Project Wild Thing or ‘How Shoreditch invented Environmental Education’

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.Project Wild Thing

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

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who knows? I digress…

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.

Going Viral – Nature moves into the 21st Century

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all that good social media stuff. It’s a huge part of how most of us live our daily lives in the 21st century. Environmental charities are just about starting to cotton-on to this fact and there have been a range of movements, campaigns and ‘virals’ aimed at pushing the environmental agenda. But do we risk losing sight of what the ultimate objective of these is?

#VoteBob

Bob: Fluffy idealist or sinister tat peddler?

#VoteBob – it’s the latest in a line of marketing exercises dreamt up by PR departments of our environmental charities. It’s about time the sector embraced the 21st century, it really is. And I do admire the sentiment, but I have definite reservations about the aims behind it.

It does not take long to figure out that Bob is no independent squirrel, working for the good of nature. Behind him he has the might of one of the largest charities in the country, the RSPB. I’ve no issue with this being an RSPB campaign, but the disingenuous way it is portrayed as some kind of grass roots movement alarms me. It smacks of a stealthy attempt at spreading its tentacles into other areas, such as with the recent ‘Giving Nature a Home’ move they have made away from mere bird fanciers to defenders of nature everywhere. Why not say straight up that Bob works for the RSPB?

Having said this, the links to the RSPB site are all over the Vote Bob website as it proudly displays itself as his biggest supporter. But I think the most telling issue I have with this campaign is the merchandise. Right there, next to the button that you can click to ‘Vote for Bob’ is the shop. Support Bob by buying a fluffy toy, T-Shirt or mug! And of course these redirect straight to the RSPB shop.

Just to get this straight, I’m completely behind the move of environmental charities into the world of online marketing and viral campaigns. I’m not a complete luddite. I’m expressing this opinion in a blog for Christ sake. But I do query the motive behind #VoteBob and some of the other recent campaigns. The aim of marketing is unquestionably to bring in more revenue and the primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of, y’know, actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine, and one I’m sure I will return to soon. There is something about the #VoteBob campaign that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. And I think this is my main issue with Bob, beyond my obvious concerns that it is merely a way to drive yet more cash to RSPB. It’s a missed opportunity. Vote for Bob and vote for nature…and that’s it. Click a button, show your support. You don’t even have to actually go outside and embrace nature, support any specific measure or policy, or even understand any of the problems the environment currently faces. It is the equivalent of having a huge ‘like’ button for nature.

So what can it achieve? Bobs stated aim is that a Vote for Bob is a vote for nature. I laudable message, certainly. But where’s the meat? How will he support nature? What methods will he use? Bob believes that by getting lots of people to ‘like’ nature he can get it on the political agenda. And indeed, MPs can also sign up and back Bob. But how does getting MPs to sign up actually push the many different agendas and issues on the environmental spectrum? I asked Bob (through the medium of Twitter, he’s a very technology-savvy squirrel) how it all worked. He replied:

So far, so vague. If you were a politician and you found a nice campaign with a groundswell of support and no actual solid commitments and agendas, wouldn’t you sign up for it? It is a no lose situation. There is nothing here to hold them to or to call them out on at a later date.

Yes, there is a place for this kind of marketing to promote the work of charities, but it cannot replace policy. But Bob is a very cute and fluffy figurehead, and I’m sure he will sell a lot of merchandise for the RSPB. Is Bob anymore than a vote to salve your conscience, a sop for your principles and ethics without having to actually leave your desktop? Is this environmental activism for the 21st century – to battle fracking, habitat destruction and development one twitter follower at a time? It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire.

This all reminds me that I need to rewatch ‘Project Wild Thing’, a recent documentary about reconnecting children with nature and the danger of screen time. It’s probably the most ‘successful’ of the recent media led campaigns in terms of people signing up online (I don’t think I need to highlight the irony of this point, though it appears I just did). I will post about that hopefully next week.

*Authors note – Red Squirrels have it tough. If habitat loss, squirrelpox and invasive species weren’t bad enough, they’ve now got leprosy to deal with. Bob, why not make the first item in your manifesto signing MPs up to back methods for your own protection, such as removing disease vectors?