One thing is very clear, there is a looming climate emergency and something needs to be done about it. But no matter what we do, it doesn’t seem to be enough – there will always be politicians catering to the incentives of environmentally destructive organisations and we face massive pushback from climate change deniers. But despite this discouraging reality, in the last three years, we have seen a beacon of hope in the form of youth activists who are willing to go above and beyond to make a genuine impact on political discourse. These people are the ones who will feel the effects of climate change the most and maybe we should get them to join the fight through mandated environmental service. There are 568 million children in the world in secondary education, so if a significant number of those people engage in environmental volunteering for even an hour a week, that is a massive amount of time going directly towards trying to save the planet.
Importantly, there is a very strong educative function behind such service. The very act of helping other people in your local community or helping the environment is something that ought to be encouraged as it teaches kids the importance of charity and helping others. These are core values that the education system serves to teach. But furthermore, by engaging in this environmental action, kids are taught to inform themselves about these issues and it encourages them to become aware from a young age. Most importantly, this is a particularly effective way to teach important life skills such as teamwork, organisation and innovation. The environment is something that the youth particularly care about and so this is something that children are particularly likely to be invested in. This means that they are also more likely to effectively develop these important skills when they work together to come up with efficient methods and solutions that allow them to make an impact. These skills are best taught when people care about the activity that allows them to develop those skills.
Above all, children will be able to make significant progress through this environmental volunteering. Instead of demanding solutions and often not doing anything, these children will be actively educating themselves, looking for solutions, planting trees and picking up litter. At the point that millions of kids are engaging in these activities, this leads to large benefit because of the sheer number of hours that go to directly helping the environment. Furthermore, you have children who create posters and spread these environmental messages more. This sort of campaigning and awareness in and of itself also spurs more positive action. But what if kids don’t want to do this? This still is a good thing, because if you don’t want to spend time picking up litter, it is in your interests to not litter yourself and contribute to this pollution you now have to clean up. It also means you are more likely to buy into these environmental movements and try to enact change to reduce your burden which means you actively educate and encourage others not to do things like litter and you actively call them out when they do.
In addition, this increases youth engagement with environmental action in a wider context. Students need to feel a certain urgency to act such that they buy into the environmental movement. This is now achieved by an education that emphasises the importance of environmental action and teaches children about the harms climate change causes. When you put students face to face with environmental issues like plastic on beaches or deforestation, they recognise the extent of environmental damage. When you see this shocking reality on a weekly basis and feel a certain way about it, this emotionally drives people to act and reduces apathy. This solves the intangibility issue where children do not feel the direct consequences of environmental action or inaction. When students see the massive impact their work makes, they feel inspired to continue making that change and encouraging others to do so. This means children become invested in the environmental movement because they are brought up feeling like guardians of the environment. Helping the environment becomes part of who you are and you are therefore willing to confront people who litter. When people get into the habit of doing things like picking up litter, that is when these small things like turning off the lights seem comparatively less effort and you internalise eco-friendly behaviours.
But the impacts don’t stop at children. This can also help shape the way adults think and act about the environment. Now a lot of adults will feel guilt when they feel their irresponsibility and environmental degradation has led to their children having to clear up this mess. This only gets stronger when they walk by a beach or a field and see children actively having to take part in this work. This means adults are motivated to help. When they see that even a child can do something meaningful for the environment, they feel like they can also take small steps and changes in their own lives to help the environment. It is easy to feel cynical or indifferent in a world where change seems so difficult, so this is so powerful in countering that sentiment.
Finally, this solves one of the largest problems the environmental movement faces in terms of perceptions. Currently, children don’t always have access to opportunities to do much for the environment and more often than not, their only option is to protest and ask others to act. This has arguably created a bad image for these children who are seen as people who only complain, but rarely offer a solution. Environmental volunteering fixes this on two fronts. Firstly, it gives children that opportunity that they needed, because schools will now provide them with the time and resources to do this kind of work. But secondly, this shapes the perception of youth activists who are now seen as pro-actively fighting for the environment. This is very crucial in getting the buy-in and attention these movements need in order to get genuine policy changes and to make the largest impact possible.
At the point at which you tie your own actions to consequences, which this volunteering does for both children and adults, people are far more likely to identify with the environmental movement. Children go out to help the environment outside of this volunteering because they care about it so much and they take it upon themselves to find solutions and to act. When helping the environment becomes part of who you are because it was taught to you during your formative years, it makes a difference. When these children grow up and create businesses or vote, they are more likely to create things like green start-ups or companies with good environmental practices. You are also likely to mobilise an entire generation to do things like vote for environmental policies. Volunteering can go a long way.
Finally, this provides us with hope. Children will see the results of their actions when they see clean beaches and trees growing. When they are able to see the direct result of their actions, that will provide them with the confidence that they can go out and make a change. Maybe even adults will also learn from them.