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Home » Headline, Partners' corner

Young people in a changing (media) climate

Submitted by on May 7, 2012 – 08:16No Comment

At 30 I’m not sure I can still count myself as a ‘young per­son’ (espe­cially as I have spent quite a bit of the last 10 years as a ‘youth worker’), but with hope­fully 50 – 70% of my life still remain­ing to me, I prob­a­bly do still qual­ify as among ‘the younger gen­er­a­tion that faces the dis­mal prospect of a planet increas­ingly messed up by cli­mate change’. I don’t have chil­dren but many of my friends are start­ing to. Quite a few of those kids should make it to the end of the cen­tury, by which time it looks likely we will be cook­ing our­selves into chaos due to our col­lec­tive fail­ure to reduce lev­els of con­sump­tion and their con­comi­tant emissions.

That’s a rather grim out­look for any­one who is young today. Get­ting involved in the fight against cli­mate change and its causes has the same level of import for today’s youth as fight­ing nuclear weapons did for my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion dur­ing the Cold War. As in, it’s an exis­ten­tial bat­tle. I think it is harder though – it’s much more com­pli­cated to pin­point tar­gets and strat­egy when demand­ing mit­i­ga­tion in the form of reduced car­bon emis­sions in a glob­alised and devel­op­ing world than it is when call­ing on gov­ern­ments to stop mak­ing Cruise missiles.

But if cli­mate change and related bat­tles for safe and sus­tain­able nat­ural and human envi­ron­ments are the defin­ing strug­gle of those activists now com­ing of age, they do at least have some new gen­er­a­tion tools in their favour in the way of com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy. Not only does the ease of inde­pen­dent media pro­duc­tion (espe­cially video) and the abil­ity of social net­works to share those pro­duc­tions make pow­er­ful mes­sag­ing much more acces­si­ble – but younger peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar have no trou­ble using them. While real change will be won in the real world, the cat­a­lyst role that online infor­ma­tion has in moti­vat­ing peo­ple from apa­thy to ‘click­tivism’ to lob­by­ing, com­mu­nity organ­is­ing, tar­geted protest and direct action is a fact of mod­ern life.

The Democ­racy Cen­ter where I work has a his­tory of pro­duc­ing nar­ra­tives that explain how global mech­a­nisms and dis­tant decision-making impact on the lives of real peo­ple far away from the halls of power. Hav­ing those nar­ra­tives to hand is impor­tant strate­gi­cally if you want to influ­ence change, because as every jour­nal­ist knows, it’s the power of the story to move peo­ple that counts. Right now we are focus­ing on pro­vid­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple them­selves to talk about how cli­mate change imper­ils their futures: for them it couldn’t be more real, and as such it makes strate­gic sense for the cli­mate move­ment to raise their voice.

We just spent the past week­end here in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in an inten­sive work­shop with 12 young peo­ple between the ages of 11 and 19. They come from var­i­ous parts of the city and the sur­round­ing area, and some of them are already deeply involved in edu­cat­ing them­selves and oth­ers about envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship and the threat of cli­mate change. Together we planned and par­tic­i­pated in a range of activ­i­ties look­ing at how Bolivia is impacted by cli­mate change, and at ways in which the tricky path of “devel­op­ment” can be pur­sued in ways that don’t amount to envi­ron­men­tal and social destruc­tion. The aim of the work­shop was to par­tic­i­pa­tively cre­ate a video that can be used to gal­va­nize other young peo­ple into action, and to deliver a mes­sage to those with influ­ence about maybe tak­ing their futures into account, thank you very much. Young peo­ple in the UK and Viet­nam are also pro­duc­ing their own videos with local UNICEF offices in those coun­tries, and the mate­r­ial will be brought together so that voices from these diverse parts of the globe can unite in a com­mon front. We are hop­ing to have those videos ready for Rio+20, the lat­est global meet­ing unlikely to pro­duce any sig­nif­i­cant agree­ment on col­lec­tive action by those in power, but at which many civil soci­ety activists – includ­ing youth rep­re­sen­ta­tives – will be shar­ing their own ideas on col­lec­tive action and hope­fully empow­er­ing them­selves and each other to live more sus­tain­ably and strug­gle together for change.

Putting together a project like this would have been incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult for a small orga­ni­za­tion like ours even 10 years ago. But now the access to afford­able and easy-to-operate high qual­ity film­ing equip­ment; the abil­ity to trans­fer video files via FTP in a mat­ter of hours; the avail­abil­ity of Skype to enable free com­mu­ni­ca­tion with col­leagues on the other side of the world – all of these things mean that the capac­ity to inform and moti­vate is increas­ingly democratized.

In some respects. Of course, car­ry­ing out the project and hav­ing the final prod­uct com­pleted is an achieve­ment, but you want peo­ple to see it. At the risk of aggra­vat­ing the pro­fes­sion­als, we may all in prin­ci­ple be video mak­ers these days (or blog­gers or radio pro­duc­ers…), but hav­ing the access to chan­nels where your work will actu­ally get seen – or know­ing the right peo­ple and meth­ods to access those chan­nels – is still a much big­ger chal­lenge. Typ­ing ‘young peo­ple cam­paigns cli­mate change’ into Google News (on 3rd May 2012) deliv­ers almost no actual news sto­ries (and cer­tainly none in the main­stream press) on what young peo­ple are doing to either raise the alarm or take local actions to make their own behav­ior or that of their com­mu­nity more sus­tain­able. And yet, there is plenty of such activ­ity going on – but mak­ing it ‘news­wor­thy’ in the con­text of a press that is either largely skep­ti­cal and sen­sa­tion­al­ist, or more con­cerned with the debates of experts over cli­mate sci­ence and solu­tions than in what real peo­ple are actu­ally doing, makes it a hard sell. Which is a shame, because the moti­va­tional impact of read­ing, hear­ing or see­ing pos­i­tive news sto­ries about peo­ple mak­ing change is very pow­er­ful, and we need more of it.

In that web search one of the sto­ries that does come up is from Kelly Rigg in The Huff­in­g­ton Post. In a tran­script of her speech on Earth Day (April 22nd) she says:

The impor­tance of “speak­ing truth to power” has almost become clichéd, but here we are with the Rio Earth Sum­mit just two months away and those with power are show­ing pre­cious few signs of hav­ing heard the truth spo­ken by so many of us, espe­cially by the young peo­ple who will have to live with the con­se­quences of what does — or doesn’t — hap­pen in Rio.

I’m think­ing in par­tic­u­lar of cli­mate change. If we don’t get to grips with this prob­lem, the world we hand over to them is guar­an­teed to be a far less pleas­ant place than the one my gen­er­a­tion inher­ited. And they know it. The youth del­e­ga­tions attend­ing the annual UN cli­mate con­fer­ences are the most pas­sion­ate and out­spo­ken — brave, even — of any­one there. They never fail to move me, because this is where it hits home — like all par­ents, I am fiercely pro­tec­tive of my chil­dren and their future.

Leav­ing aside the fact that the astro­nom­i­cal lev­els of con­sump­tion by baby boomers in the Global North sug­gests that not all the par­ents of Rigg’s gen­er­a­tion have nec­es­sar­ily been quite as con­sci­en­tious about the world they were leav­ing to their chil­dren as they might have been, the emo­tive appeal of her words is impor­tant. The idea of inter­gen­er­a­tional jus­tice is one that is start­ing to emerge more strongly in dis­course about sus­tain­abil­ity and cli­mate change, but the mes­sage that cli­mate change is the children’s cri­sis is a very pow­er­ful one that the move­ment against it has yet to employ effectively.

And the peo­ple who can do that best are chil­dren and young peo­ple them­selves. Rigg is right: they do know it. Soci­ety is so ready to dis­miss or patro­n­ise chil­dren and teenagers as spokes­peo­ple – includ­ing and even espe­cially about the cir­cum­stances of their own lives. But our video work­shop last week­end reminded me – and any­one who works with young peo­ple knows this well – that the lev­els of cre­ativ­ity and artic­u­late­ness among our younger gen­er­a­tion are a con­stant source of inspiration.

Their energy and the urgency of their posi­tion, com­bined with the facil­ity that peo­ple younger than me have with new media, rep­re­sents impor­tant oppor­tu­ni­ties for cli­mate activism. If you for­get about the main­stream news and search for ‘young peo­ple cli­mate change’ on YouTube it deliv­ers nearly 3,000 results from all over the world. And that is just one video stream­ing site, in just one lan­guage. So it rep­re­sents a very rich source of pow­er­ful mate­r­ial from those who are at the heart of this tragedy – what a shame main­stream jour­nal­ists don’t seek out these spokes­peo­ple more often…

Of course, as noted above, post­ing a video online doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean it gets seen. Inevitably this is where I talk about social media. Face­book and Twit­ter are not the answer to the world’s ills (and I just have to men­tion Kony to remind us of their com­plex role in activism), but Face­book in par­tic­u­lar is an inte­gral part of the lives of young peo­ple from Bolivia to Botswana. Let’s not for­get (or under­es­ti­mate) the fact that for the first time in the his­tory of human soci­ety the oppor­tu­nity is there — not equally acces­si­ble of course, but sig­nif­i­cant every­where — for 13, 16 or 18 year-olds to com­mu­ni­cate eas­ily with each other across geo­graph­i­cal bound­aries. With trans­la­tion tools now built into Face­book and Gmail young cli­mate activists on diverse con­ti­nents are able to organ­ise and coor­di­nate with each other, and learn about each other’s real­i­ties. The first thing the group we were work­ing with last week­end did after the work­shop fin­ished was to cre­ate a Face­book group – ‘Emba­jadores de Clima’ – which we hope to see facil­i­tat­ing con­ver­sa­tion between peers in Viet­nam, Bolivia and the UK. When the videos are fin­ished and released it will be the young peo­ple them­selves shar­ing them online that will play a sig­nif­i­cant role in spread­ing their mes­sage. Despite the cur­rent grim prog­noses about the ‘bat­tle for con­trol for the inter­net’ the genie of user-produced and user-shared infor­ma­tion is out of the bot­tle and those fight­ing for social change – espe­cially those activists who have grown up using this com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy as sec­ond nature - will always be one step ahead of attempts to crush their potential.

With media con­sump­tion mov­ing increas­ingly away from tele­vi­sion and onto the inter­net, it is unpre­dictable how today’s 12 year-olds will be shaped by the infor­ma­tion they are exposed to. But the inter­est­ing thing is that we are no longer talk­ing about mere pas­sive expo­sure. A Face­book or Twit­ter feed is essen­tially a self-tailored source of news and enter­tain­ment (and what­ever else), in that you choose who you Like or Fol­low and thus the kinds of mes­sages you will receive and poten­tially choose to inves­ti­gate fur­ther. This is great for any­one engaged in social issues as you can ensure a sum­mary overview of the things that inter­est you each time you log on. At the same time these social net­works can in them­selves influ­ence and cre­ate engage­ment. Hav­ing just a cou­ple of friends who occa­sion­ally post videos of cam­paigns rather than celebri­ties can draw the atten­tion of curi­ous teenagers who back in the stone age (i.e. before Web 2.0) might never have heard such stories.

This is where the inter­sec­tion between offline and online activ­ity is also cru­cial. Get­ting peo­ple (of what­ever age) together to com­mu­ni­cate and think in per­son about the chal­lenges they face is irre­place­able, and the best of what online media can achieve is to facil­i­tate this process. The videos we are mak­ing aim to encour­age young peo­ple to be grass­roots activists where they live as well as to share their expe­ri­ences with their peers else­where. Giv­ing them the tools and sup­port to tell their own story does sev­eral things. It is an empow­er­ing expe­ri­ence in and of itself to record your own voice, your own thoughts and per­spec­tives, on the things that affect and con­cern you. To then see/hear those thoughts pre­sented along­side other people’s as part of a united effort to inform oth­ers makes you aware that you don’t speak from a posi­tion of soli­tude. To have video evi­dence of that which you can share with your friends and acquain­tances allows you to poten­tially influ­ence those around you. When your friends see what you’ve made and tell their online neigh­bours about it your voice reaches peo­ple you may never meet in real life. And when you see that peo­ple your age in coun­tries you’ve never vis­ited are rais­ing their voices about the same thing it rein­forces your own faith in the need to get together with peo­ple face-to-face and fight for change.

So yes, the future is look­ing grim – but there have never been so many oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple to alert the world to the fact and ask them to join in doing some­thing about it. As one of the par­tic­i­pants in our work­shop wrote to their peers in Viet­nam and the UK:

It doesn’t mat­ter the adver­sity that you face, nor the neg­a­tiv­ity that soci­ety shows you. Our cause is noble, never leave off fight­ing for it.

Enough of treaties and agreements…it is the hour for action.

Change begins inside each one of us.



Mads Ryle is the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor for the Democ­racy Cen­ter. She has a back­ground in media advo­cacy with young peo­ple and mar­gin­alised com­mu­ni­ties and is pas­sion­ate about the poten­tial of alter­na­tive, espe­cially par­tic­i­pa­tive, media to sup­port social change. She blogs at and can be reached at

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