I finally made the Herculean effort to sit through Project Wild Thing or ‘How Shoreditch invented Environmental Education’ for the second time recently. And though with repetition I was perhaps not quite as hostile towards it, there still remained a niggling antipathy and feeling that all was perhaps not to be taken at face value. Why is this? The documentary addresses key issues that I agree with and have worked towards in the past 5 years, yet for some reason I still found something cold and off-putting about it.
Perhaps it is because the focus is most undoubtedly one of a salesman. Talk of ‘marketing’ and ‘product’ is not likely to go down well with many in the sector. These sections of environmental charities and organisations are growing significantly, with improved wages, in comparison with reductions in actual conservation and environmental education staffing. But then consider who is the target audience for this? The Guardian and The National Trust have heavily promoted it, and there will certainly be an element of preaching to the converted here. The real target audience should be those in urban centres on low income, those in areas of deprivation (yes, it focuses on high end products such as I-pads, but these are becoming ubiquitous in all households, and even greater barriers to environmental engagement exist in low income areas, particularly those with high levels of immigrants), but I saw little effort to promote to these groups or engage them. That woolly phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’, presented as a dead-eyed hydra, set on zombifying the next generation, is trotted out repeatedly, but it is ill defined and little energy is expended in actually explaining the scientific or social issues behind the phenomenon.
There is certainly the air of back-slappery about the whole thing. Virtually no recognition is given to the vast amount of environmental education work done by the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB etc, which I am sure will not have gone unnoticed, considering their stated involvement in the project. About the only organisation given any screen time is some monkey-tree-net-climbing nonsense, which I am sure is very beneficial for young people, though is still an artificial construct in a natural space. There would have been innumerable better examples at almost any Wildlife Trust or RSPB nature reserve, but maybe this would not have fit in with the narrative. It is almost as if David Bond believes he has stumbled upon this problem himself, and only he and his East London hipsters can save our kids, educate them about the environment and save our environmental spaces.
I will try and ignore my own perceived sleights however, and look at some of the many positives I found in the film. From the perspective of anyone in the sector, almost without exception the most interesting and engaging parts are when somebody other than David Bond is talking, such as Monbiot, excellent as ever expanding on the themes of Feral, and most notably Chris Rose, late of Greenpeace.
Another plus point of the film was the interactions with children and young people and the explanations they gave about the barriers they face in using and being encouraged to use their local green spaces, although the phrasing of some questions by Bond was almost certainly leading and garnered him the response he was hoping for. Even given these opinions and observations, the approach was still to ‘market’ his natural ‘product’, rather than attempt to find a way to breakdown these barriers. Given the background of Bond and the initially stated predisposition to marketing and promotion, I should probably have come to terms with this by now.
I am almost certainly viewing the project through the jaded eyes of an environmental educator, and maybe I am feeling a little under appreciated for the efforts the sector has gone to in broaching the gap between screen and stream almost since TV’s invention, but I’m sure I am not alone. Project Wild Thing comes across as a marketing exercise, a vanity project which focuses on the creative – little mention is given to the science and theory behind these benefits, what nature is, how it is struggling, where you can go and how you can make the most of it. These are the areas where I believe real headway would
be made in inspiring the next generation to get their feet dirty, an overly didactic approach towards screens risks being confrontational and the contrary nature of children is likely to see it fail. Like it or not, screens are here to stay and setting them up as ‘the enemy’ is doomed to fail. Incorporation of screens to some extent may assist, through ID apps etc, but addressing the barriers to green space and why the security, familiarity and insularising effect of screens are preferable to
the wild, rough and tumble of our woodlands might be a better bet. The much pushed ‘wild time’ slogan may work for some, middle-class, cosseted children, but I have spent numerous occasions reassuring children from vastly different backgrounds, that green spaces are in fact safe, and not dangerously infested with poisonous insects and even tigers. No seriously, I have been asked before if there are tigers ‘in there’. And not by a child.
Most of all, my issue (which in fairness, was picked up at one stage) was that the lead should be coming from parents, teachers etc. I am sure I was not the only person thinking that if you don’t want your children to spend so much time in front of screens, then don’t given them ipads; if you want your children to show an interest in the environment, then show some yourself.