Emory Report
March 5, 2007
Volume 59, Number 22

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March 5, 2007
Biologist says children’s view of nature key to Earth’s future

BY carol clark

One of Jules Pretty’s earliest memories is toddling into the bathroom of his home and encountering a spitting cobra in the tub.

He also recalls seeing lions in the wild, reveling in brilliant tropical sunsets and digging his toes into the red laterite soil of northern Nigeria, where he was born. When he was seven, his family moved back to East Anglia, England, a rural landscape of rolling hills and small farms where he can trace his roots back 500 years.

“It was a wonderful childhood,” said Pretty, a Nat C. Robertson Distinguished Visiting Professor for Emory’s Science and Society program.

A renowned environmentalist with the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex, Pretty is doing groundbreaking research in sustainable agriculture and “green exercise” — demonstrating the mental and physical health benefits of connecting to nature. His latest book, to be published in May, is titled “The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and Our Place in It.”

“What worries me is that children today spend far less time outdoors, possibly half as much time as 20 years ago,” Pretty said. “If you don’t get outside, you don’t get the sense of wonder and the memories of connecting with nature. We have a lost generation, or two, of people who are not ecologically literate.”

Not everyone can spend their formative years in the African bush, but children should at least have a chance to lay on their backs to watch clouds, splash in a creek and climb trees, he said. Television, the Internet, overprotective parents and poorly designed urban spaces are a few of the reasons children are less exposed to the mystery and beauty of the outdoors.

“We’re changing who we are, what it means to be human,” Pretty said.

During his week at Emory, Pretty brought together students and faculty from a range of disciplines, along with representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state government, local organic farms, community gardens, cooperative housing and other sustainability initiatives for a series of lectures and discussions. He also lunched with former President Jimmy Carter, who wanted to discuss his south Georgia peanut farm, agriculture in Africa and community gardens in Atlanta.

When it came time for his interview by Emory Report, Pretty suggested sitting outside, near the Quad.
“This is the first college generation being faced with the very real global problem of climate change,” he said, as students rushed to class around him on the balmy February afternoon. What got us into this “pretty pickle,” as he described it in his cheery British accent, is our relatively recent “severe” disconnection from nature.

Many kids today think of corn and potatoes as “chips” or “fries,” not living plants. Tomatoes are something to be squeezed out of a bottle in the form of ketchup. This “commodification” of food has been partly fueled by a huge boost in the efficiency of agriculture: in most parts of the world, per capita food production is 20 percent higher today than it was in 1960.

“There are 16 billion chickens in the world at the moment,” Pretty said, a staggering figure when you consider there are only 6.4 billion people.

But the hidden costs of this agricultural “efficiency” are substantial, he added. He cited a University of Essex study in the U.K. that calculated the costs of cleaning up pesticides and other farm wastes from the soil and water at 1.5 billion pounds per year. The study also calculated the cost of “food miles,” or transporting food from farms to the plates of consumers, at an additional 2.5 billion pounds.

The public health costs of turning food into processed, packaged commodities, high in sugar and fats, are also substantial, Pretty pointed out. The United States is leading the way in an obesity epidemic, with other developed nations in close pursuit. To top it off, people are far less active these days, using automobiles more than their legs to get around and other machinery and appliances to perform tasks that were once manual.

Over-consumption of food calories and energy resources has tipped the human body, and the planet, into crisis. Supporting sustainability in agriculture and industry, and creating green spaces that encourage people to get outside and moving, needs to become an integral part of planning and policies — not an afterthought, Pretty said.

“It’s a bit of a time bomb,” he said of the ongoing disconnect between humans and nature. “The next 20 to 50 years are critical. We’re at the pass and we may get through it, and we may not. This generation of college students is going to have to go out and generate new technologies, new lifestyles and new policies to take the world forward to something different.”