"It's about focussing on the extraordinary opportunity we have in this moment to do something truly great and inspire younger generations through education, hands-on experience, storytelling, art and nurturing their powerful natural instincts," says Alison Sudol, musician, actress, and IUCN Goodwill Ambassador.
Question: Why is it important to engage young people in conservation? What is in it for young people, and what can conservation gain from bringing them into the movement?
A: Well, it's important on many different levels. We can already see evidence of the damage that we've done to the environment – melting glaciers, huge swathes of bleached coral, the Pacific garbage patch, mass deforestation, the steep decline of bees and too many species to count vanishing before our eyes, some disappearing before we've had a chance to discover them, not to mention the spiralling effects of climate change, extreme droughts and floods and rising ocean temperatures. But the real impact isn't going to affect my generation as much as it will the ones coming up behind me.
Today's youth are going to inherit a planet in desperate need of creativity, courage and imagination; it's going to need all the help it can get to sustain an ever-growing population with dwindling resources to draw from. At the moment, we are still kind of able to put blinders on and pretend everything is fine. Things haven't quite caught up with us yet. Yet when fresh water becomes scarce, there are nearly no fish left in the seas and people far and wide start having to pollinate crops with paintbrushes like they're already doing in China, conservation will become necessary in order to survive.
By engaging today's youth now, educating them and also encouraging them to think outside of the box, to think boldly and bravely, we can give them a head start on figuring out how they are going to handle the future they're stepping into. And we owe them that, because it's not really their mess – they certainly didn't cause it, but it is going to fall on them to clean it up. And it’s therefore on us to help them in any way we can, now.
Q: What motivates you personally to try to engage young people?
A: I honestly am excited for the future, despite all the scary stuff happening at the moment, as I am constantly meeting kids and young adults that seem to have it way more together than I did when I was their age. They are exposed to far more information and a much wider worldview than I was when I was their age. They are smart, capable, highly evolved and way cooler than I ever remember being. They have access to unlimited information, but also to each other, regardless of where they live. That connection is a web that can draw the world closer, into an integrated whole, and we are really going to need to unify in any way we can if we're going to make the massive changes we need to make to change the path we're on.
Kids can teach us a lot, if we are willing to learn. When we interact and empower them, we also get a chance to re-engage with our own youthful spirit, that sense of wonder, possibility, curiosity and sense of adventure. And in doing so, we can take the situation we're in now from being daunting and more than a little depressing into a challenge and an opportunity for a brand new way of living to emerge. I think we could all benefit from putting a colander on our heads and a stick in our hands and charging into the wilderness in pursuit of the unknown.
Also, perhaps more than anything, it's easier to fight for someone else than it is to fight for yourself. I don't want my great-grandchildren to have to wear masks to school because the air quality is so bad they can't breathe. I don't want them to only know glaciers through pictures in history books. I want them to experience running through fields thick with butterflies, honeybees and wildflowers, waking up to birdsong, swimming in clean oceans and exploring nature in all its many forms, intact. Theirs is a future worth fighting for.
Q: What does the conservation movement need to do differently to actually get young people involved?
A: I think we need to make it more fun, frankly. Oftentimes I feel like conservation is lumped into the homework category, and who likes homework? Even I put off doing this blog until the last minute and I am crazy about nature! I think somehow we need to work on shifting the way nature is perceived – I feel like it's seen as something outside of us, some distant responsibility that feels too big to tackle individually and also like an obligation. I don't know about you, but I don't get very excited about things I feel I'm obliged to do.
We are all connected, humans and nature, all woven into the same universal fabric, impossible to separate, and the damage we are doing to nature is ultimately damage we are doing to ourselves.
The planet is at a crossroads. The future is hanging in the balance. Our actions can actually have an impact, change the course of history. If you look at some of the most popular books and films out there for younger audiences – Harry Potter, Hunger Games, the Divergent series, it's like they're preparing young people for what lies ahead. It is modern mythology telling age-old stories of courage and heroism, and we need heroes today more than anything. So I guess really it's about focussing on the extraordinary opportunity we have in this moment to do something truly great and inspire younger generations in any way we can, through education, hands-on experience, storytelling art and nurturing their powerful natural instincts. They are our greatest hope, and if they are helped to truly believe that, then the future will be in good hands.