The world needs young nature geeks

They say that whatever issue you have with a toddler, you can multiply by ten for the teenager. Whilst inspiring tiny children about the great outdoors has its challenges, they are nothing compared to trying to keep young people involved with and excited about nature as they hit the often rocky, hormonal years of teenagedom.

I know from personal experience that even the most rural, idyllic childhood doesn’t prevent a rapid descent into nightclubbing and alcohol – who has time for nature then? My children are a while off that, but I wonder how I will keep them connected to our natural world.

Wonderful campaigns such as the Wildlife Trust’s ‘Every Child Wild’ and the work done by The Wild Network help the parents of younger children to embrace nature. Whilst there is no deliberate exclusion of teenagers from these projects (and much remains highly relevant), there is a focus on reaching out to younger children. To then lose that connection in the fug of the teenage years seems such a tragedy.

Time in nature is vital for everyone’s health and well-being and in the turbulent, exam-packed teenage years, stress relief and green exercise are just what the doctor ordered. Despite all the medical evidence, society still thinks it is more normal for a teenager to be holed up in a darkened room on social media than roaming the countryside with a pair of binoculars.

A more worrying aspect is the bullying that young people can experience if they are into nature. Being called a geek, nerd or twitcher can be the least of it. In a world that values material consumption and the quick thrill of the digital, choosing to spend time, often on your own or with the older generation, can mark you out as an odd ball.

A Focus on Nature is a youth nature organisation aiming to address this. It offers a community for young people who love nature, as well as looking at the wider issue of disconnection of teens from our natural world. The website is full of stories of young conservationists getting out there and not just connecting with nature, but taking real action.

Wildlife charities do offer teenage options for involvement. The RSPB’s Phoenix membership provides Wingbeat, the only environmental magazine written by teenagers for teenagers, and opportunities to become part of and blog on the Phoenix forum. For those interested in volunteering or work experience, most conservation charities can give exciting and varied opportunities that could lead to a career in conservation.

With social media, there is a platform ready and waiting for our tech savvy teens. We would all benefit from more young voices to shock us oldies out of our comfortable complacency and to make caring about our planet the norm, not the geeky exception.

Teenagers need nature and green spaces in their life. It will bring them fun, stress-relief, new friends and turn them into true custodians of our world.

It’s been a while (ahem) since I was a teenager and I don’t yet have my own, so I’m very interested in your thoughts and experiences on this important issue.

 

First published in the EDP and EADT.

 

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So how did I perform?

Last year I wrote of my rather unusual green resolutions for the New Year (and recently reposted them). I’d forgotten them, but because I’d recorded them I have no excuse. I can go back and see how I’ve performed. They were a bit strange, it turns out.

1)            Forget your manners

This was about eBaying unwanted gifts being better for the environment than shoving them in a cupboard. I loved all my pressies last Christmas, but I have sold or given away plenty of other unwanted items over the year. Result: Eco-win.

2)            Have more sex

Suddenly wishing I hadn’t announced that one! In the interests of preserving some degree of modesty, I can only confirm that I have not divorced in the past year; hence there is no need for the un-green two houses and double set of everything. Result: Eco-win.

3)            Don’t go to the gym

No carbon burned for me to stay fit in 2015. It has been outdoors in nature all the way, running, cycling and walking. Result: Eco-win.

4)            Get a new hairstyle

I suggested that reducing the length of my hair would save blow drying time. This was misguided – after losing four inches my crazy hair required more attention from both the hairdryer and products. I’m growing it again. Result: Eco-fail.

5)            Don’t eat salad

Eating imported lettuce or cucumber in the winter months is bad for the environment. I saved it for the right time of year and enjoyed all the comforting root veg and red cabbages of winter. Result: Eco-win.

6)            Celebrate breasts

This one also sounds odd out of context, but was to do with supporting breast feeding because it is good for the environment as well as the baby. Mine are no longer required in milk-service, but it’s the kind of thing I like to go on about so I think I can say I have achieved it. Result: Eco-win.

7)            Don’t do the washing up yourself

I found this one very achievable. Using the dishwasher on eco-setting, with a marine safe powder has used far less water and energy than the sink. Result: Eco-win.

8)            Don’t get up so early

The later you get up, the more electricity and heating fuel you save on a dark morning. I’m brilliant at sleeping late; sadly the children have other ideas. Lights are blazing by 7 am. Result: Eco-fail.

9)            Ignore the garden

I’m a lazy gardener, so it was no trouble to leave seed heads and piles of leaves to provide food and shelter for wildlife, until springtime. Result: Eco-win.

10)         Don’t go to work

As a writer, I don’t have to travel all that much for work, so this one was easy – I don’t ‘go’ to work. Mind you, many employers are increasingly flexible and a work from home day, cutting transport related emissions, can be possible for many. Result: Eco-win.

I performed pretty well!  Recording the aims and checking back is satisfying and I shall be doing so again this year, although I haven’t quite got round to setting any targets yet… first goal, procrastinate less?

 

First published in a similar form in the EDP and EADT

It’s not fair! But we can change that…

Life isn’t fair. We all work that out by the time we are six or seven years old. Some people get all the luck and accolades; others work hard and never get rewarded. Whether you believe in science, religion or fate as your guiding principle, sometimes it is just the way the dice rolls or the cookie crumbles that determines certain details of our lives. No wonder many of us end up a little cynical.

Expecting life to be unfair, however, lets us fall into the steely grip of a capitalist mind-set. We forget to care about people and instead allow markets to rule. If that means that a tea farmer in Malawi is paid only a tiny fraction of the price his tea sells at back in the UK, then that’s just the way it goes. If that means he can’t afford education or medical care for his children, we may feel it is sad, but not our problem or something we can fix.

However, the Fairtrade Foundation doesn’t agree. They believe (and have twenty years of experience and many case studies to back them up) that giving a producer a reasonable and guaranteed price for their product is the right thing to do. This needs to be regardless of the many vagaries of the world market – its fluctuations can throw a community reliant on one export item into financial despair.

The Fairtrade Foundation has shown that a fair price leads to genuine improvements in quality of life for families and better long term opportunities for their children.

The cost increase on Fairtrade items for us is small change, often just a penny or so, and most of us could manage to pay a tiny bit more for a handful of items in our shopping trolley. Despite this, the Fairtrade Foundation reports that just 1.2% of cocoa and less than 10% of tea globally is traded on Fairtrade terms.

The next couple of weeks is Fairtrade Fortnight, running from 23rd February to 8th March and it’s a good opportunity to discover Fairtrade products. Look out for bananas, sugar, cocoa, tea, coffee, chocolate and cotton labelled with the Fairtrade logo. Often, they are of higher quality because they are at the premium end of the market and it is reassuring to know that the profit is not all going into the pockets of a supermarket fat cat.

And while we are thinking about what is fair… what about the power that supermarkets wield over our nation’s farmers too? The immense squeeze placed on the price of milk is the latest evidence of this. It’s a while since I was six years old, but I have the strong urge to stamp my foot and shout at the top of my voice, “It’s not fair!” Anyone going to join me?

First published in the EDP and EADT

Want a green pet?

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What’s cute, fluffy and bad for the environment? The answer is lurking in your home, very possibly asleep at the end of your bed.  Whether you own a cat or dog, you may be surprised at their impact on the planet.

According to a book, amusingly called ‘Time to Eat the Dog’ a medium sized dog has the same ecological footprint as a Toyota Land Cruiser and even your little kitty equates to a Volkswagen Golf in carbon terms. This is because they are meat eaters and producing meat takes a lot of land area and energy.

Not only that, but fouling by dogs is an environmental issue that can ruin parks, pavements, footpaths and beaches for other people. The UK dog population produces a scary 1,000 tonnes of excrement each day. If this isn’t dealt with responsibly by owners, it creates ‘no go’ areas for families and walkers. It is dangerous too, because of the risk of toxocariasis from roundworm in the faeces.

Meanwhile, cats aren’t so innocent either. Their predatory ways lead to the untimely deaths of birds, small mammals and amphibians. The Mammal Society estimates that the UK’s cats catch up to 275 million prey items a year, of which 55 million are birds. Those are just the ones they bring home, so the actual numbers could be much higher.

Hang on a minute though. It’s sounding very negative. As an animal lover, I’d like to mount a defence case for our furry friends. Firstly, much of the meat that goes into pet food is the waste from the human food chain. If it didn’t end up in a can of Doggo it would be disposed of, so the massive carbon footprint is not truly representative.

What about all those killer-cats out there? Well, even the RSPB states that there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens affects bird populations. This is because cats tend to take weak or sickly birds.  

Pets bring subtle environmental and social advantages too, although these are harder to measure. A family pet helps children to learn about looking after things other than themselves, and that sense of responsibility is essential if they are to care about their world too. Of course, dogs need walking too, so you will end up outside, noticing the changing seasons, picking up scraps of litter and appreciating the world we live in.

A few simple changes can minimise the environmental impacts of your pet too. Obviously, dog mess should be disposed of responsibly. For your cat, a collar with a bell (and a quick release safety mechanism should the cat become snagged) can reduce predation of birds as well as other creatures. To reduce their use of carbon, simply choose foods made from rabbit and chicken, which have a smaller impact than those made from red meat or fish.

With a little thought, you can shrink your pet’s carbon pawprint while enjoying all the love and cuddles that they bring to our lives. Now you can’t say that about a Volkswagen Golf!

First published in the EDP and EADT.

Abstract thoughts

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You may think I’m insane for wasting column inches on the scarcity of water while most of the country lies under inches of it. Surely it’s like a drowning person wasting their last gasp by calling out for a drink.

The surface is indeed saturated and our feet are soggy, but it is what’s going on underground that deserves a moment’s thought. Right now, vast quantities of water are being removed from the natural aquifers beneath us.

This process is called abstraction and involves pumping out underground water known as groundwater. It is one of those invisible activities that we don’t often stop to consider.

The latest figures published by DEFRA for England and Wales show that on average 14 billion cubic metres of water were abstracted from underground sources every year for the period 2000-2012. This equates to over 15,000 Olympic swimming pools of H20 every single day.

Our groundwater is purified by rock and is perfect for consumption with very little treatment. It provides a third of our drinking water, and is mixed with water from rivers which is less pure. The electricity supply also massively relies on abstraction as most power plants (nuclear or fossil fuel) require large quantities of water in order to operate. It is also utilised by agriculture and industry, although to a lesser extent.

So what’s the problem? There’s plenty of rain at the moment so surely there’s loads of available water. If only it was so simple. The issue is that if abstraction rates aren’t right, it only takes a few months of drought to seriously affect the levels. This has implications for our water supply and for industry, but more immediately nature (as always) takes the hit.

All rivers and wetlands are partly fed by groundwater and some depend on it completely.

Over-abstraction literally sucks the life out of these unique and delicate ecosystems. Fish populations collapse, rare mammals such as water voles struggle to survive and butterflies such as the iconic swallowtail are threatened.

Many places, such as Catfield Fen in the Norfolk Broads, are showing the stresses of over-abstraction. With climate change, population growth and lifestyle changes, the challenges for managing water sustainably look likely to grow.

The Government admits that the current system, whereby landowners obtain a licence to abstract, is outdated and has failed to respond to over-abstraction. The Environment Agency is currently consulting on a new system which would enable the trading of licences and also aims to reduce the impact on important sites for nature.

We need abstraction, but done badly all of us will suffer. The new system will have to be fleet of foot and far more sensitive to the impacts on our region’s special, natural places. It’s our water, a collective asset, so we ignore what is going on under the ground at our peril.

Meet the Young Green Radicals

I’ve been spending a lot of time with an exciting new environmental movement, called the Young Green Radicals. Be aware: its members ignore the norms of society in order to pursue their eco-friendly ways.

None of them drive; they walk, run or propel themselves at speed on scooters or bikes. Pedestrians can find them antisocial with their use of the pavement, but they believe the roads are too dangerous to use. They are fascinated by nature, devoting much time to the study of the smaller insect. The group likes to engage with the ‘real world’ and considers rudimentary levels of hygiene more than adequate.

The Young Green Radicals sound rather extreme and alternative, so it may come as a relief to learn that they are not a real group. They in fact reflect a bunch of typical five year olds.

Children of this age make me realise how many of our environmentally unkind ways are imposed by society and convention. If we behaved more like unspoilt kids then we would be more sustainable, closer to wildlife and healthier as well.  To help those who want to change I have consulted with a five year old boy to discover his manifesto.

Home management as practiced by a five year old boy

  1. Don’t flush wees (dramatic water saving).
  2. If you drop it on the floor, it’s still fine to eat (cutting our outrageous food waste).
  3. Licking something cleans it (reducing our use of marine harming chemicals).
  4. Clean a top by rubbing the dirty bits (minimise the use of the washing machine and tumble-drier).
  5. Don’t have a bath or shower every day (save water and energy).
  6. Welcome nature and mud into your life and home (reconnect us with the outdoors).
  7. Scoot don’t drive (avoid the car, it’s boring, polluting and makes us fat).
  8. Wee alfresco when possible (fertilise and water plants, feel at one with the planet).
  9. Hide the car keys once per week (you are doing the grown-ups a favour, they need the exercise).
  10. Eat cereal directly out of the box (avoid the wastage of water and chemicals for washing-up).

Of course, there are plenty of things that young children do that aren’t great for the environment. These include falling for over-packaged plastic tat in the shops and wanting junk food at the supermarket checkout. However, many of their natural instincts, which we spend a lot of time correcting, are for a generally messier, grosser, greener existence.

The planet is their inheritance. We should be showing them how to care for it and how to nurture wildlife. Instead, we are making them mini grown-ups, and quite literally training them in all our polluting ways.

It’s time to vote Young Green Radicals and embrace the toilet talk. We need to create a wild area in our gardens, wash our clothes less and use fewer chemicals. Let the children show us a thing or two about how to run the world.

First published in the EDP and EADT 22nd November 2013

Darkness descends – changing the clocks is bonkers

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Have you adjusted to the clocks going back yet? I live in fear of forgetting. It’s entirely possible – I once managed a whole holiday on a Greek Island without changing my watch. I just couldn’t understand why we were always the only ones in the restaurant; it was because we were eating two hours earlier than was usual.

However, I did remember to change my clocks the other weekend. Each year, as British Summer Time ends, the gloom descends upon me. Any chance of getting outside after work is gone in an instant.

Now that we are plunged into darkness an hour earlier, our children suffer. Sport and playing outside after school become impossible. The walk home becomes dangerous. No wonder accident rates soar and more and more kids end up travelling home in the car and then zone out in front of the telly.

The environmental implications are bad. The past two weeks, you will have used far more electricity than the weeks before (unless you were unlucky with the storm!). In fact, researchers from the University of Cambridge calculated a few years back that if we didn’t change the clocks, it would save a minimum of 500,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. In a time when energy costs are spiralling, it seems a total no-brainer.

Historically, this clock set up was all for the sake of agriculture. Now even the majority of the National Farmers Union’s members back a change. After all, we do have electric lights for those early mornings in the barn and bright headlights on the quad bikes and tractors. The conditions that livestock live in are far more controlled than when the daylight saving system was first implemented in 1916.

The desire to shift our winter day is nothing new. Back in 1968, we experimented by putting the clocks forward as usual in spring, but then not changing them in October.  The result was ambiguous – no one could agree if it was worth it and so the Government ended the trial.

Life is very different now. Obesity is a growing problem with our children. We know about climate change and that we should be saving energy. There is more traffic on our roads and statistics clearly show that we are more likely to have a crash on a dark afternoon rather than a dark morning because we are tired out after work.

Our politicians are fretting over impossible energy pricing choices. Removing green levies would be yet another backwards step for the environment, but with many people suffering the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma, it is clear that drastic action is needed. Simultaneously, we have been warned of the risk of blackouts this winter. Our need for power is racing ahead of supply.

So why oh why have we just missed this opportunity to help the energy crisis, reduce accidents and increase the activity levels of our youngsters? Life gives you few easy wins, but this is one of them.

It’s not the clocks that should be changed; it’s our mind-sets, and fast.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 1st November 2013