Students lurch to one side to avoid being touched by it; they let out yells and screeches, ooohs and aaaahs and regard themselves in mortal danger as long as that beast is anywhere around. Likewise, I’ve often had members of environmental groups screaming when a butterfly comes near them. In the light of this, it’s probably not too difficult to imagine how pathetically inept they are when it comes to working with the soil, such as planting a seedling and – oh, god! – firming the soil with their fingers! I remember when I lived in a high-rise in Tsing Yi going down to sit on the patch of grass outside on a Sunday, and seeing so many parents telling off their kids for picking up something from the ground – it’s dirty – or sitting on the grass, while other parents would grunt at us and shake their finger at our kids telling us, as if we didn’t know, and with obvious disgust, that our kids had no shoes on. These may all be minor incidents but they are very common and, to me, they are symptomatic of people who are very ill at ease with any aspect of the natural world, and they are passing this on to their kids. How can you commit yourself to fighting for the preservation of rainforests or species on the brink of extinction or for a local beauty spot or just a venerable village tree if you’ve been brought up to view nature as dirty, dangerous, unhealthy and in every way undesirable? With such an upbringing how easy it must be to see nature as just a resource for humans to exploit, and all the more so in a society such as Hong Kong – and now the rest of China – which worships money.
My own childhood was typical of the kids who lived on New Town housing estates outside London. I’d roam around country lanes with my best friend. We’d go bird-nesting, getting ourselves scratched to bits by hawthorns as we tried to get an egg out of a nest; we’d climb trees, going up thirty or forty feet; we’d ford slippery streams; and closer to home we’d make go-karts out of pram wheels and planks to race around on. Now, of course, we have banned bird-nesting but allow farmers to drench the fields in poisons which have wiped out all manner of once-common birds. Meanwhile, here in Mui Wo in Hong Kong, you only occasionally see kids out and about as they all seem to spend their time on their computers. There is actually a small fig tree near the waterfront that many youngsters like to climb in, god bless ’em, but you don’t see that anywhere else. I can’t remember seeing a child thirty feet up a tree for probably thirty or forty years, and you never seem to see kids out exploring the countryside. You see them with their parents on ‘walks’ but that’s different.
I don’t think of contact with nature as a nice green thing to do. I see it as fundamental to a healthy soul and mind. Any contact with nature is like recharging your soul with goodness, and without this contact you’re adrift on an ocean with no guiding lights. You’ve got to experience nature ‘along the blood’ as I think D.H.Lawrence said, and this is what we’ve got to ensure for our children. For their own sakes, first of all, and then for the sake of the planet, because if we carry on in the way we are now, we’re going to condemn an awful lot of plants and animals to extinction, one of which will probably be ourselves.