Turning children green with fear

A new survey claims many children stay awake at night worrying about apocalyptic climate disasters. Where could they have got ideas like that?

Lee Jones

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If the aim of the politics of environmentalism is to scare people, then it has succeeded. Green writer George Monbiot declared in his book Heat that he wanted to ‘make people so depressed about the state of the planet that they stay in bed all day, thereby reducing their consumption of fossil fuels’. He may not succeed in keeping people in bed all day, but the panic that he and other environmentalists are helping to foster does seem to be keeping kids awake in their beds at night.

A recent survey of 1,150 seven- to 11-year-olds in Britain found that half of them often lose sleep from lying in bed worrying about climate change. One in four blamed politicians for the problem while one in seven declared their own parents weren’t doing enough to save the planet (1). The aim of spiked eco-columnist Ethan Greenhart’s sinister educational manifesto – ‘If we can make children feel bad about the damage they cause to the environment, it can only cause them to make better choices than their parents’ – seems to be coming true (2).

You might think that greater awareness of the issue of climate change among the younger generation is a good thing – it could encourage them to get involved in a solution. But the poll also suggests that the way they are learning about the issue promotes fear and paralysis over reasoned activism. While most of the kids associate climate change with apocalyptic scenarios like ‘the submerging of entire continents’ (which no one, not even the IPCC, is predicting), concerns like poor health and animal welfare also get bundled into the issue. As for solutions, one in 10 children thought recycling had something to do with riding a bicycle.

It’s not simply because they are wide-eyed children that their take on climate change is fear-laden and simplistic. As has been pointed out many times on spiked, some environmentalists deliberately present the issue as a world-threatening crisis with a set of pre-ordained, imperative solutions we must implement (3). Anyone who questions the evidence or the proposed solutions is a ‘climate change denier’, wasting time and imperilling the planet.

But precisely because they are children, they are more receptive to these messages and less able to think critically about them – which might explain why the government is targeting them by sending copies of Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth to all secondary schools (4). It’s difficult to see this as anything other than an attempt to turn children into eco-warriors who will judge their parents’ behaviour and lecture them to do better, rather like the spies in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – or a green version of China’s Red Guards, perhaps. In one online discussion of the problem, Lisa from Perth in Scotland reports that her kids are so worried about climate change that they have even asked her if she still wants to be cremated (5).

Among the various hysterical responses to the recent Unicef report on the state of the nation’s children (6), no one questioned whether the fear-mongering that dominates what passes for politics in Britain today (which the report merely contributed to) might itself be having a detrimental effect on young people’s wellbeing. Climate change is just one area where we seem determined to scare our children; they are no doubt also affected by other modern-day worries over the ‘obesity epidemic’ and panics about crime and paedophilia.

The BBC news show for children, Newsround, asked viewers for their responses to the UN report and to say what would make their lives better. Among the usual complaints about school and the dentist were many responses betraying a pervasive sense of fear.

Some children feared a Day After Tomorrow scenario – ‘it’s making me and my friends go mad’, reported Leanne, aged 12. Jamie, aged 13, suggested: ‘It would be nice to not have the worry of all the loose criminals out there prepared to strike in any way whether it be to kill, mug you, steal something, abduct you, or hurt you in some way.’ Ten-year-old Lana said: ‘My life would be happier if there weren’t so many robberies, murders and all sorts of other dreadful things happening. I feel so worried going out into the streets because of this and so do many of my friends.’

Monalisa, 11, reported that her parents were so worried that they rarely let her go out and play with her friends, while 12-year-old Aminah had never been allowed out at all. Jenni, aged 13, summed up the general sense of anxiety and powerlessness: ‘I think we all worry about things we can’t control like bird flu, illnesses, war and crime like murder and stuff, but we can’t help like that, which is what makes us unhappy.’ (7)

This should be a wake-up call for all the purveyors of the ‘politics of fear’. Children are, naturally, relatively powerless and likely to feel overwhelmed by the challenges facing mankind. But as adults, we should have a greater sense of our own collective power to master problems and build better societies. Not only does jumping from one panic to another, each with disastrous consequences – mobile phone radiation, BSE, SARS, crime, paedophilia, terrorism, bird flu, global warming – diminish our own sense of agency, by turning childhood dreams of utopia into nightmarish visions of the future it is teaching the citizens of the future all the wrong lessons.

Lee Jones is a doctoral candidate in politics at Oxford.

Previously on spiked

Lee Jones wrote about how the issue of climate change was the focus of an interactive BBC game. Josie Appleton despaired of the way school trips are increasingly regarded as too risky, while Helene Guldberg wondered whether childhood would soon have to come with a health warning. James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky noted how the latest IPCC report was spun into a tale of doom and human folly. Or read more at: spiked issue Environment.

(1) Global warming concerns are keeping children awake at night, GMTV, 22 February 2007

(2) Is it ethical to send my kids to school?, by Ethan Greenhart

(3) See for instance James Heartfield’s review of George Monbiot’s Heat and Josie Appleton, Red Ken’s green tyranny

(4) Associated Press, British to Show Al Gore Movie in Schools, 2 February 2007

(5) Children losing sleep over global warming, Scotsman, 23 February 2007

(6) See Don’t panic: Suffer the little children

(7) What would make your life better?, BBC Newsround, 19 February 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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