Young Britain: Forget about Swampy. All they want is their own car

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The Independent Online
You think they are the eco-warrior generation, with Swampy as their hero. You think they plan to save the planet with their politics. In fact young Britons idolise the car.

The notion of a youth movement actively involved in environmental issues is stripped away in 2020 Vision, a survey of 10,000 young people aged between 12-25, exclusively previewed by The Independent every day this week.

Tomorrow's people think about things close to home. They are worried about unemployment and about crime, while global warming and the disintegration of the ozone layer don't figure high on their agenda.

Even though we are bombarded with images of a nation of young green activists, such as Swampy or Animal, only 14 per cent believe pollution is an urgent problem in Britain, ranking it well below issues like drugs, poverty, and terrorism.

Isobel Williams, 13, knows exactly what this means. She lives in a pleasant green-belt town in the Wirral and attends a nearby grammar school.

Although her parents recycle much of their household rubbish and grow vegetables on the family allotment, Isobel says she is detached from the environment debate because other issues are more pressing.

"I am interested in the environment but before that I'm worried about other things, like the health service or homelessness," she says.

"I don't really know anybody who is actively involved in the green movement. None of my friends are eco-warriors or go on demonstrations. I actually found that whole Swampy thing very alienating."

Jo Gardiner, co-ordinator of 2020 Vision for the Industrial Society agrees, saying although the young are environmentally aware, they are not doing anything about it.

"The environment is not top of their list and it's definitely below either health or education. Most people know about the environment and are aware about the issues ... it's just that they don't take responsibility for it themselves. I suppose they are passively concerned."

So ecological destruction played out in a rain forest thousands of miles away from home, is just too far away to think about. With this in mind, it is no surprise to find that the picture emerging from the research is of a generation obsessed with having their own cars - content to ignore environmental impact which has no immediate affect on their lives.

When asked which item they valued most, 68 per cent of those who own a vehicle put their car at the top of the list, way ahead of the second most valued item, a stereo system, which garnered only 24 per cent. Among non-car owners, 40 per cent would like to own one over and above anything else. The survey revealed that a staggering one-third of all 19 year olds own their own cars.

Jill Patton, 18, from Ballywater, Northern Ireland, says having a car is often something to shout about.

"Having a car is a prestige thing," she says. "Saving a whale is not, while clearing canals is just punishment."

Even though she lives on a farm, Jill says the jargon surrounding the environment is enough to make anyone switch off. "Words like chlorofluorocarbons just turn people off because they are too academic and make it all sound very distant from our daily lives."

The environment is just not trendy enough for much of young Britain. They think it is still the domain of middle-aged, middle-class ex-hippies and rather strange tunnelling people, like Swampy.

And the research shows not only are they not really bothered about the environment, they actually haven't got the time or the money to dig themselves under Manchester Airport, as 24-year-old Tracey Cook, from Bradford, explains.

"If you've got to sign on every other Thursday, hanging around in a tree house is just not going to work. We are too busy getting through day to day life.

"Being involved in the environment doesn't give you any security or finance and that's why most people I know have little or nothing to do with the whole debate," she says.

"But the real problem is older people want us to be responsible, so they can shake off their own responsibilities. So now no one is doing anything about it."