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Why nature needs a youth movement

The full transcript of my talk at BirdFair 2015.

Unlike some, I don’t think young people aren’t interested in nature any more. I even believe that we’re beginning to see a youth movement for nature, by which I mean young people uniting and calling for change that will secure nature’s future. But I’ll come back to that.

I’ve loved wildlife since I was a lot younger, and at least a little bit shorter than I am today. Aged seven, I learned about the Amazon rainforest at primary school. When I got home that evening I was intrigued and my parents helped me to write letters to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF.

Several weeks later and I remember post dropping through the letterbox for me! When you’re six or seven this is such an unusual event, and you’re perpetually jealous of adults who get post every day (until you grow up and realise it’s mostly bills).

The leaflets and posters I was sent contained stories about deforestation, pollution and overfishing. And that made me angry, really angry. And it made me want to do something about it. That fire is still burning somewhere in my heart.

I vividly remember watching a programme called Bird in the Nest, where Bill Oddie and Peter Holden would sit in a tiny caravan commentating on primitive nest cameras in the early 1990s. I actually met Peter Holden a few years back and he was stunned, and pleased, that anyone remembered the programme.

But it’s only recently that I’ve started delving even farther back in time. Students of the history of conservation will know more about what I’m going to say today than I do.

In decades and centuries past, conservationists, ecologists, writers and campaigners helped to build eulogies, knowledge and protection for and about the nature we enjoy today.

Octavia Hill, campaigned for the preservation of green spaces, particularly in urban areas and for the benefit of those living in poorer communities. Her legacy is the National Trust.

Aldo Leopold, in one of the most important conservation books ever written, A Sand County Almanac, describes sawing down an oak tree. Each ring they cut through takes them farther back in time, and he imagines all the events that have happened during the tree’s life, right back to the family that planted it so as its wood could one day keep him warm in the depths of winter. He was a writer acutely aware of the history he relied on.

People like these put in place the institutions and infrastructure, literal and metaphorical, that we as naturalists rely on today. They did this driven by passion, but also with future generations, to be born after their lives, in mind.

In a sense, we owe a debt to them, one that we can repay by performing similar kindnesses and gifts for future generations.

So, what are the challenges facing nature today?

First, it’s declining, faster than ever. Whether you’re talking about the UK or elsewhere. There are lots of causes behind this. We know them well and they’re not the focus of this talk.

Second, young people (and people in general) report being less connected to it than ever before.

Third, nature is less of a political priority than ever before. The environment, in a political or media context, mostly means climate and energy, unless we’re talking about badgers or hen harriers.

Finally, young people are portrayed as apathetic. I actually think apathetic is a way of shifting the burden of blame. Look at the Scottish referendum, the young people currently joining the Labour party to vote for Jeremy Corben, or the young people I’ve seen inspired about climate change and nature by new ways of connecting with them, by finding ways to engage them that are relevant and interesting.

Let’s just pause there for a moment. All those challenges can feel quite overwhelming at times, often scary – I know they’ve made me cower under my covers more than once. But, I’m about to talk to you about the things that help me get past that fear.

So, to answer the question implied by my title, why does nature need a youth movement?

First, all of us, young or old, want to live in and grow older in a world rich in nature.

We also want that to be the legacy for those who come after us. All the young people I meet are talented, knowledgeable, award-winning naturalists, photographers, artists, writers. We are fantastic at putting out our moth traps, in the field I watch seventeen year olds identify rare dragonflies faster and better than those with decades’ more experience.

But we don’t always see nature as a political issue. But if we want nature to flourish we need to ask for that and to act for it from those in power. Even every single one of us getting a job in conservation won’t be enough.

Second, as I’ve said, one of the best ways to repay our debt to the past is by acting for the sake of future generations.

Third, young people bring something to the table too. Protecting nature for the sake of the young and future generations is one of the most morally unimpeachable arguments that can be made.

I’ve seen this. For five years I was part of the youth climate movement. I saw young people dressed in jeans and t-shirts walk into rooms with ministers or UN negotiators and shock them with their passion about the issue of climate change and knowledge of detailed policy. The global youth climate movement is now a phenomenon all of its own since its birth about ten years ago.

That’s not to say that we can do this alone. A Focus on Nature, the organisation I help to run, has at its heart the idea of sharing wisdom and experience between young people and the more experienced, through its mentoring model.

Finally, those born since 1985 have grown up in a society where our models of interacting with each other, of influencing and of thinking about society’s problems have fundamentally shifted.

We have used social media to build safe spaces online where being interested in nature is a source of respect rather than a stick to bully with.

We can build organisations and campaigns that are fleet of foot and lack the rigid power structures of larger, older conservation NGOs.

And we’re aware of, if not yet solving, the problems of inclusion and diversity. But we at least know that we will have a stronger movement if we deal with the under-representation of women, people with disabilities, and of those from minority ethnic groups in our conversations and in positions of power.

So, to make our mark and signal our arrival, A Focus on Nature will be publishing the Vision for Nature report this Autumn.

We’ve gathered the views of hundreds of young people about how they want the natural world to look by 2050 and how they want to get there. Using art, photography, poetry and policy ideas, we’re setting out a plan and asking those in power to help us or to stand aside.

I believe that A Focus on Nature, Sheffield and Bristol Nature Networks Act for Conservation and other organisations are the first shoots of a youth nature movement. This is how we will secure nature’s future.

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