There is an awful lot of negativity in the environmental field. Little wonder really, 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 land mismanagement and plastic pollution. Indeed, everywhere we look another ecosystem faces ruin, and both species, habitats and treasured wild spaces slip [or tumble] ever closer to oblivion. The news these days dominated by extinction, degradation and grave warnings of coming catastrophe.
It should come as no surprise then, that life for an environmentalist can be a dreary affair: disheartening, as we fight on myriad fronts and do what we can, where we can, to combat the seemingly inevitable depletion of the natural world. Blinkered by our struggle and sometimes unable to take note of 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, energetic 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 a conservationist now straddling the divide between “young” and formerly so, 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 consolidates a mostly negative view of generation z (and millennials, for that matter) and does little to encourage greater involvement in environmentalism.
As it stands, many young people are actively taking 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 community 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 conservationists poking their heads above the proverbial parapet and making a real difference for wildlife and the public perception of today’s youth. Though, of course, these names merely represent those lucky enough to have the spotlight cast upon them. There are many, many more out there quietly pushing, in their own unique way, for the betterment of the world around us.
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. As well as many more who dedicate their free time, usually while juggling a plethora of other commitments, to making a real, positive difference for the natural world.
Nature conservation has always been a fight against social norms and individuals, groups and organisations with very different priorities, it always will be. 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: a flourishing movement of motivated young people ready and willing to enact change.
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. 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 nurtured and guided. Instead of focussing on the negative aspects of modern life, how about celebrating what we have presently: 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.
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, I would have walked a far different path. 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 middling 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 as, after all, no one wants to hop aboard what they view as a sinking, negative and self-deprecating ship.
We, as nature lovers, 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.