In the sections that follow, I first consider how young people made connections between ‘ordinary’ consumption activities and environmental concerns, before turning to consider how some young people imagined their futures in light of their present day experiences. Following these sections, I consider how young people discussed their sense of agency as generationally-positioned individuals to act on their expressed concerns, and finally how young people disengaged from global narratives of environmental concern in their talk of localised environmental hazards or degradation. For reasons of space, only one or two narratives are selected for each section, demonstrating most clearly the phenomena at hand. I have noted for each example how prevalent this type of narrative was within the wider sample.
‘It gives me goosebumps for what will happen’: Connecting human consumption to global narratives of environmental concern
In Andhra Pradesh, a state-wide law banning the use of plastic bags was recalled by almost all young people in their school group discussions, often prompting explanations from young people about the harms caused by plastic. Interestingly, talk about the harms of plastic was almost non-existent in interviews and group discussions with young people in England, perhaps because the research took place before the UK media focus on plastic pollution and waste. In one group discussion in a rural private school in Andhra Pradesh, students spoke of how the plastic bag ban had helped them to realise the environmental damage caused by plastics.
Chitra: We are using plastics and then discarding them on the surface of the soil. If this remains on the surface of the earth, it seeps into the earth and [spoils the earth =
Hemant: = They told us about this].Footnote 1
Bindu: And due to this, there is a hole in the ozone layer.
Chitra: Teacher, it seems there are holes in the ozone layer. If we don’t stop and still go on using plastics, this hole will grow in size and destroy the earth.
Bindu: It will become responsible for the destruction of the earth.
In this extract, participants weave talk of everyday human consumption (presented as universal through the use of the collective voice) with ‘authoritative’ environmental knowledge about the ozone layer to present an apparently inevitable narrative of global destruction. Although the scientific logic of plastics causing the hole in the ozone layer is somewhat confused, the effect of the narrative is powerful – left unchallenged, human consumption of plastic will destroy the earth.
Young people often structured their narratives of everyday concern around scientific discourses, yet they also embedded sensory reactions to phenomena encountered in their everyday lives, using their bodies as a ‘communicative resource’ . All young people in London and Hyderabad and some young people in rural areas spoke about sensing pollution caused by vehicles with their bodies. In his individual interview in Hyderabad, Aamir spoke at length about pollution caused by vehicles, and identified this as a cause of climate change. He initially described not feeling personally affected by ‘big’ environmental concerns, saying: ‘I kind of don’t think a lot about that stuff, I am kind of in my own world. I’m happy with what I do and I don’t think about others, usually’. As the interview progressed, Aamir again brought up the problem of vehicle pollution to explain his understanding of global warming, and this time related his concerns for what might happen in the future:
Aamir: And yeah, because of the pollution, the oxygen and all, it’s not – the air, it’s getting – it’s not fresh anymore.
Catherine: Mmm. So do you feel that that affects the things that you can do at all?
Catherine: No. So you still feel that you can go out – even if the air is polluted, it’s OK, you can walk around?
Aamir: Yeah, it’s like we – our bodies, it’s like, used to all this stuff, right? So it’s not a big deal.
Aamir: But to breathe in, uh, take the air, this might be a problem in the future, right? So … this gives me goosebumps for what will happen in the future.
In this extract, Aamir moves from a scientific explanation of global warming to his own experience, describing the air as ‘not fresh anymore’. Whilst Aamir assesses that pollution is currently manageable through the adaptive work of ‘our bodies’, he expresses concern over what will happen in the future, using the embodied metaphor of ‘goosebumps’ to express his concerns.
‘I’ll be living on the moon in fifteen years’ time’: Imagining the future in light of environmental degradation in the present
Looking further into the future, Rosie, who lived in an English village bordering a proposed industrial site, joined her parents in expressing their concern about the site. Whilst Rosie’s parents’ strongly narrated stance against this site was expressed in terms of intergenerational justice, Rosie herself responded imaginatively to the idea of the environment around her being destroyed and on a number of occasions, posited the idea of ‘going to the moon’. This was first seen in a family discussion, as Rosie’s mother spoke of the industrial site as an example of unsustainable development:
Sally [mother]: I think we’re going down a road where we potentially aren’t going to be able to recover […] You know, what’s the legacy we’re leaving behind?
Rosie: We’re going to the moon apparently.
In the mobile interview, as the family stopped to look at a viewpoint near their home and discussed how the view could be destroyed if the industrial site went ahead, Rosie again brought up going to the moon, this time saying ‘well, I’ll be living on the moon in fifteen years’ time’. This led Sally to respond ‘well there you go, there’s another unspoilt environment!’
In her individual interview, Rosie further elaborated on the idea of living on the moon as she imagined life for future generations:
Rosie: I mean, there’s talk of going to the moon and everything, and I find that really cool, but everyone else says, like, it’s not going to happen.
Rosie: That’s going to be cool if they can actually take it elsewhere, because that will be somewhere just to replace it. But yeah, I just find it’s going to be, um something different for them [future generations]. They won’t have grown up seeing all this wonderful beauty that we’ve seen. And um, there were probably more – years and years ago before all this technology came in and all the industrial estates were built. Um, it was probably beautiful, but I never got to see that because I wasn’t around.
Rosie’s twice-stated assessment of the idea of going to live on the moon as something that she finds ‘cool’ leads onto a more serious point in the above extract as she speaks of the moon as replacing the kind of positive aesthetic engagement with the natural environment that she argues children should have access to. This leads Rosie to reflect upon her own experience of losing access to beauty that ‘probably’ existed before being replaced by ‘technology’ and ‘industrial estates’. As her parents had done previously on her behalf, Rosie uses her generational positioning to express a sense of injustice that younger generations are reaping the consequences of actions taken by older generations, over which they had no control. However, in imagining an alternative space to go to in the face of future environmental degradation, Rosie refuses a possible role for herself here as a victim. Rather, she constructs an alternative narrative framed around the possibilities for human inhabitation of the moon.
Rosie’s narrative of going to the moon was unique among the research sample. Nonetheless, a number of parents of young people in both countries – as well as some young people themselves - imagined the future in the context of giving an account of how they had used resources to future generations. In rural Andhra Pradesh, Dharani’s parents reported how Dharani had herself used this narrative trope when telling a story about using water responsibly:
Rani [mother]: How was the story you told us, after coming back?
Dharani: One son comes, ‘Grandpa, Grandpa, why are we taking a bath only once a week?’ Then, ‘people of previous generations used more, they created shortage for us. If they prevented each drop of water, had they used like this, this situation would not have come.’ Grandfather told this, his grandfather.
This story, which Dharani recalled being told by a teacher at school, presents a clear causality between the resource use of one generation and the possibilities for resource use of following generations. The story is clearly intended to prompt responsive action in the present by causing the listener to imagine giving an account of their resource use to future generations. This powerful narrative trope has subsequently been used by Greta Thunberg and other climate protesters to prompt or justify their actions.
‘You should be telling the people who have got the big factories that’: Young people’s rejection of generationally-isolated responsibility
The receptiveness of family members to environmental messages appeared to influence young people’s understandings of their agency to relate messages to others within the community. Dharani recounted various ‘pro-environmental’ messages that she had successfully related to her family and neighbours, for example, planting trees and flowers, composting and reducing domestic water use. Although apparently confident about speaking out amongst her own family and other neighbouring families, Dharani did not present herself as individually leading the changes that her interventions may have influenced. Rather, Dharani stressed the need to recruit elder community members into ‘pro-environmental’ activities, as she assessed that they were overall more likely than children to listen and pass on the message to others around them:
Dharani: First, elders have to start.
Dharani: And then the same, from one to another has to tell. This problem can be solved. Because if told to children, few may listen, few may not listen.
Very few young people across the sample spoke of addressing adults outside of their families with their expressed environmental concerns and where they did relate doing so, they often expressed frustration over the minimal impact of their interventions. For example, in rural Andhra Pradesh, Chitra related having plastic bags ‘thrust on us’, despite a recent state-wide law banning plastic bags:
Chitra: However hard we try to cut down the use of plastic, still we are not able to follow that. It keeps coming back to us in one or the other way. For example, if we go to a shop and buy some books or notes in large quantities, they are sure to pack it in huge plastic bags. However we implore them not to pack it in plastic, still it is thrust on us in one or the other form. We are not able to cut down our use.
Chitra’s account shows how the seemingly straightforward act of refusing plastic bags is complicated as acting on environmental knowledge involves negotiation amidst unequal power relations. In a school group discussion carried out in rural England, Ben, Oliver and Rosie similarly highlighted their sense of relative powerlessness to be able to act on the environmental problems they spoke of:
Ben: So I think global warming, I believe it’s going to happen, but –it’s like 30 years, all the plants in this world will have, uh, dried up or whatever.
Ben: Yeah, that’s really scary but I can’t do anything about it. At the moment.
In this extract, Ben demonstrates his awareness of global warming, using the example of the loss of plants over a projected period of time to communicate this. Ben’s reference to not being able to do anything ‘at the moment’ may be a reference to his generational positioning, although he did not expand on this. This position was more directly elaborated by Rosie in the same discussion, as she spoke about renewable energy:
Rosie: We get told that we should be doing this um, renewable resources. And, well, don’t tell us that. You should be telling the people who have got the big factories that, because while we’re at this age, we won’t be able to do anything until we’re a lot older. And you’re telling us this, we know this but we can’t do anything about it at the moment.
Ben: Er, but I think that if you contrast that, it’s kind of good to raise awareness. That actually it is happening.
In this extract, Rosie extends Ben’s assessment of the inadequacy of how they as individuals might respond to the knowledge that they receive about environmental problems ‘at the moment’. However, Rosie also embeds an alternative proposal into her assessment– ‘you should be telling the people who have got the big factories that’. This illustrates Rosie’s assessment that action should not wait until her own generation become old enough to do something, and moreover that action needs to come from those with more power. This negotiation between Rosie and Ben again prefigures the climate strikes by showing on the one hand, young people’s frustration that they cannot as individuals act sufficiently on the information they are given through environmental education, whilst on the other hand, young people’s determination to raise awareness of the problems and their effects if not addressed.
‘I don’t know anything about that’: The immediacy of the present and climate change as an absent narrative
From these now familiar narratives that in many ways prefigure the climate strikes, the article turns to consider how two young men living in rural Andhra Pradesh narrated their experiences of what might be considered by many to be ‘extreme’ flooding. To contextualise these narratives within the wider sample, almost all of the young people in the research in rural Andhra Pradesh, and around half of those in Hyderabad had experienced flooding that had entered or come close to their home. In England, young people had less direct experience of extreme weather, yet one participant had experienced being ‘snowed in’ at home and another related how a friend’s roof had been damaged in a recent storm.
Hemant talked in his individual interview about a time when his family had temporarily left their home in rural Andhra Pradesh when heavy rain entered during the night. For one month, the family lived in temporary accommodation and Hemant and his brother were unable to attend school. When I asked Hemant if he was afraid of the house being flooded again, he responded negatively, explaining ‘we won’t be afraid because we already have an experience [of] how it will be. So we are mentally prepared to deal with it’. Like Rosie above, he declined to take up the position of victim of climate change that the interview question offered. When invited to offer an explanation for the event, Hemant focused on weather patterns in his immediate area:
Catherine: Do you have any theories about why these kinds of events like floods occur? Why that might be?
Hemant: Uh, due to the heavy rainfall, and the sudden increase in the water reaching the sea.
Catherine: The sea, ok. Ok. Is there anything else you want to say about that?
Madhavi: She is asking how the floods are occurring due to the rise of water in the sea. Do you know anything?
Hemant: Due to the heavy rainfall also recorded that month – heavy rain. And also the water also – ground water rose. Like that, sea water uh, became bad, because of the water level.
Elsewhere in the interview Hemant explained the causes of ‘global warming’ and that he had learned about this at school, yet this was absent from his evaluation of the flood that had led his family to be evacuated. The absence of a global narrative may indicate a disconnection between the global narratives with which young people are presented in school and the actually experienced environment, where the most immediate concern is protection from local hazards.
Chandrasekhar lived in a neighbouring area to Hemant and, when he was not assisting his parents with their work as weavers, attended the local government school. Chandrasekhar and his family had spent around one month away from their home during a period of heavy rain, and had eventually moved homes, as upon return they found the flood waters had rendered their previous home uninhabitable. Although this was a particularly heavy incidence of rain, Chandrasekhar spoke of the way that his local area changed each year during the rainy season, affecting his and others’ mobility.
Madhavi: We can see how this area is now. How would this surrounding area be when it rains heavily?
Chandrasekhar: The whole area turns into slushy mud. Feet would just sink into the mud if we try to walk. There will be lot of pigs roaming.
Following this explanation, we asked Chandrasekhar if he could go to school during times of heavy rain.
Chandrasekhar: I won’t go to school.
Madhavi: You don’t go to school at all if it rains?
Chandrasekhar: If it rains heavily we don’t go. We go if the rain is lighter.
Elsewhere in research interviews, Chandrasekhar’s mother explained how the family were unable to carry out their work during the rainy season, as this was undertaken in the road outside the home that became, in Chandrasekhar’s words, ‘slushy mud’. These seasonal disruptions to everyday routines were spoken of as relatively unremarkable by Chandrasekhar and his family, showing the subjectivity involved in assessing particular weather events as ‘extreme’.
Although one of the worst affected, Chandrasekhar was one of only two young people in the research who claimed not to have heard of ‘climate change’. The lack of resonance is seen in the following extract:
Madhavi: Have your teachers in the school told you about changes in the weather and earth getting hot or about issues like these?
Chandrasekhar: No. They never told us.
Madhavi: Did they say that there are changes in the weather?
Madhavi: Do you know the reason why the floods and heavy rains are occurring? Did you hear any one talking about them on TV or somewhere?
Chandrasekhar: No. I did not hear.
Madhavi: Do you know why these are occurring?
This disengagement from globalising explanations for changing weather patterns on the part of Chandrasekhar and Hemant illustrates the uneven use of the apparently ‘global’ narrative of climate change, as argued by Shiva . Considering Chandrasekhar and Hemant’s accounts alongside the concerns expressed by young people who were less immediately affected by weather events and environmental degradation in the present highlights the role of imagination in making the abstract narrative of ‘climate change’ meaningful. The future-oriented and – for some – spatially distant concerns grouped within the narrative of climate change may be received with more concern by young people in relatively comfortable environments in part because of the contrast and sense of loss that the narrative of climate change evokes in the imagination (for example, Aamir’s, ‘goosebumps’ about the future). In contrast, for young people living in contexts of seasonal weather disruptions and already existing environmental degradation, the narrative of climate change may have less resonance owing to the routine nature of adaptation to and mitigation against situated environmental hazards.