I think it’s different for young people. For us the destruction of the planet is personal*
Just for a moment, remember what it was like to be sixteen. Think about the things that concerned you, the big issues in your life. For many of us, it might raise a smile, as they were perhaps simpler times and the worries we carry as adults largely eclipse those of our teenaged selves. That’s not to say that they weren’t important problems, but I think it’s often safe to say that they were age appropriate. So, if we start to see young people carrying the weight of adult-sized fears, we have a problem.
When Canon Ambassador Clive Booth returned to his alma mater, Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School (QEGS) in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, he discovered that young people are worried. “Climate anxiety is very real for Generation Z because young people genuinely see climate change as life threatening,” he explains. Very early on in his time with the students, he noticed that “it’s common currency to be talking about climate change and climate action”. Having spent a great deal of time on the Canon Young People Programme (YPP) as a teacher and mentor before the pandemic, Clive had been itching to get back in the classroom. So, in collaboration with the Ideas Foundation, he took the YPP’s blend of visual storytelling and social conscience to his old school, along with a team of highly experienced creatives – professional photographers Adam Pensotti (who also leads Canon’s YPP) and Nathan Dua (an ex-Royal Navy photographer who now works for Canon UK, specialising in education), as well as graphic designer Hannah Wood and photographers, George Wood and Mark Spencer (all ex-pupils of QEGS). As they got stuck into the work of developing the creative skills of the students, they also had a front row seat as these young people tapped into, expressed and addressed their feelings of climate anxiety.
No one paid much attention when the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht spoke of ‘eco anxiety’ some three years before the Paris Agreement of 2015, but in the years since, an entire generation has grown up in the shadow of climate change. With the effects evident, devastating and all over every media, it’s been impossible to ignore. The result is, according to the American Psychological Association “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. A recent study of 10,000 16 to 25 year olds, conducted by researchers from Bath University, found that “respondents endorsed a range of negative thoughts, with 77% saying the future was frightening.” The research also found that these young people felt ignored and their fears dismissed. What’s more, when their largely Generation X and Baby Boomer parents look into the future, they do not see themselves living in a drastically changed world. It’s a serious disconnect.
Clive and the team entered the classroom with a familiar sense of anticipation and joy, knowing well what the YPP brings to students. They looked forward to the excitement, enthusiasm, outpourings of ideas, questions and eureka moments that flow from this kind of open creative learning environment – and not just from the students. “This collaboration simply wouldn’t have been possible without the energy, enthusiasm and support of their teachers – James Illsley and Deborah Davis,” says Clive. Together they worked hard to bring the messages of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) to the students and help them to think about how they fit into their own lives. The two combined meant that the students looked at global environmental issues through a distinctly personal lens. “We help them to unlock the door to all possibilities,” says Clive. “But we use art and creativity, photography, typography writing and filmmaking as enablers. These young people vented their anxiety – and even discontent or anger. It all came flooding out.”
What ensued was all passion, with students eloquently articulating their frustration through seven distinct social media campaign pieces, taking complex technical [photography] learning (“we got to go into the exposure triangle, we got them to understand depth of field, ISO and shutter speeds”) and combining it with truly creative conceptual thinking that, quite naturally, spoke directly to the people who traditionally tend not to listen. “It gave these young people a platform to talk to my generation and generations above,” Clive explains. “Any of these pieces of work can target parents and grandparents and there was no conscious decision to do this. It just happened.”
All wisdom on climate anxiety points to a combination of acknowledgement and action as a means to cope: own and accept how you feel, talk about it with people you trust and then play your part in making a change. There’s absolutely no doubt that the young people of QEGS opened up about the issues that most worried them and used the time they spent with Clive and the team to tackle those anxieties. And there was never a dull moment. “One minute we were in the cellar photographing a coke bottle in 40º in the dark and dust and then an hour later it’s minus five and we’re doing a fashion shoot next to the bins!” he laughs. Turning their concerns into concepts and giving their fears a form in this way is both therapeutic and empowering. “In a world full of, for the most part, meaningless fluff on social media, we’re giving them a means to create really high-quality content,” says Clive proudly. “Every single one of these pieces of work is world class storytelling and campaign work.” The teenagers used new skills and the framework of the UNSDGs to shape their ideas and fine-tune their language. The resulting messages feel like an appeal from the heart – “please listen to us, please think about what you’re doing, please make the changes we need for a better future”. They are not asking for the earth. They’re just asking that adults treat it with respect.
Find out more about the work of Canon’s Young People Programme.
*Quote taken from ‘Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon’, Marks, Elizabeth and Hickman, Caroline and Pihkala, Panu and Clayton, Susan and Lewandowski, Eric R. and Mayall, Elouise E. and Wray, Britt and Mellor, Catriona and van Susteren, Lise.