A look inside the burgeoning international youth nature movement
The sun is setting on a bright and balmy summer evening. A group of teenagers and twenty somethings are sitting in a small garden area with barbecues alight. Plates of burned halloumi and veggie sausages, and full (and half-full) cans of beer, sit on the picnic benches. There’s raucous laughter, cut through only by the piercing whirr of grasshoppers. Suddenly someone cries out ‘turtle dove!!’ and a hush falls over the group. Smartphones are set facedown, tweets left half written as everyone listens intently. From a distant tree a faint purring sound drifts on the still air. Everyone’s faces light up with smiles and then the conversation slowly picks up again. After the food is finished the group picks up the beers and heads across the fields to check whether the moth traps have begun to attract any interesting insects and to see if they can find a barn owl out hunting.
Photo by Nina Uhlíková
This group of young friends was visiting the Knepp Estate in Sussex, England in 2016, to see first-hand the rewilding work being done there. The group ourselves included — is part of a growing movement of young nature lovers in the UK and beyond, made up of millennials and Generation Zers who photograph wildlife, birdwatch, identify moths, and write about nature. Together, we are part of the growing, international youth nature movement.
Being interested in wildlife, birdwatching, lepidoptery (the study of moths and butterflies): these pursuits aren’t what typically come to mind when people think of Millennials. (A recent article does suggest, however, that bird watching is the latest hipster pursuit, right up there with cereal cafes and cauliflower.) But that may be changing.
Social media has allowed young people to connect with others around the world in new and unpredictable ways. For those with a specialized interest like birdwatching or moth trapping, social media allows them to make contact with other young people many miles away, and sometimes even overseas, who share that interest. Social media has broken down the social isolation that is often associated with hobbies that are seen as geeky or embarrassing. And from there the options multiply. Across the UK, young people are setting up their own organizations based around their love of wildlife. These organizations are not just operating online (although the online platforms they rely on are safe spaces for young people with these interests to connect) but are also organizing events in the real world, from meetups down at the local pub to overnight conferences at universities.
We’re noticing groups like this springing up in other countries too. Social media and a growing startup culture are instilling young people with the confidence that they can run their own organizations and take on leadership roles.
This community, of which we are a part, is driven by its concern about the unacceptable declines of wildlife in the UK and beyond. The planet is going through what some scientists have labeled the earth’s sixth mass extinction event. This one is different though, because it’s being caused by humans. Those in our generation who are part of the youth nature movement are determined to reverse these trends.
In the UK, where we’re based, the recent State of Nature reports (published by a partnership of over 50 organisations, including the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB) set out the scale and severity of the declines of nature. According to the most recent report, of the 1,387 species studied over the long term in the UK, 41percent of butterfly species saw populations in the wider countryside decline since 1976. Species of special conservation concern have fallen 67 percent since 1970. There were of course increases too, but these do not make the declines any easier to stomach or any more ethically acceptable.
Looking beyond the UK, the WWF’s 2016 Living Planet report found that of species monitored between 1970 and 2012, species populations declined by an average of 58 percent. The report also makes the important point that people are victims of these declines too, as the natural systems we rely on for food, clean air, and fresh water are being affected by the degradation of nature.
Such statistics, such losses, are fundamentally unacceptable. And the losses are likely to multiply if we don’t change course now. That is why thousands of young people are now taking matters into their own hands to support wildlife. They are aided by their own youth led organisations as well as the more established bodies for wildlife protection, their parents, and their grandparents. To live in a world without hearing the lyrical tones of a skylark, without knowing the majesty of elephants as they migrate across the African plains, or without being able to experience the unique beauty of an extensive coral system such as the Great Barrier Reef, is an unthinkable reality. It is, however, completely possible that we will lose these natural wonders within our lifetimes.
There’s a long and proud history of environmental activism in the UK. One of the first notable youth-led environmental organizations to establish itself was UK Youth Climate Coalition, founded in 2008. This group of young people began campaigning for a clean and safe climate for young people and future generations. Through the youth delegations they send to the UN climate talks and the events and campaigns they run in the UK, they continue to influence national and international climate policy.
Like youth-led climate organizations, many of the youth-led organizations for nature and wildlife have been based on this model: youth-led organisations, with fairly flat structures, that make use of online tools and social media to run their campaigns. It was perhaps the huge media focus on climate change beginning in 2000 that meant that the youth climate organisations came first, but youth nature organisations were only a couple of years behind them. A Focus on Nature (AFON), of which we are both a part, was one of the first of these, a youth nature network that uses online platforms, real world events, and a mentoring program to help young people with an interest in nature meet each other and develop a career in nature conservation. Founded in 2012 by Lucy McRobert, the organization began as a competition to get binoculars for birdwatching into the hands of young people: young people could submit a portfolio of their work for consideration. This modest competition very quickly took on a life of its own, and after developing a mentoring program for young conservationists, AFON expanded its operations to run events, workshops, conferences, and internships. The organization has also provided a safe online space for young people in the UK who care about wildlife and now hundreds of them are part of the nonprofit’s Facebook group. It is recognized by many as the leading youth nature network in the UK.
Elliot Newton is A Focus on Nature’s current creative director. He believes that AFON and similar organizations serve as a platform for youth empowerment, enabling young people to speak out for what they believe in, as well as to gain experience and confidence in the conservation sector. As he says:
In a time [when] the environment appears to be slipping down the political agenda and threats to the planet are becoming increasingly apparent, it is essential that young people have the opportunity to be heard. We are witnessing a growing movement in which young people are becoming increasingly informed and concerned about the environment and the direction that our political leaders are pursuing. Through networks such as A Focus on Nature we strive to empower young people, so that their voices can be heard to encourage and catalyze environmental policy reform. Today’s youth will feel tomorrow’s environmental decline and they deserve an opportunity to feel part of a supportive network that can strengthen their voices allowing them to be taken seriously.
But A Focus on Nature is no longer alone, and this space is rapidly filling with passionate individuals and new groups. Bristol, Sheffield, and London Nature Networks are all youth-led groups that organize social meetups and events for young people who like nature and wildlife. The magazine New Nature is entirely written and edited by young people, and is receiving quotes and endorsements from some of the country’s leading natural historians. Action for Conservation sends young conservationists into schools to talk about their careers and Race Equality in Nature is seeking to make the movement truly diverse and inclusive.
Crucially, many of these groups have moved well beyond the realms of event organizing and networking in bars and pubs. Political campaigning and polemical writing are becoming staple activities. A Focus on Nature’s Vision for Nature report and campaign is a prime example of this. The report and the campaign identified the impotency of politics and decision makers in the UK to take the necessary steps to save nature for the future. It then drew on hundreds of young people’s ideas to set out an aspirational vision of nature, and lay out the improvements that could be made if the right steps were implemented. The report, put together entirely by young activists, wildlife photographers, and artists, received mainstream media coverage in the UK from The Guardian, the Daily Mail, and other outlets.
Youth groups are also working to build bridges with other generations, rather than forging divides based on age. In fact some organizations prefer to use the term ‘emerging’ rather than ‘young’ in order to avoid focusing on age. AFON makes connections between generations through its mentoring scheme, which pairs youth advocates with long-term conservationists. It also encourages debate at its events between conservationists of different generations.
Just as the UK Youth Climate Coalition quickly found that it was part of an international youth climate movement, today, the youth nature movement is going through a similar evolution as nature-based youth groups emerge around the world. CoalitionWILD in the US, Youth for Wildlife Conservation which is a global organization, Emerging Leaders for Biodiversity in Canada, AcroTerra in Mexico — these are just a few of the youth-led groups for wildlife that have been established outside the UK. Other far reaching networks include the South Asia Youth Environment Network (SAYEN) — which aims to make it easier for young people in the region to participate in sustainable development, environmental justice and conservation work — and the Green Africa Youth Organisation, based in Ghana, which works to raise the voices of young people in the conservation movement.
‘’As simple and contrived as it might sound, to me there isn’t a question as to whether we should care for and protect wildlife and nature,” says Crista Valentino, co-founder of CoalitionWILD, which connects and celebrates young people across the globe who are making the world a wilder place. “It seems like I have always had an intrinsic understanding that our wildlife and wild places are just as important as we as humans are, and deserve to be loved for, and cared for, and fought for.’’
Coalition WILD was spearheaded by the WILD Foundation, an international conservation organization, that was keen to address the lack of support available to young people in the environment sector. WILD Foundation supported Valentino in establishing what is now a highly visionary and effective organization, with a global reach. Since its founding in 2013, it has grown to include almost 10,000 members across 52 different countries. The key to CoalitionWILD’s success is seeing the need for wildness in all areas of life, and engaging with people from all sectors, to ensure caring for wildlife is at the forefront of the way that people think and act. Valentino is optimistic for the future and believes that giving young people a platform on which they can build their careers and make change in the world will be good for everybody.
‘’I think young people have the ability to play the largest role of all, yet are vastly underutilized,” she says. “Besides all of the obvious answers that young people are the future and they will be inheriting the world after many of the current decision makers are gone, it is often forgotten that young people are also coming into situations fresh: not burned out, full of fiery passion, with new ideas and innovative ways of thinking, more connections around the world than ever before, and the knowledge and ability to implement a lot of these creative solutions.’’
What these organisations have in common is a shared determination to ensure that the voices of younger people are not forgotten in the fight to save nature. And though many groups were founded to address local issues, they are beginning to reach out to each other and are building personal and professional links across continents. This international collaboration will certainly be key to the success of the movement, as it is only by working together that issues such as climate change and international wildlife crime will be tackled successfully.
As the movement matures its influence will surely broaden. However, it is vital that it does not lose the activist, optimistic, informal, ‘youthful’ edge to its identity and outlook. As its current leaders grow older, room must be made for younger voices to rise through the ranks. It is vital that we ensure that the quest to solve the modern nature crisis is multi-generational, with people of all ages engaged in the fight to save wildlife for the future.