There is an awful lot of negativity in the environmental field. Little wonder given the sorry state of the wider countryside, the downward trends displayed by many wildlife populations, climate change and the continued prominence of issues such as raptor persecution, land mismanagement and pollution. Indeed, life for an environmentalist can be disheartening at times and utterly, overwhelmingly depressing at others. So much so that we, as a community of like-minded individuals, sometimes find it hard to see positivity when it is staring us in the face.
For me, as both an optimist and a conservationist, one of the few glimmers of light in the perpetual darkness of environmentalism comes from the rise of younger naturalists and the ascent of youthful, more ecologically conscious advocates for the natural world. This is something that, as the founder of New Nature magazine, I wish to promote and celebrate, and something from which I, as an individual, derive great joy and hope. Although too often do I see others, purveyors of a glass half empty mentality, promoting the opposite.
Nature deficit disorder, we have all heard of it, we all know it and we all we see it to varying degrees in our daily life. A trend in a modern society defined by our growing disconnect from the natural world – manifested in individuals of all ages but, it would seem, particularly prominent in the younger generation. As children, teens and young adults forgo the outdoors in favour of TV screens and games consoles. A worrying trend if ever there was one, and something which we must combat in order to raise awareness of, and inspire action on behalf of nature. It is, however, not the end of the world, and in my opinion, dwelling on the issue – worrying though it is – and in doing so consolidating a mostly negative view of generation z (and millennials, for that matter) does nothing to encourage greater involvement in environmentalism.
As it stands, many young people are actively making a stand for the natural world: individuals breaking the mould, defying stereotypes and consistently surpassing the expectations of a pessimistic older generation. It only takes one look at social media: at the ranks of blogging platforms and the swelling membership of youth-focused nature groups to see that now, more than ever, young people are really making a difference. Indeed, off the top of my head right now I can list many of these pioneering individuals -Dara McAnulty, Mya Craig, Georgia Locock, Findlay Wilde, James Miller to name but a few – young people poking their heads above the proverbial parapet and making a real difference for wildlife and the public perception of today’s youth.
It is easy to bemoan the lack of young people involved in nature conservation – more people working to the benefit of nature would be preferable, of course. Though giving further thought to the issue, it is clear to me that nature has always been a minority sport. A career in conservation has always (and doubtless always will) play second fiddle to those in other fields. And that is okay because crucially, there are still people who aspire to help nature: there are still young people inspired and motivated to such an extent that they wish to pursue environmentalism on a professional basis. I see no clear and apparent decline in the number of conservationists and see no looming drop-off in a number of people waiting to fill the ranks of environmental NGOs, universities boasting conservation-based degrees and publications sympathetic to nature. Nature conservation has always been a fight against social norms and other people with very different priorities, it always will be. And while we can and should work to change this, I believe we should do so in a positive manner and not lose touch with what we already have.
Negativity does not encourage. You can berate the younger generation for being disinterested, selfish and idle until you are blue in the face but this will not encourage them to roll up there sleeves and get stuck in. Support and embolden those already waiting in the wings, however, and you ensure a future for nature and conservation. And, more importantly, you ensure a future generation of conservationists ready and willing to do the same, and encourage others to get involved just as they, themselves were encouraged and guided. Instead of focussing on the negative aspects of modern life, how about celebrating what already have: thousands of incredible young people ready and willing to make a difference who, with our support, will surely soar to great heights in the future. Contrary to the popular image, things are not as bleak as they seem, at least in my humble opinion.
During my younger years, there were few about who encouraged my interest in nature and fewer still to guide me towards a career in the environmental field. In fact, if it were not for my Grandmother, I doubt I would be where I am now, and I fear that without her support, interests in other fields would have taken priority. It is this guidance and support that shaped who I am today and, without a doubt, it is this support of young naturalists that will be our greatest asset going forward. It is up to all of us, old, young and middle-aged alike to focus on the positives and to support young environmentalists in any way possible. Something which, in turn, will ensure the wildlife we watch and the ecosystems we cherish are placed in safe hands in the future.
While it is important to extend our message to as many people as possible and to encourage new individuals to join the fold, I cannot help but feel it is more important to facilitate the development of the promising young people we have already. And to consolidate their interest in environmental pursuits by creating a sense of community, by rewarding diligence and, most important of all, by acknowledging the great deeds they commit. Who knows, if we, as environmentalists, reward commitment, others may feel inclined to commit themselves. Positive reinforcement has a habit of working. No one wants to hop aboard what they view as a sinking, negative and altogether dreary ship.
We, as conservationists, seldom have cause to smile in current times; though the rise of the Youth Nature Movement and its members provides a rare glimmer of hope. At least for those of us willing to see past the negative.