Skip to content

I’ve been researching young people’s environmental action since 2009, and in the years since then the role of young people in demanding meaningful responses to the climate emergency – from government, business and civil society – has only amplified.  Earlier this month I was interviewed for BBC North West Tonight as part of their coverage of regional engagement with COP26.  I was asked to share some of the findings from research I conducted in 2018-19 as part of a project called ‘Growing Up Green’. 

This project, which was funded by a Royal Geographical Society Small Grant, sought to investigate the extent to which young adults were able to take the environmental knowledge they gained as children into independent lives away from their family homes, familiar environments and close social networks.  The study focused on a very specific case study location – the village of Ashton Hayes, eight miles east of Chester.  In 2006, Ashton Hayes launched their Going Carbon Neutral initiative through which they made a public commitment to try to become England’s first carbon neutral village.  Since then, the village has achieved carbon reductions of 40% relative to their 2006 baseline and inspired communities across the world to take their own steps towards community action on the climate emergency. 

By a strange twist of fate, 2006 was the year I began my career in education for sustainability.  I remember seeing news coverage of the launch of Ashton Hayes’s Going Carbon Neutral project.  As a Cheshire local (at the time living and working in Cambridge), I mused on how nice it might be one day to be able to work in some way with the team behind it.  Ten years later, I found myself working in the same department as one of the project’s co-founders, Professor Roy Alexander

‘Growing Up Green’ emerged as a result of my curiosity about the impact on young people of growing up in a village striving for carbon neutrality.  Whilst I was interested to an extent in how the young people in the village were drawn into the conversations, the actions, and the evaluations of specific initiatives, what really interested me was what happened when they grew up and moved on from Ashton.  I wanted to understand how much of what they had learned would ‘stick’ once they left the very climate-minded social environment of the village and had to find ways of enacting that learning in new contexts. 

Thanks to the connections enabled by Prof Alexander, I was able to reach eleven young adults who had grown up in the village during the time of the Going Carbon Neutral project but had since moved away to start independent adult lives.  I interviewed two participants in person, and the remainder over the phone or by Skype.  (These were the days before any of us had heard of Zoom!)  Here are the headlines of what they told me:

Learning with community members from across different generations and between families was particularly valued.  Participants talked frequently about how much they had gained from learning with and from much older family friends, for example.  There was a shared sense of delight across generations when projects came to fruition, which created powerful lasting memories of what can be achieved through community action.

Participants often felt more comfortable sharing their interest in environmental matters – and taking action – within the confines of the village, as there were significant concerns about negative peer judgment at school.  However, this was largely limited to the middle years of secondary school.  Upon reaching sixth form, participants generally felt more comfortable openly discussing and being seen to act on their interests.

The commitment to environmental action travelled with my participants as they moved on from Ashton Hayes.  Since most moved to cities with significantly better public transport than rural Cheshire, everyday ‘getting around’ – on foot, by bike, on trains or buses – was an easy and logical way to put this into practice.  Nevertheless, several participants recognised that this was something that may be lost if (or when) in future they sought to move out of city centres and into suburbs or back to a rural area, in order to gain more household space conducive to having a family. 

More broadly, participants found in many respects that it was somewhat challenging to put their lived experience from Ashton Hayes into practice.  The range of reasons given included:

  • The challenges of living in house shares for several years, requiring peer education, negotiation and compromise in order to achieve a balance between peaceful coexistence with housemates and enacting some (if not all) forms of environmental care learned at home in Ashton.
  • The simultaneous challenge of living in precarious (usually private rented) accommodation, limiting the ways in which action can be taken to, for example, improve home energy efficiency.
  • Professional settings which proved to be somewhat (or sometimes very) ‘behind the times’ in terms of knowledge of and action on some of the more well-established forms of everyday sustainability, such as office paper recycling and energy efficient appliances.  The extent to which the cultures of different professional sectors were deemed ‘open to change’ varied.

Participants tended to moderate their frustrations with these structural challenges by holding them in parallel with what they could do – such as get around without cars, buy local food (where it was available), and enact simple energy-saving behaviours in the home, such as putting lids on pans when cooking. 

The findings from ‘Growing Up Green’ will – I hope – serve as an important and timely reminder that the hopes for more sustainable futures being placed upon the shoulders of young adults can only come to fruition if the structural systems – whether housing, transport, or workplace cultures – catch up and keep up with young adults’ environmental knowledge and care.  Otherwise, there is a risk that the significant commitment amongst young adults to live in ways that tread more lightly on our planet will be squandered.

Share this content