Tuesday 15 October 2019

Hopeful Earth Youth Conference

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to Ditcham Park School to be one of the speakers for their Hopeful Earth Youth Conference.  This brought together 10 local schools to start the conversation about how schools should respond to the global environmental crisis.  It was enabled by Mark Philips, Head of Seniors, but this was very much a student-led event.  I was immensely impressed with 4 students:  Zac Davidson (Head Boy), Sacha Fairweather (Head Girl), Nelly Bryan and Ben Vass who guided the whole event along and facilitated the workshop sessions.

The conference aimed to grasp the nettle of the current climate and ecological emergency.  These students will be in the thick of trying to rectify the problems we are leaving them.  They should be angry – to be honest, they should be angrier with my generation than they appeared to be!  But the conference was built around hope – not the vague hope of people just wishing things were different, but the progressive hope of people who are determined to act.

I was there to talk about rewilding.  It’s too late to stop climate change and we can no longer be comfortable just conserving what we have.  Nature must be rebuilt so it can respond to (and protect us from) climate change.  Rewilding is a great way of doing it. 

There was also a hugely inspirational talk from Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming.  He expertly brought together compassionate farming systems with ecologically sustainability.  These farming systems should replace the exploitative farming that dominates today.  “You are able to take action three times a day” was one of his memorable take-home messages.  “Every time you eat you can determine what goes onto your plate” and the choices we make determine the agriculture we support.

Mary Skuodas of Bohunt School gave an excellent presentation with crisp advice to fellow students on how to engage in environmental matters in school.  Her delivery was so professional and clear that it was unbelievable that this was the first time she had given a presentation to such a large audience!

It was, however, Jack Harries, climate activist and filmmaker, who stole the show.  He simply told the story of how he had become involved in Extinction Rebellion (XR) and how he got himself arrested.  This was not a boastful story or one that he encouraged students to emulate, but the commitment, passion and overriding concern shone through. 

The BBC were there all day.  However, they came with the sole purpose of covering XR.  None of the subject matter was discussed. 

And herein lies a problem……. 

Many (indeed most) people agree with XR’s concerns.  But some disagree with the methods used.  Understandable.  But this follows decades of environmental organisations (such as the Sussex Wildlife Trust) frantically trying to get the media to take seriously, report on and encourage discussion on the over-riding issues of our time.  Throughout, the environment has been relegated to the “and finally” slot on the news.  It has been marginalised, trivialised, prettified and degraded - no matter how urgent, important, scientific or persuasive the case.  XR have concluded that the only way to get noticed and force discussion is through non-violent civil disobedience.

BBC have proved XR right. Jack’s presence gave the whole event a presence - good for him!  The rest of us were invisible.  Some may not like the methods used by XR, but the media coverage shows clearly that the only time they engage is when there is the threat of non-violent civil disobedience. 

This is a very worrying message to give our young people.  The media must change.  Engagement must be based on the quality of the case, not the threat of unrest.

Fortunately, the young people at the conference are a level-headed bunch.  The discussion was about what they can do individually and with their schools, looking sensibly at the subject matter.  A Hopeful Earth Pledge was drafted, recognising the scale of the problem and demanding action.  This includes asking schools to play more of a leadership role, to talk more about the emergency in their curriculum and to do more practical things to reduce carbon emissions, source food ethically and reduce plastic.  They also want an environment programme in their own School Development Plan (hopefully to include rewilding of school grounds?). 

In their own words “We pledge to act; to change; to hope.”  I suspect the order of those words was carefully thought about.

Let’s hope the BBC are as keen to report on this as they were to profile potential social unrest.

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