Earth shakers

23rd November 1995 at 00:00
Place and People: Earth Tales 2, Age range: 14 to 17, Channel 4, Mondays, 10.20-10.40 am, until November 27. Free information sheet, Educational Television Company, 01926 433333

The volume, and general excellence, of environmental education over the past 15 years or so is likely to have a considerable impact on the future of this country. Young people who have benefited from a greater awareness of environmental issues are initiating small-scale changes. Many households have a culture (recycling, energy saving, anti-packaging) that is driven from the bottom up, not from the top down and we look forward to the day when this new generation can wield some real influence.

In the meantime, environmental education is facing new challenges not least how to make the message both fresh and potent. These new Earth Tales 2 programmes, broadcast as part of the Place and People series, mark one attempt to deliver the message from a slightly different angle.

Four programmes, targeted at 14 to 17 year-olds, tackle deforestation, mismanagement of insecticides, air pollution and river pollution respectively. Each programme tells a story, with young people at the centre of the action and an environmental moral to the forefront.

"Forest of Dreams" (broadcast on November 6), for example, has a young heroine's family trying to eke an existence out of the Brazilian rainforest in which they have been encouraged to settle. The trees are cut down, the farmers fare badly, the native Indians are persecuted and the only "winners" are fat and rich cattle ranchers. That is until the rancher's son falls ill and the only people who can help are the Indians with their herbal remedies. There is a great reconciliation and everybody lives happily ever after. The world is a better place.

Unfortunately the programmes are a good idea executed rather poorly. Within the short time available there is no time to construct a fully-developed story. The parts are played by either very bad actors or "real" people (it's not clear which), and the stereotyping will grate with even the least sophisticated audience.

There is a real danger that the target audience will be turned off by this "naff" (as they were described) approach. I am sure it has not escaped the notice of the programme makers that many recent and current television drama series tackle environmental issues head on. From Flipper to The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (and not forgetting Baywatch and Neighbours en route) there is a tradition of right triumphing over wrong, environmentalists beating the bad boys. Wouldn't it have been best to leave storytelling to the experts, letting educational programme makers do what they're best at?

The other worrying aspect is the way the programmes deal with the causes of the problems. Either the baddies are "them" the faceless ones, the bureaucrats. Or else the bad guys are stereotypes easy targets in suits (why are they always fat?).

The audience is more sophisticated than that. Secondary school students can recognise the complexity of issues. Just as there are no easy answers, so there are no easy targets. We are all involved in environmental disasters that might be just around the corner.

But there are good points too. The programmes place a premium on the actions of young people, who are the real heroes. There is a sense of the achievable it is possible to make a difference. And the programmes remind us that there is much common ground between the developed and developing worlds: we share the same goals and live on the same planet.

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