Youth & the Environment

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Chapter 5.



overview of the condition of the world’s environment and variations in environmental quality around the globe. It then addresses the adequacy of existing policy responses, which provides a context for exploring the roles youth can play in environmental affairs. It examines how these roles might be strengthened through such means as environmental education, whose importance and shortcomings are analyzed. The chapter then turns to the role the media plays in contributing to— and sometimes impeding—social learning in environmental affairs.

This chapter begins with a brief

Youth have both special concerns and special responsibilities in relation to the environment. A number of environmental risks and hazards disproportionately affect young people, who have to live for an extended period with the deteriorating environment bequeathed to them by earlier generations. Young people will be compelled to engage in new forms of action and activism that will generate effective responses to ecological challenges. Before investigating the role youth can play in addressing environmental issues, it is important to provide some background and establish a clear context by identifying the current state of the environment. The nature, extent and severity of environmental problems vary tremendously from one part of the world to another. It is perhaps most logical to begin with an overview of the state of the global environment, providing a snapshot of its present condition, as well as a more detailed and revealing assessment of past trends and likely future developments. This level of analysis is justified because certain issues—most notably global warming and ozone layer depletion—are intrinsically global problems and therefore of concern to everyone in the world. Global indicators are additionally important because national and regional indicators can sometimes be misleading. For example, a country may show a downward trend in industrial pollutant levels, but this may be because the more polluting sectors of its manufacturing industry have moved to countries with more relaxed pollution standards. A region such as Western Europe may do an excellent job of conserving its remaining forests but depend heavily on unsustainable logging in old-growth forests elsewhere in the world.1 Clearly, global indicators are not all that matter, but they do provide a point of reference and help control for these types of effects. Global indicators fall into two categories, namely, measures of human wellbeing and assessments of the condition of the world’s ecosystems on which all life depends. These two kinds of indicators give very different impressions about the nature—or even the existence—of a global ecological crisis. Measures of human well-being indicate that global trends over recent decades have almost all been positive. Life expectancy has risen, infant mortality has fallen, and the proportion of the world’s population with access to clean drinking water has increased. The real price of most natural resources including oil, coal, gas and metals (but not timber) is declining with time. Economists maintain that price is a measure of scarcity, the indication being here that most resources are becoming less scarce with time. Such statements about trends in well-being are controversial. Bjørn Lomborg’s


Youth and the Environment World YOUTH Report, 2003


book The Skeptical Environmentalist2 offers the best publicized recent positive interpretation of these trends (similar views from past decades can be found elsewhere).3 The most unremittingly negative interpretations can be found in the annual State of the World reports published by the Worldwatch Institute. Both sides are guilty of selective and sometimes misleading presentation of data in support of their positions. Lomborg exposes such selectivity on the part of Worldwatch, but is less forthcoming in exposing his own...
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