Schools should do more a lot more to prevent eco-anxiety from becoming the biggest mental health issue of our time.
Over 70% of 18-24 year-olds feel eco-anxiety, according to research carried out by Force of Nature – an NGO founded in 2019 by 19-year-old climate activist, Clover Hogan. Talking to children around the world, the survey found that many of them have an existential dread of the future that keeps them awake at night.
The really shocking thing is that they have visions of a dystopian blockbuster – cities underwater, empty supermarket shelves and a world under siege from environmental disasters. In contrast, current-day leaders look forward to a techno-utopia for example with flying cars and diseases eradicated.
“Old people don’t think about the future but young people do. They think about it a lot and it’s sh**.” M, Age 22
Looking back to my childhood – I was born in 1961 – I was largely unaware of the looming threat to our planet. The world behaved as if resources were infinite, the disposable society was taking off, forests around the world were being destroyed with hardly anyone noticing, wilderness areas shrinking and world population exploding – it has increased from about 3 billion to nearly 8 billion in my lifetime.
And yet, there was absolutely nothing in my education that told me what was happening to the planet. Perhaps my father lit the flame for me – we went on long walks talking about nature, wildlife and human impacts. But my real epiphany happened on my travels. I remember standing and staring at the trees stretching into the far horizon – impossibly beautiful and wonderful. Then, I heard the sound of chainsaws. My Spanish hosts, in Western Brazil, were in the business of cutting the forest down. The mission to save the rainforests kicked off my environmental career.
I was in my mid-20s when I co-founded the pioneering environmental think-tank and consultancy, SustainAbility. A year later, in 1988, our Green Consumer Guide was published – it went on to sell over 1 million copies in 20 countries. I became a regular on TV appearing on programmes with presenters like Anne Diamond, Kilroy, Richard & Judy and even the main BBC and ITV news.
What is striking about many of today’s environmental campaigners is how young they are. Greta Thunberg was only 15 when she came to public attention by staging climate strikes outside the Swedish Parliament. Students around the world joined her and started the Fridays for Future movement, whilst Greta addressed world leaders about the urgency of the climate crisis.
She is not alone. I’ve just been sent a newly-published book to review – Tomorrow is Too Late. It has been edited by fifteen-year-old Grace Maddrell. She went on her first school strike aged 13 and now describes herself as a passionate activist for equality and climate justice. Her compilation of climate fighting stories are written by teenagers around the globe – from India, Iran, USA, Pakistan, Germany and Brazil, to name a few.
Generations X, Y and Z have seen the fires raging across Australia and California, the extraordinary heat bubble in North America this year, dying coral reefs, wildlife extinctions escalating, exceptional floods, powerful hurricanes and every year new records being set in weather extremes. They feel angry, despairing and powerless. They are no longer debating whether climate change is real or whether we should be changing the way society works. They know it is happening and that we must be radical in our response.
“It’s not just my life it’s everyone I love. It is all of my future. There’s no end to it. Literally the rest of my life” C, Age 26
It’s clear that previous generations have exploited the planet and this generation must put it back together again. Are schools doing enough to make this happen? I don’t think so. The current curriculum is preparing for a world that’s gone. We need a brand new one to be equipped for the challenges we now face. This means environmental issues should be cross-curricula, in assemblies, in the canteens, in the school grounds and in every part of school life. What’s more, we need teacher training that puts it top of the agenda.
Surely, the key to eco-anxiety is education? We have to empower children so they can embrace the future rather than dread it.
A version of this article was written as the Leader column in the Autumn/Winter edition of Schoolhouse Magazine – pg35.2021-09-JH-Leader-Column-School-House-AutumnWinter-2021-by-Country-Town-House-Magazine-Issuu