Involving Young People in Environmental Issues and Decision-Making - A Young Person`s Perspective

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Involving Young People in Environmental Issues and Decision-Making - A Young Person's Perspective

Introduction

1. "Youth comprise nearly 30 per cent of the world's population. The involvement of today's youth in environment and development decision-making and in the implementation of programmes is critical to the long-term success of Agenda 21." (UN, 1999) This statement is taken from the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development and captures the essence of this report. From this statement, we can see that youth participation is a major factor for the United Nations.

2. As voter apathy in the UK increases to its highest since WW2, the same lack of engagement is filtering down to the younger generations. If young people see that their elders are not participating in politics and rejecting there right to vote, it is unlikely that they will choose to take part.

3. The environment is, arguably, one of the most accessible areas of politics, which means that this should be one of the first sections to be tackled with regards to including young people. Unlike many political parties, pressure groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and other Non-Governmental Organisations are fairly indiscriminate in their acceptance of younger members. From there, young people can progress to political parties to invoke more change in the environment.

4. The environment is such an important subject and young people, being the decision makers of tomorrow, need to understand how changes in the environment will affect them and how they can become involved in the issues and decisions that will ultimately affect them. This report will show that there are many ways that young people can participate and that there are opportunities for them to express their views. It will then try to identify some of the many reasons that deter young people from participating in a modern society, despite the importance of the matter. After describing why young people do not participate, the report will then attempt to indicate how young people could be encouraged to participate.

5. Although I have focussed upon the environment, the principles that I discuss in this report are relevant to a range of issues as they affect young people.

The Ways in which Young People Can Participate

5. "[Countries] shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child." (UN, 1989). This statement is taken from Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UK is a signatory to this Convention and there are many different ways that young people can participate in environmental issues and decision-making processes. This chapter will identify some of these.

6. There are many projects in the UK aimed at providing opportunities for everyone to participate in looking after the environment. These projects encourage people to look after their local community and environment so that future generations may live in a clean and pleasant area. These are practical examples of how young people can get involved in environmental issues. One such project is the "Adopt-a-Beach" scheme set up by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). It is a national environmental initiative involving local communities in caring for their local coastal environment. Groups and individuals all over the UK are given the opportunity to adopt their favourite stretch of coast and take part in beach cleans and surveys to monitor coastal pollution. This project tries to encourage schools and young people to participate in looking after the environment.

7. Young people also have the opportunity to join Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO's) like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. These provide good platforms for young people to express their views about the environment. Sometimes these views are subsequently discussed by adults, who might choose to act upon them using lobbying, demonstrations or petitions.

7. Another way is to actually join a political party. This is one way of participating that many young people feel they can play no part in and the figures correspond with this. Of the main British political parties, only one member in 20 is under 25. At the 1997 General Election, the average age of Labour Party members was 48 and 62 for Conservative Party members. Survey studies also reveal that, compared with older people, young people are even less likely to engage in political activities, which involve significant informational or other costs (e.g. attending political meetings, lobbying, standing for office) (Fahmy, 1999). Many young people are not aware of the power of lobbying, which also includes writing to their MSP, MP, local councillors or MEP. Although it is not the most glamorous of participatory methods, it still lets people in office know how young people are thinking

8. In a recent study of English and Welsh local authorities, the different ways in which they engaged young people were considered (IPPR, 2001). The study reveals how local authorities tried to involve more young people and Table 1 shows what they found to be the best methods of doing this. Three quarters of the councils that responded said that they use youth forums and councils to involve young people in decisions. Overall, the survey reveals the broad range of mechanisms used by authorities to involve young people in their decisions. Councils were least likely to use referendums (3 %), citizens' juries (5%) and visioning techniques (18%).

Table 1: Methods used to involve young people in decisions? (IPPR, 2001)

County Council

(%)

District Council

(%)

London Borough

(%)

Metrop. Borough

(%)

Unitary and Welsh Authorities

(%)

All

(%)

Youth forums/councils

80

70

79

90

76

76

Youth conferences

70

45

63

75

69

54

Service satisfaction surveys

80

39

50

70

93

50

Focus groups

70

38

64

80

60

50

Consultation documents

50

40

58

70

57

47

Young people carry out research among their peers

60

37

21

75

69

46

Public meetings

45

33

43

60

46

39

Question & answer sessions

35

31

50

70

43

38

Service user forums

55

16

57

55

49

31

Complaints/suggestion schemes

30

22

43

55

40

30

Interactive web site and e-mail

40

27

29

25

40

30

Citizens Panel

30

23

43

40

37

29

Co-option/ committee involvement

30

19

36

70

46

29

Issue forums

35

18

21

40

46

26

Other opinion polls

15

20

29

50

23

23

Visioning exercise

15

20

7

20

14

18

Citizens juries

10

4

7

-

6

5

Referendums

-

2

7

5

3

3

9. The research demonstrates that there are many different ways of including young people in the decision making process. Local authorities are trying to give young people the opportunity to participate in issues and decision making, but many still stick to the tried and tested methods used by all the other local authorities like youth forums and councils. However, few try to encourage young people to take part in referendums or citizen juries (3% and 5% respectively). These methods should be used more in the development of youth participation since they force young people to make much more informed opinions based on evidence, rather than simply what they think on the spur of the moment.

10. There are also many one-off participation methods used around the country to involve young people (Lardner, 2001). In West Dumbartonshire, the Young Peoples Jury was set up to allow young people the opportunity to see what jury duty is like and to make an informed decision based on the evidence they heard. In this scheme, a group of young people met over 3 days, heard evidence from witnesses and deliberated on the subject of employment for young people. The topic was identified from a previous consultation exercise with young people. Their recommendations were presented to a Stakeholder Jury (agency representatives) who produced an action plan. An Inter-Jury Forum (young people and stakeholders) provided a high profile platform for discussion of the recommendations and action that would follow. They also agreed a review process that would include all participants. This is an especially effective way to include young people in decision making, as it is good for joint, in-depth exploration of highly specific topics and for the generation of solutions.

11. The 'Triumph and Success' project in Sheffield is another example of a one off participation method. They recruited eight young people, aged between 15 and 21 from different social and economic backgrounds, to help undertake research on youth transitions in Sheffield. This project was run by a team of youth workers and supported by professional researchers from a local university. The young researchers were involved in designing questionnaires and undertook a survey of almost 750 young people in Sheffield and carried out interviews with 60. This is very good for allowing young people to participate as it allows them to sit down together and evaluate questions and approaches that they, as a group, feel are appropriate. A sense of responsibility is established, enabling young people to work more effectively together.

12. Although one off participation methods allow young people a chance to participate, after they have finished many young people will quickly forget what they have learned. What is required are more long term participation methods so that young people are involved in an on-going process that allows them to see how their actions affect what happens in the end.

13. One such long-term participation method is the Tomorrows Voice panel set up in Wiltshire. Tomorrow's Voice was set up in 2000 by Wiltshire County Council, District Councils, the police and local health authority, and involves nearly 2000 13-18 year-olds from all over Wiltshire. The panel is consulted 3 times a year through a paper questionnaire asking for their views on public services. There have also been e-mail surveys and 'Question Time' conferences. Young people are kept up-to-date with the panel's activities through newsletters. A new development is to provide local software on school servers, plus handsets to allow anonymous voting and on-street surveys. This will enable local surveys to be done, for example seeking the views of school pupils on sport, expenditure etc. This is one such way that allows young people to see the changing attitudes in their society. However, with a panel that is only consulted 3 times a year via paper questionnaires, the actual level of participation would be very low and many young people will simply fill in the questionnaire and not hear the results of it and what the consequences were. Addressing this is important if young people are to feel valued and continue to participate.

14. The Highland Youth Voice is another project designed with longevity in mind. It has 70 young members, 2-3 representing each of the secondary schools in the region. It was established after a youth conference held in 1999. At their first meeting, the members set priorities and decided to prioritise drug issues. They have also set up a number of sub-groups. There are also a number of local Youth Forums and links to Pupil Councils in schools. This scheme is good because it allows young people to draw up proposals and see the consequences of their actions unfold. The Highland Youth Voice also promotes active citizenship among young people involved in the project and provides a mechanism for consultation.

15. The Scottish Youth Parliament is another project, which has been designed to allow young people to have their views heard on subjects like education and the environment and to even allow them to get a taste of the political process by actually voting for youth MP's (MSYP's). The scheme not only allows them to talk to their peers about issues that matter to them, but also to sometimes converse with important people in office.

16. If young people can access basic forms of participation in youth forums and councils, then they can discuss a variety of issues including the environment and sustainable development. Many forums and councils are a platform to other forms of participation, which young people may start to find interesting. If people start participating at a much younger age, they are more likely to continue into adolescence and beyond. Many young people do not realise the number of ways that they can participate in conjunction with adults. Things such as lobbying, canvassing, demonstrating and even petitioning are all methods of participating that many young people are unaware of. If more young people were to begin participating in these ways, it may push them to start participating in the other ways that have been mentioned. Although it would appear that there are opportunities available to young people, they still do not engage. The next chapter will present some of the reasons why young people do not participate.

Why Young People Do Not Participate

17. It is a fact that young people participate in political issues far less than any other age group (Fahmy, 1999). For example, young people are less likely to be on the electoral register, or to vote than other age groups. According to M-Power, 20% of 18-25 year olds were not even registered to vote in 1995. The 1997 election saw the lowest turnout of any post-war General Election (71.6%) and young people were amongst those least likely to vote. Analysis of the 1997 British Election Survey data reveals that 40% of 18-24 year olds did not vote in the 1997 General Election. Multivariate analysis of constituency turnout in the 1997 election shows age to be one of the few social characteristics significantly associated with non-voting even when income, educational and class differences are controlled. However this does not help to explain the cause of the problem.

18. A survey on environmental issues in Scotland shows that people aged 16-24 consider environmental issues to be less important than any other age group (System 3, 2000). Only 15% saw them as very important and 26% saw them as not very important, compared with 40% and 16% respectively for people aged 45-54. Table 2 illustrates how the importance of environmental issues varies with age.

Table 2: Importance of environmental issues by age (System 3, 2000)

16-24

(%)

25-34

(%)

35-44

(%)

45-54

(%)

55-64

(%)

65+ (%)

Very important

15

16

30

40

39

36

Quite important

56

66

55

42

43

44

Not very important

26

16

12

16

12

14

Not at all important

1

2

3

2

7

5


19. Chart 1 shows that the number of young people who are classed as political activists is also alarmingly low in comparison with every other age group.

Chart 1: Political activists in Britain in 1996 by age group (Fahmy, 1999)

bar chart

20. These figures confirm that young people are not making use of the opportunities available to them to participate and do not consider the environment to be an important issue. This chapter will seek to understand the reasons behind this.

21. Despite this apparent lack of participation among young people, it does not mean that young people are simply uninterested in politics, the environment and the issues surrounding them. In fact, research carried out by the Nottinghamshire County Council discovered some interesting statistics when they did a panel survey of 1,597 first-time entrants onto the electoral register (Henn, Weinstein & Wring, 2000). The survey results indicate that, far from being apolitical and apathetic, young people continue to demonstrate an interest in political issues. Firstly, they found from the survey that a slim majority of this age group do discuss politics with their friends and family at least 'some' of the time, if not more often (over 50%). Nevertheless, young people appear to be quite willing to forego their right to vote. Many young people have different priorities, which appears not to include environmental issues, which is certainly a large problem if authorities wish to try and influence more young people to participate in environmental issues and decision making.

Table 3: Young People's Political Engagement (Henn, Weinstein & Wring, 2000)

A great deal.

(%)

Quite a lot.

(%)

Some.

(%)

Not very much.

(%)

None/ none at all.

(%)

Generally speaking, how often would you say that you talk about politics with your friends or family?

4.7

14.4

31.8

37.4

11.8

How much interest do you normally have in national politics?

5.6

27.8

37.9

22.1

6.6

How much interest do you normally have in local politics?

1.9

10.7

32.2

44.1

11.1

22. These results contradict the conventional view that young people take little interest in political affairs and challenge the view that young people are 'airheads' and 'know-nothings'. Instead, it suggests that young people have little or no access to information about the decision-making processes or simply to do not want to become involved.

23. The perception of young people by adults is certainly a major issue when it comes to the lack of participation by young people. Many adults stereotype young people as being stupid and idle, and therefore consider them to be inconsequential or criminals. Young people are seen as a problem, not a solution. One example of the young-old divide can be witnessed at many discussions or debates. When a young person raises an issue, it is often not discussed and age is brought up. Rather than contending with the argument, many adults tend to say things like; "you are too young to think about things like that" or "don't worry, let the adults discuss it". This is discrimination and, although many adults do not do this intentionally, young people, who have their own opinions and views, tend to be forgotten about. There are also many social prejudices facing young people held by older people. Adults tend to view all young people in the same light, like criminals or useless members of society, when in fact the vast majority of young people are valuable members of the economic and social infrastructure of society.

24. There are also problems with the modern political system, which have led to young people choosing not to participate. Many young people feel very alienated from the political system. Policies are very rarely aimed at young people and when they are, adults often decide what is best for young people. This has led to the feeling among many young people that their views are simply disregarded and deemed irrelevant. This feeling of alienation is also partly caused by political speeches and the way many politicians conduct themselves. Many young people simply do not want to hear politicians bore them or confuse them with statistics and political jargon. This has led to young people who are genuinely interested in participating feeling isolated and, therefore, will not even try to participate. Many young people fear that, if they participate, they will end up like the politicians they see on television or read about in the newspapers. The approach of politicians is a major factor in the lack of participation among young people. The statistics below show that many young people feel completely alienated from the political process and think that politicians care very little about their views (Henn, Weinstein & Wring, 2000). Instead, young people think that politicians see people as votes and, once elected, will pursue their own agendas rather than the people they represent.

Table 4: Youth Perception of Formal Politics (Henn, Weinstein & Wring, 2000)

How much do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?

Agree

(%)

Neither/Nor

(%)

Disagree

(%)

Politicians care about young people like myself

19.9

41.9

38.1

Politicians are all the same

25.7

25.0

49.3

Once elected, politicians lose touch with people pretty quickly

54.4

32.0

13.7

Parties are only interested in people's votes, not in their opinions

57.5

26.4

16.0

It doesn't matter which party is in power, in the end things go on much the same

46.5

17.2

36.3

25. The attitudes of many young people are also hindering their participation in the environment and decision making. The social pressures and constraints placed on many young people today are enormous. The pressure to be popular, to do well in exams and to be good at sports are all factors that stop many young people from participating. There is a general consensus among many young people that politics and the issues surrounding it are not "cool" and this is certainly a major factor in the lack of participation by young people. However, although many young people do discuss many aspects of politics privately, because of this social constraint, they can do very little to participate.

26. People are constantly being told what is and what is not socially acceptable. Social conditioning is perhaps the main cause for action not being taken in Britain. This is especially evident in young people whose world revolves around what their friends and everyone around them think of them. This unfortunately means that trying to get young people interested in politics and the environment is very difficult as it involves changing an entire attitude, something that requires a lot of time and effort. Although many young people try to emulate the complete opposite of their parents, it is inevitable that many of their traits will be inherited. This means that non-political parents tend to raise non-political children simply because their children are never encouraged to be political. It is also therefore reasonable to assume that many parents who are political raise children who, like them, are also political.

27. However, it is not fair to place the blame of the young-old divide solely on older people. Young people are probably just as much at fault. Young people between the ages of 15 and 18 tend to try and rebel against their older counterparts and suggest that they care very little about the environment and their surroundings.

28. Young people often do not participate due to the lack of information available to them. Although many areas of Scotland have community councils, young people are rarely informed about them and have little opportunity to get involved in their own community and the problems within it. In my view, one of the main problems with the Scottish Youth Parliament is that it is poorly advertised. Very few young people even know of its existence. This has led to the second problem of having only a very small cross section of Scottish youth being represented; mainly children from middle income families, who have already formed fairly strong political opinions. It could be argued that this has led to an elite of young people being involved in the youth parliament which might be responsible for excluding more young people from participating. When young people participate, it is imperative that the complete socio-economic spectrum is represented rather than the same few people whose views are constantly heard. Another example of being uninformed is the result of the tomorrows-voice survey in Wiltshire, where more than three quarters (77%) of the youth population of Wiltshire thought that recycling was very important or important. However, almost half (49%) did not know if their council recycled household waste.

29. This scarcity of information means that many young people are not even given the choice of attending meetings and forums concerning things that affect them directly. This lack of information is now just accepted by many young people and they carry on with their lives oblivious to the ways that they can actually participate in subjects that affect and matter to them. Being ill informed has led to the assumption that authorities are dealing with the problems facing young people. However, if young people are really to get what they want, they need to start participating, even if it is just at local level. However, authorities also need to make considerable effort to try and engage with more young people so that they know that they are providing services that young people need. "If you give a child responsibility, generally they will behave responsibly. If you deny a child responsibility, you cannot then complain if they behave irresponsibly" (Woolcombe, 1996). Because young people are not aware of the opportunities to participate, public authorities cannot complain that they are not participating.

30. Table 5 provides a useful summary of the differing levels of youth participation.

Table 5: The Ladder of Participation (Hart, 1992)

Rungs of the Ladder

Degree of Participation

8 (top)

Children and young people initiated
Shared decision with adults

Children and young people have the ideas, set up the project, and invite adults to join with them in making decisions.

7

Children and young people are Directed

Children and young people have the initial idea and decide how the project is carried out. Adults are available but do not take charge.

6

Adult-initiated shared decisions with Children

Adults have the initial idea but children and young people are involved in every step of the planning and implementation. Not only are their views considered, but they are also involved in taking the decisions.

5

Consulted but informed

The project is designed and run by adults but children and young people are consulted. They have a full understanding of the process and their opinions are taken seriously.

4

Assigned but informed

Adults decided on the project and children and young people volunteer for it. Adults respect their views.

3

Tokenism

Children and young people are asked to say what they think about an issue but have little or no choice about the way they express those views or the scope of the ideas they can express.

2

Decoration

Children and young people take part in an event, e.g. by singing, dancing or wearing t-shirts with logos on, but they do not really understand the issue.

1

Manipulation

Children and young people do or say what adults suggest they do, but have no real understanding of the issues, or are asked what they think. Adults use some of their ideas but do not tell them what influence they have had on the final decision.

31. I feel that many current techniques fall within the first three rungs of the above ladder and, in particular, the 'Decoration' rung. Companies and organisations use young people to wear their logos and sing, dance and jump around because it attracts attention. Most of these companies do not value the opinions of young people and instead use them as a means to an end, as an advertisement. I believe that young people's opinions should be valued equally to adults' opinions if they meet the criteria of being able to form their own opinions. Many young people are simply taken advantage of and if we are to obtain the goal of a sustainable future, young people's opinions need to heard and heeded. If young people feel they are being patronised, they will not participate.

32. Having considered the reasons why young people do not participate, we can now begin to see what can be done to rectify this.