Climate Change: What shall we tell the children?

I have a chapter in a new collection of essays on climate change narratives; Culture and Climate Change: Narratives edited by Joe Smith, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler. My contribution is entitled ‘What shall we tell the children?’ and explores the stories – fiction and otherwise – constructed to talk to young people about environmental issues. A pdf of the whole book is downloadable from the Open University, and he’s the last section and conclusion to my piece as a preview:

There is an interesting question about the materiality of kid’s eco-media. Because amongst that discussion of eco superheroes is what amounts to a pile of dead trees telling kids to recycle. Take, for example, a recent ‘eco’ reprint of 1971 classic the Lorax on 100% recycled paper. Because the ‘The Lorax loves trees and so do we’, some how managing to forget that we might be better off just picking up a second hand copy. There is also the infrastructure of the bookshop to consider (air conditioning, etc) not to mention all those never-read books picked up on a 3-4-2 deal. Books have become such a disposable product that “Healthy Planet” bookshops have popped up with stock offered for free saved from landfill.

One of the many ironies here is that, for all its relationship with a particular thread of Romanticism which privileges the outdoors over shopping, children’s literature as a product has been a force in consumer capitalism. Which, in turn, is arguably, part of the problem. The New York Times might complain that children’s books tend to cast consumers as villains, but the Romantic spirit has long helped sell things, in bookselling as much as anywhere else. This is perhaps especially true when it comes to children’s books, be they piles of Harry Potters, the purchasing of a ‘classic’ (or edgy new science fiction for that matter) to express a form of identity, cross branding and spin-off toys or topping up formal education through revision primers. Arguably, the types of consumption at work here, including its apparent discontinuities, intersect with 21st century green consumerism very neatly, as it can be a form of middle class performance through consumption even via the shunning of other products.

Back in 2005, Greenpeace ran a campaign comparing international publishers of the book in terms of their use of sustainable fibre. there was a bit of a mini-movement towards ecologically sustainable publishing around that time with Random House having publicly committed itself to making its book production ancient forest friendly, and Leo Hickman asked for his ethical living book (via Eden Project Books) was printed on recycled paper, using vegetable inks. Egmont Press not only decided to source their paper carefully, but encouraged other UK publishers to do similar, sharing knowledge about wood-pulp sources across the industry. It promoted this move with a re-edition of Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, a story about a boy ship-wrecked on an island, newly printed entirely on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) approved paper. Morpurgo noted in a preface: “next time you’re looking for a book or your parents are buying furniture, think of Kensuke and look for the FSC logo” offering a nice example of the environmentalist message of the book being directly linked to its materiality.

Green has long been a marketable property in the consumer cultures of children’s media. to the extent that the BBC publication, the Blue Peter Green Book, is actually orange in colour, on account of carrying the precise hue of its supermarket sponsor, Sainsbury’s. It isn’t just books. The Reverend Billy Talen makes jokes about “Drowning Elmo” toys to keep us entertained while the tsunamis and flash floods “bounced on the horizon like Loony Tunes”. But when the climate change and energy galleries at the Science Museum are sponsored by Shell and BP respectively, do we really need such satire? There are even anti-pollution sweets, or “smog ball” sours (see toxicwastecandy.com). At this year’s Royal Society summer exhibition a stall on energy gave out slices of rock with solar energy written through (discs, yellow, I think they were meant to be the sun). At the Big Bang Fair 2013, BNFL handed out sticks of rock, apparently to symbolise nuclear rods.

It’s hard to see what impact sponsorship has on content, but it is striking that the Sainsbury’s Blue Peter Green Book has notes on green consumerism, but manages to avoid too much discussion of cutting consumption, just as the Shell sponsored Climate Stories exhibition at the Science Museum avoids prominent reference to oil and gas. There also more direct forms of campaigning, without the need for sponsored mediators. A fracking themed colouring in book featuring “Talisman Terry, your friendly Fracosaurus” was speedily withdrawn as a giveaway for county fairs after being mocked on US television but other resources have been more resilient to critique. There’s the online game Richie’s World Of Adventure which, courtesy of nuclear enrichment company, Urenco, invites players to pick up energy orbs releasing “facts” such as how reliable and safe nuclear energy is. On the other side, there’s Greenpeace’s equivalent, Duke Anti-Nuke where part of the aim of the game is to doge publicity agents. Such materials might seem funny, but raise a larger issue: when we privatised our energy system, did we also privatise the public engagement with energy, and is that ok? These kinds of communications point to a segmentation of our energy imaginations, meaning we talk of wind, gas, nuclear or solar in isolation, not low carbon as a whole. It may also serve to segment audiences casting them as customers not citizens.

But Captain Planet, Michael Recycle, the Science Museum’s climate change gallery any number of other items in this essay are merely the stories adults offer to young people. They may be offered ready-made, but they can be re-made by their audiences too. I’d like to conclude by celebrating participatory and reflexive environmental communication.

Between 1973 and 1994 the BBC broadcast a children’s television show: Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead? Putting aside the ‘Auntie Beeb’ ideas that television should be rationed for young people and that the outdoors is somehow more healthy, there is a message in this apparently self-critical media stance. Get making for yourself. Hack. Blog. Occupy media culture. Run your own discussion events. Offer alternative tours of museums, either in real space or through podcasts (e.g. http://www.tateatate.org). Heckle literature with comment cards left in books in libraries and bookshops. Follow UN negotiators (e.g. http://www.adoptanegotiator.org). Tear up your syllabus and invite teachers to work with you to produce something more sustainable instead (e.g. http://www.post-crasheconomics.com).

Young people are, all too often, seen and not heard when it comes to environmental issues: they are recipients of knowledge or even simply symbols of a future requiring protection in campaigns aimed at adults. That’s not to say older generations should not offer their knowledge to young people: we should draw on the wisdom of the past. Neither do I want to — in Jacqueline Rose’s words — set the child up as the site of a lost truth. The framing of climate change as an issue of inter-generational justice can also serve to pit one age against another, and we should remember that much youth media was largely constructed simply to segment audiences with an eye on making new markets, with a sense of generational conflict thrown in to emphasis difference. Maybe our energies would be better channeled into a more multi-generational approach.

There is much to be gained from building multi-generational stories that splice together the wit and wisdom of the past, present and future. Or we can give out sweeties at the Big Bang Fair.

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