Media - Articles: Just Chill? by Hannah Bullock

As the environment hots up, young people are chilling out. Hannah Bullock finds out what could fire them up.

Young people, they’re the ones who care about the environment, right? “Well, if you mention it in our economics class, or we talk about who’s responsible for problems, most people in the class just brush it aside.” The attitude of Rosie Bristow’s A-level economics class paints the picture of a generation that reckons it has got its priorities sorted: get a grip and don’t even go near that sad environment stuff.

Ironic, isn’t it? Just as the green movement is getting at least of some its messages taken on board by ministers and chief execs, the teenagers and early twenty-somethings – who would once have been its stronghold – are disengaging from the cause. At a time when climate change has made it so big it has hit Hollywood, the generation that’ll have to face up to these global issues like no other before it is telling the pollsters it’s just not interested. “Maybe retired people, who haven’t got enough to do, they’d find it interesting,” suggests one schoolgirl helpfully. Britain’s 18 – 24 -year-olds are the least likely to feel concerned about the environment, according to MORI; those who really care are in their 40s and 50s.

There’s the rub. Standing up against whale hunting, nuclear power or deforestation was what their parents were doing 25 years ago, kicking against an establishment that wasn’t listening. Today, sustainable development’s on the curriculum, you get degrees in the subject, and even Tony Blair says it’s important. Maybe the whole thing’s just too mainstream. Or maybe the NGO world is outdated – it has hit ‘organisational middle age’, as Graham Bennett, director of One World Action, puts it. What could be more embarrassing than watching a load of protestors your parents’ age waving banners? “We see Greenpeace on the news and the majority just thinks they’re taking it a bit far,” says an unimpressed Bristow.

A generation that would rather party than protest, then? There are some things that get their goat – like George W Bush. The way he dealt with the situation in Iraq last year raised more objections among 16 – 24-year-olds than any other age group. Adrian Ramsay, who at 23 is the country’s youngest Green councillor, confirms that it was anti-war feelings that really got young people in his Norwich constituency involved in demonstrations, much more than the traditional ‘green’ issues. If Dubya can get them worked up, why does the environment send them to sleep?

“Environmental problems are going to happen in a thousand years.”

“Environmental problems are going to happen in a thousand years,” one north London 15-year-old tells me. Even Bristow feels it’s “not exciting enough, not short-term enough”. Not even with football-sized hailstones raining down in The Day After Tomorrow? The film was “too ridiculous, it didn’t seem like it could ever happen”, pipe up two 15-year-old schoolgirls in Class 10X, confirming environmentalists’ fears that the mega-action on the screen only contrasts with the low visibility of climate change here at home.

Teenagers’ low level of interest in green issues doesn’t usually spring from a lack of knowledge, but often a lack of relevance. Class 10X reeled off a whole list of signs of climate change: “Melting ice caps”, “sinking Venice”, “cooling Gulf stream”.... Yet, they don’t appear to have grasped what these ‘far away’ events have got to do with them. “It’s important, but not for me. It might have a negative effect on my children or grandchildren.” It’s clear they’re not yet thinking along the same lines as Brundtland, whose classic definition of sustainable development was precisely that we must pass on to our children a planet in good shape.

If the message is to cut it with teenagers, it’s got to be about the here and now, and what they – not their grandchildren – are gonna get out if it. After all, sustainable development isn’t all about altruism, there’s lots of taking too. For ‘better transport’ read ‘more night buses to town’; for ‘better health’, make that ‘fitter bodies’. The green movement spends too much time “preaching rather than providing solutions”, points out Tim Shand, who’s trying to get more young people involved in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) through a European youth network known as Tunza. But an issue which is essentially about “the way you choose to live your own life and about future planning”, as Shand says, doesn’t naturally have a lot of street cred. And if the wrong person tries to create some, it can easily backfire. Remember Klaus Töpfer announcing that UNEP aimed to make sustainable lifestyles “fashionable and ‘cool’, as the young people might say”? Somehow, on his lips that language just sounded hopelessly elderly.

An organisation more likely to get the message across is student campaign network People and Planet, which encourages sixth-formers and university students to set up environment and global justice projects. One of their most successful campaigns involved students persuading their universities to use renewable energy. They managed to get 60 campuses to use ‘green’ energy, and four of them have made the switch to 100% renewables. The charity’s Lucy Pearce says it worked because it was “empowering and achievable”. The same applies to working in schools. “We try to avoid the ‘we’re all doomed’ message, and instead get them to think: ‘hang on, I could do that with my family or through school’.”

Although their school visits fit into the ‘citizenship’ curriculum – the new subject in which SD has found a small space – they’re well aware that “influencing lives can be a difficult thing to do through formal relationships”. Sending graduates in to initiate campaigns means “it’s not teachers or parents telling them to care, or aging hippies with banners [but] people who young people aspire to be like”, says the organisation’s Jess Worth.

That’s why some people are pinning their hopes on celebrities as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants to get the message across,” says Dan Morrell, founder of Future Forests, the carbon offsetting company that brings youth culture and global warming together through music and film stars [see ‘Out of their trees?’ GF29]. They’ve given their ‘CarbonNeutral’ stamp to CDs from the likes of Atomic Kitten, Feeder and Coldplay, and listeners can pay for a dedicated tree in a forest linked to their favourite band. Some kids I spoke to are making the link between the stars and the environment – they’d read it in a music magazine or on a CD cover.

But the idea that celebrities could somehow make environmentalism cool was slated. “They just look like fools now they’ve tried to get involved in all this hippy stuff,” said one REM fan bitterly. Not only can it damage the band, but the cause too, points out Adeela Warley, from Greenpeace. Especially when ‘committed’ stars go and “do something totally contradictory afterwards”. Brad Pitt makes himself ‘CarbonNeutral’ for a small fee while he jet sets around the world, and the link between the environment and lifestyle goes out of the window.

Music in itself is, however, a proven way to the heart of youth culture. Trees for London came up from the streets by throwing parties to raise money for tree planting. Now the charity is taking the same good-time approach to schools in the city. “We got half the class planting trees while their friends DJed to them on the decks,” enthuses community and education officer Gavin Johnson. It’s quirky touches like this that let him broach green subjects at all, he tells me. They sold one project as the chance to ‘make your own Blair Witch Project video’. Before they knew it, a group of teenagers found themselves involved in performance art in an ancient woodland they’d only ever used as a place to get pissed. All you have to do, sums up Johnson, is “find a way into their world, and they’re yours”.

The charity played on the familiar again when they invited graffiti artists to work with teenagers at a Lambeth estate’s drop-in centre. Local teenagers decorated it with a mural in ‘urban greenery stylee’, and, unbelievably, the saplings they planted were still there the next week, thanks to the fact that “they were more proud of their environment because they’d created it”. The story’s the same in Sheffield where local youth have been working with the Wildlife Trust to transform a dark subway into a Safe Route to School covered with artwork. To the Trust’s surprise, the converted litter-louts have asked to extend the project to include a clean up of their estate.

‘Imbyism’ (as in nimbyism without the not) is one way to make the global more tangible. This is especially so for urban youth, who don’t have much to do with the countryside, believes Stephanie Platt, from the Trust. “We have to ask: ‘What’s the environment to them?’ It could be the end of their street or their local park.” Ramsay confirms this from his own experience campaigning in Norwich. Apart from the Iraq war, it was a park under threat from development that got the younger members of families listening during his door to door canvassing. Imby or nimby, the local makes it all more real.

But sometimes global issues need a global answer. That’s where 21st century students come into their own. They might not want to join their parents on a village protest, but they know how to wield the power of the world wide web. “Campaigning has evolved,” James Lloyd, national secretary of the NUS, says excitedly. Traditionally based in localised groups, “activism has shifted to internet-based demonstration”. Of course “it’s harder to measure”, but “a lot of it is out there in cyberspace”.

Could there even be some closet teenage tree-huggers coming out online? Certainly Greenpeace is riding the e-culture wave – that’s how Jason Torrence gets many of his new young recruits to the Active Supporter Network. Computers are second nature to them, he says; they’re even lobbying MPs and contacting Greenpeace ships by email.

Lloyd, too, is sure that the passion is there in the younger generation. ‘The environment’ may not be the number one issue for students, but, in this globalised world, they are now “seeing the bigger picture – linking developmental and environmental concerns”. Their commitment to fair trade, and the success of political gatherings like the European Social Forum, are all encouraging signs of this linkage. “The green and social justice movements are coming together under one banner... this can only strengthen the movement.”

“The green and social justice movements are coming together under one banner... this can only strengthen the movement.”

Minority activity this might be, with your average teenager seeing it as ‘stuff for crusties’. Yet things are stirring – and touching more people than just the usual suspects. ‘Environmentalism’ in its old sense may have run its course for youth, along with the traditional protests that captured the imagination of a previous generation. But cast the net a bit wider, get the speak right (without looking like you’re trying too hard), add a few unexpected ingredients, and you could find that there’s fire not far below that chilled-out surface.

Hannah Bullock is Green Futures’ editorial assistant and researcher.



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