There is a long and sordid tradition of trying to socialise children by scaring them. The aim of such socialisation-through-fear is twofold: firstly, to get children to conform to the scaremongers’ values; secondly, to use children to influence, or at least to contain, their parents’ behaviour.
When I was a schoolchild in Stalinist Hungary, we were frequently warned about the numerous threats facing our glorious regime. I also recall that we were encouraged to lecture our errant parents about the new wonderful values being promoted by our brave, wise leaders. The Big Brothers of the 1940s saw children as tools of moral blackmail and social control. Today, in the twenty-first century, scaremongers see children in much the same way, exploiting their natural concern with the wonders of life to promote a message of shrill climate alarmism.
If you want to know how it works, watch the official opening video of the Copenhagen summit on climate change (see below). Titled ‘Please Help The World’, the four-minute film opens with happy children laughing and playing on swings. A sudden outburst of rain forces them all to rush for cover. The message is clear: the climate threatens our way of life. It then cuts to a young girl who is anxiously watching one TV news broadcaster after another reporting on impending environmental catastrophes. Then we see the young girl tucked into bed, sweetly asleep as she embraces her toy polar bear… but suddenly we’re drawn into her nightmare. She’s on a parched and eerie landscape; she looks frightened and desolate; suddenly the dry earth cracks and she runs in terror towards the shelter of a distant solitary tree. She drops her toy polar bear in a newly formed chasm and yells and screams as she holds on to the tree for dear life. The video ends with groups of children pleading with us: ‘Please help the world.’ You get the picture.
Although this video is a product of the gathering at Copenhagen, it is typical of the kind of propaganda that is constantly directed at children these days. In a world where moral education seems to be exhausted, where teachers are reluctant to judge or to explain the difference between right and wrong, environmentalism has become one of the few values that educators feel comfortable with. Which is why environmentalism and its values now saturate the school curriculum in Britain and some other countries, too.
In medieval times, religion was central to the teaching of virtually every subject. Students were left in no doubt where the church stood on the smallest details of every topic they were learning about. Today, environmental concerns have been integrated into the curriculum, to the point where they often dominate subjects like geography, science and Personal Health and Social Education and intrude into history and literature, too. The growing significance of environmental issues in the school curriculum is directly proportionate to society’s broader moral illiteracy and loss of purpose. Today, even religious studies often appears as a sub-branch of the dogma of environmental alarmism.
By transmitting their values to children, the scaremongers hope to channel children’s indignation into hostility towards older generations that are apparently destroying the planet. In the Copenhagen video we hear a child talking about her ‘anger’. When she says ‘I am only a child’, the implication is clear: adults have let children down.
Others go a step further and blame older generations for destroying the environment to such an extent that the survival of future generations is put in jeopardy. The message is that adults are greedy or stupid, or both. This downbeat assessment of adults’ behaviour has mutated into outright hostility towards the moral status of the older generations and their so-called ‘wisdom’. ‘Adults have ruined our world’, says the headline to an article in an online magazine targeting children. It warns that ‘adults are ruining the world we are growing up in’ and asks ‘how is climate change going to affect us as the next generation?’ (1)
A similar message is communicated by one of Britain’s leading green crusaders, who recently informed children that ‘your parents and grandparents have made a mess of looking after the Earth’, adding: ‘They may deny it, but they are stealing your future.’ (2) Instead of serving as role models, adults are often castigated for setting a bad example to children. Is it any surprise that one headteacher who was charged with carrying out a review of behaviour in English schools in 2008 pointed the finger of blame for bad behaviour at adults who had ‘set a bad example to young people’? He observed that we ‘live in a greedy culture’ in which ‘we are rude to each other’, and ‘children follow that’ (3). And if adults really do set such a negative example, how can they be entrusted with the task of preparing their children for the world they live in?
The flipside of the devaluation of adult authority is the sacralisation of the status of the child. Increasingly, children are assigned the role of educators, charged with enlightening their misguided, greedy, stupid elders. This has led to a process of socialisation-in-reverse. The project of using ‘pester power’ to socialise adults is most systematically pursued in the realm of environmentalism. Many environmental educators self-consciously advocate pester power as a useful way of changing the behaviour of adults.
David Uzell, a professor of environmental psychology at the University of Surrey in England, recalls attending an educational conference a few years ago where ‘everyone was absolutely convinced’ that pester power was ‘the answer’ to the problem of climate change (4). Uzell’s own research has focused on what he calls ‘intergenerational learning through the transference of personal experience typically from the child to the parent/other adults/home’ (5). This casual reference to the transference of experience from child to parent illustrates the normalisation of socialisation-in-reverse. In the US, environmental education in schools has, for more than a decade, been systematically providing children with authority over certain adults. The New York Times reports that ‘eco-kids’ devoted to green values ‘try to hold their parents accountable at home’, and notes that adults become defensive under the ‘watchful eye of the pint-sized eco-police’ (6). School districts across the US have sought to capitalise on the idealism of ‘eco-kids’ by integrating environmental values into almost every school subject.
Politicians and governments have embraced environmental education as a potentially effective instrument for influencing and managing the behaviour of the public. One UK Labour MP, Malcolm Wicks, argues that environmental values ‘can act as vivid teaching aids in science lessons, civics lessons, geography lessons’, and in absorbing these lessons ‘children will then begin to educate the parents’. ‘In this way’, he says, ‘we can start to shift behaviour’ (7). A similar aspiration was expressed by UK Cabinet minister David Miliband, who argued that ‘children are the key to changing society’s long-term attitudes to the environment’. Miliband says that children are ‘not only passionate about saving the planet’; they ‘also have a big influence over their families’ lifestyles and behaviour’ (8). Former UK education secretary Alan Johnson wrote that ‘children have a dual role as consumers and influences’ and therefore ‘educating them about the impact of getting an extra pair of trainers for fashion’s sake is as important as the pressure they put on their parents not to buy a gas-guzzling car’ (9).
A recent report, The Role of Schools in Shaping Energy-Related Consumer Behaviour, outlined a framework for promoting educational initiatives that might impact on parental behaviour (10). Andrew Sutter, who runs one such initiative – the Eco-Schools scheme involving 5,500 schools – believes that it provides an opportunity for children ‘to be the teachers and tell their parents what to do for a change’ (11). This point is underlined in a UK government report on energy, which states that the ‘installation of renewable technologies in schools can bring the curriculum to life in ways that textbooks cannot’. Moreover, the report observes, ‘with schools often being the focal point of communities, the installation of renewables could help to shape attitudes in the wider community’ (12).
Not infrequently, the mobilisation of pester power to alter the behaviour of adults takes on the character of a frenetic crusade. The book How To Turn Your Parents Green by James Russell incites children to ‘nag, pester, bug, torment and punish people who are merrily wrecking our world’. Russell calls on children to ‘channel their pester power and issue fines against their parents and other transgressors’ (13).
In previous times, it was only totalitarian societies that mobilised children to police their parents’ behaviour. It was Orwellian, Big Brother-style states that tried to harness youngsters’ simplistic views of good and evil to reshape the outlook of adults. But who needs Big Brother when the former prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair, can openly assert that ‘on climate change, it is parents who should listen to their children’ (14)? It appears that preying on children’s fears and exploiting their anxiety is now considered to be a form of enlightened education. Yet the future of our children demands that we provide them with existential and moral security. Instead of feeding them on a steady diet of scaremongering, we need to inspire them about our potential to improve the future of our world.
Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also author of Population and Development: A Critical Introduction. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.
View the official opening film for the Copenhagen summit here: