'Daddy, where will the polar bears live?'
Some of the boldest eco-warriors are those with the most to lose – our children. Nick Duerden argues that when it comes to getting parents to go green, pester power is a force to be reckoned with
Monday 01 November 2010
After her second day at school, my four-year-old daughter sat me down at the kitchen table for a conversation. She wanted me to explain exactly how I take her to school each morning.
"It's not by car, is it?" she said.
I confirmed to her that, no, it wasn't by car.
"We go by bicycle when daddy is running late; otherwise we walk," I told her.
"Good," she replied.
I asked why.
"Cars are bad."
I learned later that upon arrival at her reception class each day pupils have to tick a box on a piece of paper denoting how they journeyed to school that morning. Though they are never told in quite so many words that cars are actually bad, they are nevertheless steered, by their eco-aware teacher, towards the two former modes of transport – because cycling and walking are both environmentally friendly, and environmentally friendly, as my daughter appears already to know, is "good".
A week later, and we had a similar kind of conversation, this one about the fact that we currently grow no fruit or vegetables in our small garden. I informed her of the wonders of Ocado, but she insisted that self-sufficiency was better. At school, my daughter explained, they have an allotment where they grow tomatoes and strawberries, possibly potatoes and almost certainly marrows. She wants us now to do likewise.
Friends who have children older than my own have told me this is just the tip of an iceberg which (so long as the iceberg doesn't inconveniently melt due to global warming) will continue to grow as she does.
"Mine told me to turn off the hoover the other day," a father said to me, "because it used too much energy. She also stands by me while I brush my teeth, to make sure I have the tap turned off while I'm doing it."
This, I know now, is pester power in action. And in a world where we must all become more green aware, it is children who are at the very forefront of the movement, children who collectively soak up all the information like the sponges they are, before disseminating it in a manner that, rather winningly, brooks no argument.
In the UK today, more than 67 per cent of schools have now signed up to the Eco-Schools Programme.
A global award programme that guides schools onto a sustainable journey, it helps provide a framework to embed environmentally aware principles into the very heart of modern school life. Keep Britain Tidy, which administers the programme, hopes that the remaining 33 per cent of schools will follow shortly. There are 46 countries around the world already signed up, linking more than 40,000 schools to share with one another their initiatives and successes.
The programme was set in motion after the 1994 Rio Earth Summit, but took hold fully four years ago, as climate change increasingly became a staple of news bulletins. Eco-Schools essentially encourage pupils to account for energy and water waste in daily life, to collect litter, and grow their own food. It rewards all efforts too, and achievements are marked by bronze, silver and green flags.
"What we want is for schools to put sustainability at the very heart of everything they do," says Andrew Suter, education project manager at Keep Britain Tidy. "We'd like to help change the whole behavioural framework for schools, to encourage them to identify their own specific issues, and also to then create solutions for them."
This doesn't merely mean through solar panels and wind turbines, but also by simply observing good behaviour. The Switch Off Campaign, he explains, has proved particularly effective, largely because it is so easily implemented. Pupils now ensure that before they leave their desks and rooms all the computers are off, as are the lights.
It is good that they do. The UK Education Sector currently produces somewhere in the region of 10.8m tonnes of carbon a year, but through good behaviour alone the initiative is now helping to save more than 200,000 tonnes. "The aim," Suter says, "is that one day [schools] become 100 per cent carbon neutral. We also hope that, by targeting children so early on, they will take these messages forward in life."
The manner in which eco-awareness is first introduced to children is basic, but effective: the ice caps are melting and the polar bears have nowhere to live. Children, in the main, says Andrew Suter, very much want polar bears to have somewhere to live. From this spark, they begin to comprehend that the world is in peril, and they want to help.
Their first port of call is at home, where they educate their parents accordingly. Successfully, too. A 2008 poll of 1,500 parents showed that24 per cent cited their children as a key green motivator. Only 2 per cent said they took their cue from politicians. And an increasing number of books targeted directly at children, are being published on the subject. How To Turn Your Parents Green by James Russell, for example, is a pocket-sized manifesto that encourages its youthful readership to monitor their parents' behaviour and punish them should they refuse to heed the eco-message.
And then there is television.
Somewhere within the labyrinth of BBC TV Centre, Clare Bradley, a producer for CBeebies, is explaining the thinking behind Green Balloon Club. The show's largely pre-teen cast, one dog and an appropriately coloured hand puppet (green) extol the many virtues of becoming environmentally aware.
Essentially, Bradley says, she wanted to make a children's version of Springwatch, the BBC show presented by Chris Packham and Kate Humble which observed the wonders of nature through night-vision glasses and open jaws.
"Springwatch was fiendishly popular in my house, my children dropping everything to watch it," she recounts. "It made sense, then, to want to do something similar – but this time specifically for, and presented by, younger people."
It was one of the few programmes she has produced that came with its own mission statement. "I had lofty objectives, I suppose. I wanted it to inform children about their world, [to encourage them] to care about it and to become the stewards for the next generation," she says. "An ambitious plan, I'll grant you, but one I felt sure would catch on."
She was right; it did. Many might expect kids to want to focus more on the cartoon world than on the real one, far less a real world that required of them an awful lot of grunt work (viewers are encouraged to get out into the mud and ramble, plant, dig and recycle). But Green Balloon Club ran for two series.
The first series even managed something no other CBeebies show had: to run once a week for a full year. This allowed it to fully chart the incremental changing of the seasons, as the young viewers watched planted seeds grew to fruition.
Green Balloon Club hasn't been commissioned for a third series, largely because CBeebies tends to repeat its programmes ad infinitum (children love repetition, and repeats are cheaper).
However the channel is planning several more green-flavoured shows, among them Mr Bloom's Nursery, which, from early next year, will encourage children to nurture their own homegrown produce. Bradley says that though CBeebies doesn't have a specific mandate from the BBC to enlighten its viewers on environmental matters, it wants keenly to reflect what is going on in the world.
"You should never underestimate children, because they really do care," she says. "Kids today have a far more global view than we ever did. When I was growing up I remember my father constantly reminding me to switch off the lights. Now it's my children who tell me to turn off the lights. They know all about wasted energy, and how to avoid it. The environment has become a big concern for them – as it should."
But pester power is not without its share of controversies. Not all -parents, after all, necessarily want their children at such a young age to get on such a high horse, not least when an increasing number of people are starting to feel that the purported realities of global warming have been exaggerated, perhaps for politically motivated reasons.
"Not all parents appreciate the message," Andrew Suter says, "and, yes, we do occasionally encounter scepticism. But our response to that is simply to say that all we are really doing is encouraging children to care about the world around them, and to do positive things in it. Nobody, surely, could have an issue with that."
He concludes, pointedly, by saying that children themselves have yet to question the veracity of climate change, "chiefly because they are children. They are not cynical yet."
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