A project to bring environmental issues into the open aims to dispel the idea that concern for the planet means having to live in a muddy hole. Victoria Neumark reports
Young people interested in the environment are often seen as weirdos not heroes," says Ray Fabes, evaluator of a pilot project designed to increase environmental awareness among young people.
The pilot, which ran for six months from last September, was the first step in a five-year plan to develop a National Young People's Environment Network (NYPEN). The venture is a collaboration between Youth Clubs UK, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Wildlife Trusts, The National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, and the Council for Environmental Education.
As part of the pilot project, in Bath, 15 young people were asked to raise the environmental awareness of 150 others. The group, helped by workers from CEE and Youth Clubs UK, met several times and held three events, attracting far more than their target audience.
All the events took place in schools and were organised by the young people, with help from families and friends. A rainforest interactive evening was organised by Clare Scott, a pupil at Stonehenge School, in Amesbury, Wiltshire, a small mammals talk and workshop by Emily Coulson, from The Castle School, Thornbury, near Bristol, and an insight into the secret world of an animal sanctuary by Sarah Harbron, who attends Bruton School for Girls, in Bruton, Somerset.
Emily, 15, says the experience was great, not just because the feedback cards included comments such as "absolutely brilliant" and "it made me stop thinking about bats as fierce creatures", but because it reduced the feelings of strangeness and isolation of those involved. "There's not many - or there didn't seem to be many - people at school interested in the environment, " says Emily. "This teaches them about it."
Sarah, also 15, is surprised by "how much people enjoyed the animal sanctuary evening". She says: "I've almost been bullied in the past because of volunteering there. But people really liked it. Some even said they would have liked the event to have lasted longer."
The stars of the animal sanctuary talk were a brown rat called George, an albino hedgehog called Brian, brought to the sanctuary because the people who found him in their garden thought he was radioactive, and a slow-worm. "I don't think many of them liked it much when George went on their shoulder," says Sarah, laughing. They liked it well enough, though, to ask the speakers back for another meeting, and to pay for it (the first one was funded by NYPEN).
Although Sarah would love to be involved in more dramatic forms of environmental awareness, such as the road protests against work on the A30 at nearby Fairmile, her mother wouldn't allow it. And, she says robustly, you can do a lot of good rescuing badgers and birds.
Emily is similarly daunted by the extremism of Swampy and his friends, although she recognises the need to change attitudes. She is pleased that children who held and looked at small mammals and bats no longer fear them. That marks a real step forward, she says.
In Year 10 in the rural south-west, the challenge for environmentally-aware young people seems less about living in a mud tunnel than simply making an interest in the environment more socially acceptable among their peers. It was a great relief to all those involved to meet like-minded people and to work with them to influence other school groups. A huge benefit for all the young people in NYPEN, says Mr Fabes, came from putting on the first event organised by a student in their respective schools. Not only did they gain a collective identity as NYPEN, they also gained status and purpose as individuals - not so very different, perhaps, from Swampy, or from members of parliament, come to that.
Youth Action and the Environment, by Alan Dearling with Howie Armstrong, contains more details on NYPEN. It is published by Russell House Publishing, 4 St George's House, The Business Park, Uplyme Road, Lyme Regis, Dorset DT7 3LS. Pounds 11.95 plus 1.50 pp ISBN 1-898924-07-4