Should teenagers give up on having children to save the planet?

| 18th July 2017
Should school textbooks offer more robust advice on climate change to teenagers?
Science textbooks aimed at teenagers simply ignore the most effective lifestyle changes to prevent climate change: go vegetarian, cycle, take the train overseas and have fewer kids. It is time parents sat down and explained the low carbon birds and the bees, asks BRENDAN MONTAGUE
Adolescents should be informed of environmental consequences of family size when sexually active.

Should parents and schoolteachers buy moody teenagers inter-railing tickets, bicycles, condoms and a lifetime supply of hummus so that the world can meet the challenge of reducing their carbon emissions? This could be the best option, according to new research.


Professor Kimberly Nicholas and Seth Wynes of Lund University in Vancouver, Canada, have published a paper in Environmental Research Letters criticising science textbooks aimed at teenagers for failing to recommend high impact behavioural changes that can actually prevent cataclysmic climate change.


The four key recommendations they identified are: have one fewer child, stop taking transatlantic flights, stop eating meat and don’t own a car. This is particularly true if you are a British, European, American, Australian or Canadian resident.


The report states: “A US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the the rest of their lives.”


Environmental consequences of family size


Yet textbooks for teenagers almost entirely ignore these high impact actions and instead focus on easier sacrifices, such as recycling and buying better lightbulbs, which have significantly less impact on the amount of carbon emitted.


The authors - one a secondary school teacher - state: “The majority of the textbooks that we analysed are aimed at Grade 10 students (typically age 16), which is the same age that most Canadians are first allowed to obtain a driver’s license. 

Adolescents should be informed of environmental consequences of family size when sexually active.


“Adolescents can also choose their own diets, can influence family decisions on vacations…and should be informed of the environmental consequences of family size as they are likely becoming sexually active.”


The researchers read dozens of school textbooks from across three continents and counted each and every recommendation made. They found 216 different recommendations were presented.


“Regarding our identified high-impact actions, no guide recommended having fewer children or eating a plant based diet, through the EU guide did suggest eating less meat and more vegetables. Neither the US nor Australian guides suggested avoiding air travel…only Australia adopted the framing of a car-free lifestyle”, they report.


The authors remain optimistic. They state: “Serious behavioural change is possible; there is evidence that younger generations are willing to depart from current lifestyles in environmentally relevant ways.


“For instance, the US has seen a measurable decrease, or at the very least delay, in car usage and ownership of the millennial generation…In terms of plant-based diets, the willingness of individuals to eat less meat increases with the perceived effectiveness of this action.”


The study focussed on individual rather than state or society-wide action because the authors argued this would be quicker and could be more widely adopted. However, it did recognise broader issues such as “cultural norms” or “structural barriers” that “act as obstacles” to change.


The authors argue: “Some high-impact actions may be politically unpopular, but this does not justify a focus on moderate or low-impact actions at the expense of high impact actions.”


‘Catalytic’ individuals such as adolescents


They suggest that the inclusion of high impact decisions - like having one fewer child - in textbooks “demonstrates the seriousness of climate change, and offers a starting point for important discussions that challenge unsustainable society norms.”


The report concludes: “Focussing on high impact actions through providing accurate guidance and information, especially to ‘catalytic’ individuals such as adolescents, could be an important dimension in scaling bottom-up action to the transformative decarbonisation implied by the 2 degree celsius climate target…”


The researchers examined the existing scientific literature to identify which actions had the most impact on the environment, and then counted how often these behavioural changes were recommended in science textbooks in Europe, Canada, the United States and Australia.


However, the report did not discuss how high carbon industries - the airlines, car manufacturers, oil companies and meat producers - may have influenced the recommendations being made in the textbooks, or indeed the the decisions being taken by teenage consumers.


This Author


Brendan Montague is the contributing editor to The Ecologist and can be found on twitter at @EcoMontague

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