The World in an Abandoned Lot

Mother Jones health and environment blogger Julia Whitty's thoughts on nature and childhood. By Brandon Keim

Few environmentalists are as accomplished as Julia Whitty, a prolific documentarian, award-winning fiction writer, and author of the forthcoming The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific. A contributing writer to Mother Jones magazine, she recently started posting for the magazine’s Blue Marble blog. Plenty talked with Whitty about our changing climate, her adventures in the natural world, and why kids should play outside.

You cover both health and the environment on the Blue Marble. What does climate change mean for health?

It's going to amplify disease. Things that have been gone from the United States for a long time, like malaria, will come back. Organisms that flourish in warm, moist climates will enter the temperate world. We're changing the evolutionary realities out there. That will create new organisms and mutate known ones.

There was a report recently that disease is on the rise, not only in humans but everything else. Coral reefs are experiencing enormous epidemics. Never-before seen blights are occurring in every environment, from the reefs to the tundra and the taiga.

You've spent time in a great many ecosystems. Have the changes you’ve observed in them over the years affected you personally?

Very much so. I've been visiting these places for more than twenty years, and seen radical changes in my lifetime—and the human lifespan is a blink of an eye. It's been very clear to me through my adult life that I exist in a time of radical, drastic change, and none of it is good.

You once spent four months in a tern breeding ground. Was that formative?

Oh yes. I loved it. A lot of people would consider it hell on earth—a desert island covered in what looked like sand but was really thousands of years of dried guano, with 300,000 breeding seabirds on less than a kilometer-wide island. I got a sense of how nature operates at a gut level.

Other counties have public service. Israelis make everybody sign up for the army. We should make everybody go into nature at the end of high school. Go and live alone, or in a small community where you understand how dependent we are on each other our environment.

You mention your adult life in the natural world. What was your childhood like?

I was given the freedom to go out and play. We'd wave goodbye to our moms, trot off with lunch, and they didn't expect to see us until dinner.

I grew up on the edge of suburbia, but to many kids, the corner lot with no house on it is your wilderness, wherever it might be. My friends and I had this little woodland, a whole invented geography, names we made up for aspects of the environment. We knew seasonal changes, expected plants or animals to come and go at certain times, and were familiar with our world. This was where we went to get away from grownups. Our world was wilderness, and theirs was the house world.

Outdoors is where we had to use our imagination and developed that intimate contact we carried through to adulthood—that sense of taking responsibility for a good friend. I worry about modern kids who don't get alone time.

Do you think that structured outdoors time is as valuable as unsupervised play?

We mis-assess the risk when we think it's too scary to let kids play outdoors on their own. What they miss out on outweighs the risks.

I'd love to see parents start sending their kids outside, even to walk to school. That time on the walk might be valuable to them as they look at nature coming up through the sidewalk cracks, the birds migrating overhead, the trees.

Is there a scientific basis for this—a way to quantify the effects of playing outside?

There's a study I cited in my article "The Thirteenth Tipping Point" which said that if you're given unfettered exposure to nature without adults standing over you, you develop an environmental ethic; and if you don't get that time, you don't develop an ethic.


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