How to inspire the next generation of eco-activists

Tom Youngman
Tom Youngman is part of the Department for Energy and Climate Change's Youth Advisory Panel
Constructive engagement, optimism and campaigns that benefit local residents are the best tactics to move eco-activism forward

After Copenhagen, I sat down with the twenty or so pupils in the ‘Environmental Action Group' at my school. I thought I'd get the Copenhagen Accord up on the projector and try to make sense of what comes out of two weeks of negotiations by the leaders of the free world. The only thing worse than a bad response is no response at all. There was nothing to make sense of, nothing to comment on. Twenty teenagers waited for me to tell them that something good had resulted from the conference. As I struggled to find anything worth pointing out in the document, twenty teenagers sat in silence. Some of them never came to our weekly meetings again.

What COP15 proved is that we cannot wait for our elected representatives (and for those my age and younger, representatives who we have no chance to elect) to take the first step.

The urgency climate change demands cannot be underestimated. As critical a moment as Copenhagen was, many grew tired of waiting for legislative action long before COP15. The resurgence of activism in a direct form, as chronicled in Just Do It, was the direct response to this. This direct action has been creative, tongue-in-cheek, targeted and purposeful. Even if the ‘Plane Stupid' activists that locked themselves to a private jet at London City Airport had received no press attention, they still prevented emissions. It was more than a publicity stunt.

But for me, as admirable as acts of protest like these are, they are not the most inspiring part of the climate movement. ‘Grow Heathrow' is another project featured in Just Do It, started by activists fighting expansion at Heathrow Airport. Seeking to engage with those that suffered most from the airport, Transition Heathrow took over an abandoned market garden in Heathrow town, using the area's A-grade soil not only to grow vegetables, but to grow a community. A derelict site once used for car-breaking and drug-taking was transformed into an active hub for the community, something rarely seen in 21st Century Britain.

Collective consciousness

This constructive activism is what really engages with people. Opposition and destruction have power, but to cement the essential principles of sustainability and environmental awareness into society's collective consciousness, we have to look to construction.

Food is familiar to all parts of society and its renaissance as a tool for self-organisation and mobilisation of communities has defined this constructive, inclusive approach. The town of Todmorden found itself at the centre of this, as it was transformed into a haven of urban farming by the local group, ‘Incredible Edible'. For me, their ‘Guerrilla Gardening' is direct action at its finest. The illicitly planted cherry trees in the local supermarket's car park and the leeks outside the college are now maintained by their originally unsuspecting hosts. A visible, meaningful statement is made and a lasting positive impact on the area is left that every passer-by can engage with.

In Bath we've guerrilla gardened several times, always being greeted warmly by local residents and joined by people never previously involved in activism. This sort of action transcends perceived divisions in society by producing something undeniably positive.

Even if the term ‘climate change' is not at the front of public consciousness, eating fresh, local food, conserving energy and building a sustainable economy are now causes that few people disagree with. In Heathrow, dozens of local residents, of their own accord, directly confronted the police when officers attempted to evict the Transition group. In Calton Road, Bath, the family living at No. 5 brought us chocolate digestives as twelve teenagers planted lettuce in part of their street that was, until that morning, waist-high with weeds.

A better world is possible

We seek a society that we want to sustain, not just one that we can sustain - thus well-being, health and equity have all become part of the climate agenda. By considering the benefits of our actions outside of preventing climate change, we have allowed our original focus to become better accepted and understood by previously apathetic parts of society.

A constructive approach also means working with all parties willing to listen. I remember a few years ago the teacher facilitating my school's ‘Environmental Action Group' telling me how the bursar, on being approached about something to do with reducing carbon emissions, responded sarcastically, mocking my teacher for bringing up an ethical issue. Now the bursar attends our after-school meetings fairly regularly and is one of the strongest contributors. I'm pretty sure her getting involved had more to do with the several thousand pounds the school went on to save by following our advice than any concern about melting icecaps - but it got her involved none the less.

Carbon emissions were saved and, being exposed to our rather sensible ideas for a prolonged length of time, environmental impact now seems to influence the bursar's decisions. It took persistence, but collaborating with new partners is the key to our cause's popular uptake.

All in all, the enduring strength of the climate movement is its optimism. Confronted with systemic crisis across the planetary ecosystem, we look for solutions when many resign humanity to failure. But humanity is resilient. For all our failings, we've always managed to bounce back and better ourselves in the process. We cannot take that ability for granted but we can take confidence that if we pull together as a global society, we can create a stable, equitable future for ourselves and for those that succeed us.

Tom is a 17-year old sustainability activist from Bath, working with schools and young people in his local community. He is a member of the Department for Energy and Climate Change's Youth Advisory Panel and this November will be attending the UN climate change talks (COP17) in Durban with the UK Youth Climate Coalition's delegation


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