Why are we so focused on sick care?

October 31st, 2017

The healthcare debate ignores a serious underlying problem: our increasing disconnection from nature.

I grew up hearing my mother complain about the health care system in America. Throughout her career as a pharmaceutical sales rep, respiratory therapist, and health care administrator, she saw first-hand many of the warning signs that we may have a crisis brewing. Like most kids I just thought my mom was crazy, but she was the first person I ever heard talking about the fact that our “health care” system was actually just “sick care.” She explained that by the time many people sought help from a doctor, preventable health issues had blossomed into full-scale chronic diseases that were expensive to treat.

A couple months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Louv, the best-selling author who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” and then went on to co-found the Children & Nature Network to fight against it. As the group explains, this epidemic arose out of a complex web of relatively recent changes to our society:

"Among the reasons: the proliferation of electronic communications; poor urban planning and disappearing open space; increased street traffic; diminished importance of the natural world in public and private education; and parental fear magnified by news and entertainment media. An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the 'epidemic of inactivity,' and to a devaluing of independent play."

The summary ends on a hopeful note, however: “Nonetheless, we believe that society’s nature-deficit disorder can be reversed.” I remain hopeful as well, but solving this problem required us to redirect health care funding from “sick care” to real health care. In other words: preventative medicine, in the form of time in nature.

I’m willing to bet that most of us suffer from some degree of separation from nature. But Louv told me that we still know very little about exactly what nature does for us. Research has been slow and big questions remain: How much nature exposure do we need? What exactly do we have to do in nature to receive the benefits? Can things like houseplants or just views from a window help those who can’t make it outdoors? We need more funding and more serious research into these and related questions.

how did we end up stuck inside?

In hindsight, the nature deficit seems almost inevitable. “Success” as many define it today means getting into the right schools, making good grades while juggling extra-curricular activities and sports, then attending and graduating from the best college you can afford. But life quickly gets in the way as expensive student loans force many new graduates into challenging but underpaid first jobs. We start dating, experience the inevitable wave of weddings, finance a car and maybe buy a house. Before long, decades have passed, and we find ourselves living life either sitting inside a building or sitting inside a vehicle. Meanwhile our health insurance company offers a gym discount, often the only nod to prevention. You have to appreciate the irony of spending more money to go “work out” inside another building.

By the time we become adults, the warning signs are myriad. Americans in general aren’t taking enough vacation (although there are hopeful signs on that front), we’re commuting further than ever (despite the fact that we’re also working from home more than ever), and yet we may have hit the end of productivity growth. We’re working ourselves literally to death, but we’re not getting anywhere. Worse yet, income inequality has divided the country, paving the way for a dystopian society characterized by a class divide in which we end up with “3 million lords and 350 million serfs” as NYU professor Scott Galloway explains.

A divided country doesn’t have any winners, but Americans on both sides of the divide increasingly experience depression, fatigue, and even burnout as we work ever harder. The kind of happiness we’re chasing with all this work seems to recede just a bit over the horizon. Paycheck after paycheck, we tell ourselves that if only we could get just a little bit ahead, then we’d be happy. Then we’d finally take that vacation and spend more time with loved ones.

But does it ever happen? The statistics show that for many of us, "some day" never comes. Even retirement looks like it will be out of reach for the average working American.

Vacation graph from Project Time Off

The pursuit of the American Dream may literally be killing us: Obesity-related disease has become an epidemic, we’re finally recognizing that opioid abuse is a major crisis, more teens are becoming too anxious to function in school, and milder maladies like ADHD seem downright ordinary at this point.

Shouldn’t these issues trigger some kind of tripwire in society, letting us know that something’s wrong with the status quo?

There’s no question that our particular form of democracy has generated unprecedented wealth and prosperity (at least for many), but happiness hasn’t followed. What’s happening here? How do we turn this around?

As Louv noted, the research still hasn’t caught up to the epidemic but we do have some early indicators of what can be done. First, we need to build nature into our daily lives. We need to get serious about environmental education. We need to encourage kids to spend unstructured time outside. We need to take seriously the economic investment required to provide park lands to all people. While we’re at it, why not re-introduce creative thinking in schools by funding arts programming again?

I’ve been preaching about these issues to anyone who would listen for most of my career, but recently I jumped into the fight full-time and joined Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center as the new President.

Private nonprofits like ours struggle to fund our programming, yet our society continues to foot the bill once people become sick. We plow billions into developing new drugs and procedures, but we ignore the simplicity of prevention. Our economic choices consign our kids to a less fulfilling life that — for the first time in a long time — will actually be more likely to end prematurely than older generations.


Outdoor Recreation is an $887 Billion economic powerhouse.

Outdoor recreation and connection with nature needs to be taken seriously and nurtured for the compounding benefits it provides to society. The $887 billion economic impact calculated by the Outdoor Industry Association doesn’t even include the clear economic value of reduced healthcare costs. The true value of focusing our efforts on the outdoors could be many trillion dollars a year.

Outdoor recreation and education produces spending, taxes, and jobs just like any other industry, but it’s also inherently sustainable. Unlike extractive industries, outdoor recreation generally occurs within sustainable land use plans, ensuring that the recreational use of land will continue to add value as long as the political will remains to protect that land.

Increasing health and well-being while creating sustainable economic advantages and protecting nature? Sign me up.

I’ve committed my life, at least for the foreseeable future, to this fight. I feel for the first time that I’m committed to actually doing something about nature deficit disorder. Through a diversity of programming like our native plant propagation efforts, biodiversity education, invasive plant removal, science field trips, outdoor adventures, and our role in the survival of the endangered red wolf, we’re working every day to better connect people with nature. 

I hope you’ll join us as we transform Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center into a year-round and unforgettable destination for reconnecting people with nature.

I’m looking for early believers willing to commit to our vision. We need volunteers and members to join in this work on which our lives literally depend. Take the first step today by becoming a member, or gifting a membership to a family in need. Volunteer by shooting an email to Martha at [email protected]

At the very least, follow along with our adventure on Instagram. We all could use a little reminder in our digital lives to go outside and play. 

About the Author

Mark McKnight joined Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in October 2017 as President. He began his career in the outdoors at a summer camp and worked in outdoor retail for over a decade at Rock/Creek before co-founding RootsRated. Mark jumped into the nonprofit world full-time after years of volunteering on boards such as the Cumberland Trail Conference and Lula Lake Land Trust.

Posted by Mark McKnight  | Category: Nature

Leave a comment:

Name (required):
Email (required):
Please Enter Code Into the Textbox Below (CODE IS CASE-SENSITIVE):

Share this page