Sunday, 27 April 2014

Young People in Conservation

This is a response to Danny Heptinstall's guest blog on Mark Avery's blog 'Standing up for Nature'  and on his own website 'naturewarblings' .

Every so often, an article appears haranguing 'today's youth' for their lack of engagement with nature. We sit on our Playstations all day, with an iPhone on our laps so we can flick between screens every second to absorb a constant stream of meaningless celebrity gossip whilst mutilating zombies, never having seen so much as a blade of grass in the flesh. As a young birder growing up reading this sort of article (or the endless, tedious Birdforum comments on the issue), I can only say that they are counter-productive and dispiriting for the very people they aim to encourage. To hear that there are no young birders around, that you are isolated and different, creates a barrier that is difficult to overcome. Why would you put effort in trying to find other people your age who share your passion when you have already been told there is none?

Danny's argument differs slightly from this familiar narrative, but I fear with the same negative, off-putting outcome. In this reading, there are plenty of 'interested' youths, signing up for conservation courses and over-subscribing any available jobs, but they are not of a high enough calibre to properly support the work of the current conservation NGOs, and they do not constitute a coherent (yet undefined) movement. The blame for this, rather than being the fault of the youth, is a lack of engagement from the large conservation NGOs, particularly within the 18-25 age bracket. Essentially there are too few engaged 18-25 year-olds with the ability to make a difference, and it is the responsibility of large conservation NGOs to resolve this problem.

From my point of view, this reading of the situation is wrong in several ways, and is even harmful in the way the older, more clichéd articles were. Whilst I don't wish to comment too much on an overarching 'conservation' movement, I do know a bit about the birding scene, and I suspect that it is reasonably reflective of any larger nature or conservation movement. Within birding, whilst it may have been true a few years back that there was no coherent, appealing youth groups within birding, it no longer is. Both Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature (for more general naturalists) provide a fantastic forum- one of the recommendations for action in Danny's blog- from which young birders can meet, share ideas and generally evolve a sense of community. To characterise today's young enthusiasts as naïve, un-knowledgeable people prepared to drop £30,000 on a university course they know very little about, is not only to ignore all the people on NGB and AFON who are the very opposite of this, but it will also actively discourage the less engaged and knowledgeable from looking for these communities by denying their existence.

It's not even clear that attempting to engage with this age group in the way advocated by Danny's article would be positive for the larger NGOs. It only takes a brief look through the annals of Twitter marketing failures to see just how hard it is to appeal to this age group, and it is often huge corporations with massive marketing budgets that are making this cock-ups. Do we really want our environmental NGOs diverting vital resources away from conservation in order to work out a strategy to appeal to an audience that is notoriously difficult to connect to? A large part of the problem is that those in this age bracket (including myself) often want to create our own identities, to differentiate ourselves from what went before, hence the advantages of groups like AFON and NGB. The RSPB have been remarkably and commendably quick in recognising this, offering assistance to NGB to grow support for conservation in a way that wouldn't work if operated through official channels like RSPB Phoenix. It may be in the nature of these newer 'un-official' groups to be somewhat ephemeral, with each new generation wishing to create new identities and doing things their own way, but surely it is better for NGOs to offer a dynamic, supportive response to these groups as a strategy, than to risk diverting £1000s of pounds of funding finding strategies that are always likely to prove unappealing to its' target audience.

That's not to say I disagree with all Danny had to say – or even the main thrust of his argument, that environmental NGOs are failing the 18-25 age group in becoming the future of conservation. To work out the best way for the RSPB and other groups to engage with this audience, it is necessary to  look at what young people have most to offer. Clearly it's not money, of the RSPBs million plus members only a small proportion are ever going to fit into this category, and they are going to be less well off. I would envisage that the vast majority of the RSPBs youth membership have their membership paid for by well wishing relatives, or as family memberships, regardless of any interest shown by the younger people themselves. The dynamics of birding have changed as well, it's no longer a hobby adopted at a young age and continued through into older age, there are now far more  beginners in the 40+ age bracket, replete with top range optics and DSLRs wandering round RSPB reserves. From a purely economic perspective, this should be the target audience for new membership campaigns, for finding new volunteers and support- instead of trying to develop a potentially non-existent loyalty from a dwindling group of youngsters.

Instead, what's there is dynamism, energy, new ideas and enthusiasm, the same young people have to offer any corporate company. Many industries and companies acknowledge this, and offer an array of internships and graduate roles to young people to gain broad experience in their chosen career paths. It is here that the RSPB and other large environmental NGOs (although not all) let young enthusiasts down the most.

The RSPB job application forms are an exercise in intimidation, with huge amounts of skills and knowledge required for often the most simple of roles. Invariably a degree in a related subject is required. Furthermore, it is often the case that months of free labour, in the form of volunteering, is often required before even being considered for a job. Volunteering in general is of course a good thing, but as a pre-requisite for a job, can become a hurdle that rules out many talented individuals if they do not have the wealth to work for free for extended periods of time, or suitable access to reserves etc. For those coming out of university with upwards of £20,000 debt, finding any sort of paying job can take precedence over months of unpaid labour, regardless of the calibre of the individual. All of this serves to put off many talented young people looking for work within conservation NGOs, and substantially narrows the pool of people likely to be applying for a role, thus unnecessarily ruling out people who could be doing fantastic work for conservation.

In my opinion, the best thing the RSPB and other large conservation NGOs could do to help and encourage young people is to establish an annual 6-month paid graduate internship programme, for those with a genuine interest in conservation and nature. Ideally this would be done in combination with several NGOs, allowing different experiences within different organisations, and spreading the costs. Roles could be offered in different areas, 'field and reserve work' for example, or 'research', 'campaigning and media engagement' and other important aspects of these NGOs work. Importantly, however, recruits should be drawn for the broadest possible of backgrounds, paid so as not to rule out people on a financial basis, and regarded as a way of finding the best 'raw materials' to train and teach, rather than as a route in for those already with huge skill-bases.

This in turn I feel would further encourage the 'youth movement' so advocated by Danny, by showing that efforts and enthusiasm can be rewarded and appreciated by the large NGOs, that what can be accomplished by young people is still valuable.

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