Quebec children, and presumably those in other provinces too, suffer from a "nature-deficit disorder," a nifty phrase that author François Cardinal borrowed from an American writer.
Throughout the province, Mr. Cardinal argues in his book Perdus sans la Nature ( Lost Without Nature), children have lost touch with the natural world and with the ability to play in unsupervised areas.
"When I moved to St. Lambert and realized how few kids were playing in the streets, I began to ask myself questions," Mr. Cardinal said the other day.
He went to parks and "saw the same old people and young people all right, but they were wearing earphones." Organized sports such as hockey and soccer provide exercise, structure and the experience of playing with others, but they lack the sense of wonder and creativity that playing in natural settings can provide.
A classic case of the decline of the outdoors experience is Scouts, whose membership has plummeted. "We got rid of Scouts in Quebec the same way we rid ourselves of the church," Mr. Cardinal said, adding that no movement has emerged to replace Scouts. He quotes figures from the scouting movement showing that membership in Canada has fallen from 26,356 in 2000 to 13,289 in 2009.
Since his book appeared last week, Mr. Cardinal has heard from many parents who share his concern and who ask: "Do we have to force kids to turn off the television and play outside?" To which, Mr. Cardinal replies, "Yes, it's a parental role … If we want kids to stop watching television and play outside, we have to do it."
Mr. Cardinal's cry for more outdoor activity and more exercise generally for youngsters is one heard with increasing frequency across North America, but to what avail? Television viewing among teenagers is down a bit, but time spent in front of the computer screen is up. Young people seem just as out of shape as ever, except for a minority who do a lot of exercise.
Mr. Cardinal comes from a family of public involvement. His father was a Union National cabinet minister who became a member of the Parti Québécois. A self-described "bad student," he nonetheless developed a knack for writing clearly and now sits on the editorial board of La Presse, by far Quebec's best newspaper.
For five years, he was the environment columnist for La Presse. He's also a regular on Radio-Canada, and the author of an iconoclastic book, Le Myth du Québec Vert ( The Myth of a Green Quebec). He's one of the younger generation of leaders in Canada to be highlighted in this space in the next year.
The book critiquing Quebeckers' inflated self-perception as greenies sparked predictable outrage. "We thought we were green because of our low greenhouse gas emissions, which came as a result of hydro, but in all other areas we were among the worst in the world," he recounted.
There is in Quebec, he says, a unanimity in talking about Quebec's virtues, "a dialogue of how much better we are than others." As a result, Quebeckers could preen about being green while in 2007 being the No. 1 producer of garbage in Canada and enthusiastic (and fast) car drivers. (He could have added big polluters of lakes with phosphates and, formerly, of rivers with sewage.)
To its credit, the Quebec government has literally cleaned up its act in the past three years and can now claim to be among North America's green leaders, Mr. Cardinal says. In climate-change debates, there are almost no deniers or shills for the petroleum industry in Quebec, so voluntary reduction efforts to reduce emissions can succeed. Mandatory measures do not arouse the kind of opposition found elsewhere.
The years Mr. Cardinal spent writing about the environment led him seamlessly into his concern for linking children and nature. His book is replete with studies (often American) urging more outdoor activity and lamenting the lack of exercise among children. Cities and suburbs can be made more exercise-friendly. School curriculum can be changed to emphasize more physical activities and field trips.
Ultimately, however, parents must take the lead in urging changes on government authorities and, more important, leading their children to the joys of nature and the imperatives of exercise.