In the great social movements of the 1970s and 1980s, students marched through streets, chanted slogans and waved placards. Booming university enrolment in Europe and the USA, economic prosperity after the ravages of the Second World War and the early throes of global capitalism created a cohort of young adults pursuing “post-bourgeois” concerns such as freedom of speech or the environment. In his 1971 article and subsequent book, political scientist Ronald Inglehart called this a “silent revolution”.
The heyday of the environmental movement was thirty years ago and – the exceptional protests about the tuition fee rise aside – it might appear that modern students are far less politically active. Questions abound. Where have all the radicals gone? With a depressing employment market and heavy debts, do students no longer seek higher ideals? And what motivates those who are still engaged?
In the next two posts, I’ll be sharing what I found out when I met students engaged in environmental groups at Durham University.
If you’ve ever been to Durham, you’ll know it’s a beautiful place. For me, the city’s hidden wonders are the paths which snake through the vibrant woods rising up the sloping banks of the River Wear. One student group is striving to sustain the city’s glorious flora and fauna, and their work reveals even more natural treasures.
Jamie Dunn, a first year biology student from Wrexham and president of Durham University Conservation Society (ConSoc), described a recent event: “We had a bat walk down by the river. We borrowed some bat detectors from the botanic gardens as we’ve got good connections with them and there were lots of bats down there, down where you can see the cathedral and the castle.”
There’s more to ConSoc than watching bats, bugs and birds. Jamie described the society’s aim as “to get more people aware of and involved in conservation” and its range of activities is broad. Tree-planting in nearby Pelaw and Flass Vale woods and biodiversity surveys are typical ‘tasks’, often carried out in cooperation with national organisations such as the Wildlife Trust and Natural England. Further afield, members have measured peat depth in the North Pennines and later this month will spend a weekend on the Northumberland coast working with the National Trust to remove ragwort and build paths to avoid plant damage.
With around 20 regular members, ConSoc is small in size. Despite this, its members are passionate about their work.
Alongside the benefits for his CV, meeting new people and the blast of country air in the lungs, when asked what motivates him, Jamie did not shy away from global concerns: “I’ve always been interested in wildlife. The more you tend to get out there the more you tend to be interested in the smaller things and then you end up talking about conservation.
“It’s the world’s problems basically, that’s the motivation that gets me going. When you’re maybe hung-over at an early task, it makes you feel good.”
This mixture of enjoyment, prospects and environmental awareness also drives other members. Eva Ma, a psychology student, felt that “as a part of this Earth, we all have a responsibility to take care of it” and that “nothing beats coming back after a day of conservation, feeling like you’ve made a difference, no matter how small.”
Geography student and former ConSoc president Julia Churchill-Angus argued similarly: “We hear all the time about the deterioration of the rural landscape and biodiversity, and by doing conservation I am doing something to reduce the deterioration, not just sitting back and complaining about it.”
Committed as the society’s members may be, it is obvious that Durham’s conservationists are drawn from a small segment of the university community. The majority of members study biology, geology or geography. Those keen to pursue careers in conservation benefit from the cooperation with organisations like Natural England. Jamie himself wants to become involved in bringing local communities together with their environment for mutual benefit.
He attempted to explain the limited student engagement: “Every week we see people signing up but they don’t come. I guess there’s an interest in conservation and wanting to help, but [there’s also] the actual motivation to get out of bed on a Sunday morning.” The society seems accessible – university funding means there is no subscription and, apart from a pair of wellies, no equipment is required – so there must be mental barriers to students diving in fully.
Alongside colourful stories of recent tasks – preventing cattle entering the Wear and causing harmful sedimentation was another highlight – one theme that kept cropping up in conversation with Jamie was forging links between different individuals and organisations engaged in conservation projects. He is keen to involve the society in national initiatives, such as beach clearing, and is hoping to coordinate some tasks with Newcastle University’s conservation society, perhaps competing in a tree planting event for charity.
“It’s all about connecting people,” Jamie stressed.
If we understand ecology as exploring the interaction of organisms with one another and their environment, Jamie’s emphasis seems particularly apt. This select group of conservationists at Durham seem closely attuned to their natural environment. The challenge that remains for them is to build connections not just with other conservation groups, but among the wider student body as well.