Environmental educators are optimists. We find joy in sharing the wonders of nature; we look to a future that is better than now, where we live in a more harmonious and equitable state with the natural world and each other; we build and nurture hope, and the skills that enable sustainable thinking, feeling and doing. What’s not optimistic about that?

COVID-19 has brought out the best in people and, it must be admitted, sometimes the worst.  There is no doubt that the pandemic has been a shock to the system and ‘the system’ has been found wanting.

The rhetoric from some leaders that ‘we’re all in this together’ has been shown to be shallow and untrue. COVID has brought inherent and largely ignored inequalities in our society into sharp relief; from people’s access to greenspace and nature to the insecurity of the gig economy; from care of the elderly to the feeding of children in our most vulnerable families.

At the same time we’ve learned, or had reinforced, our pride and gratitude for all those in society that care for us and keep our social wheels turning.

We’ve been through a period of deep reflection and learning, with the vast majority of us not wanting to return to the pre-COVID world. We’ve learned that there is a magic money tree and if we truly apply ourselves we can achieve monumental things – like addressing the truly existential climate and ecological crises that dwarf COVID with their consequences.

Across the country, environmentalists and climate change activists have been joined by businesses and academics in calling for a green and truly sustainable economic recovery from COVID, yet the response from Government has been, at best, underwhelming.

The mini-budget statement did have some tiny grains of a green recovery, but without substantial additional investment (and investment it truly is) it has fallen mightily short of what is required. But there is opportunity, even in this most inadequate of responses.

Let’s look at young people and looming, broader unemployment as an example.

In the first two months of the crisis the numbers of 18-24 year olds claiming universal credit doubled to half a million with jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector being particularly hard hit. Another 700,000 young people are due to join the jobs market over the coming months. So the announcement of a £2 billion temporary job creation scheme by the Chancellor, specifically for young people, is to be welcomed.  

Previous crises have shown that, for unemployment, we are probably at the beginning of something big and long term, especially if we build in the potential effects of Brexit on the economy as well. Sadly, it’s the young that are often in the vanguard of these crises. Over 9 million people have been part of the furlough scheme, and this will end. Already businesses are scaling back or thinking of doing so, including within the environmental sector. Unemployment is set to rise dramatically, and it is time for some bold thinking and planning that connects the desperate need to address the climate and ecological catastrophes with this looming social and economic crisis.

There are still many in the environmental, heritage and sustainability sector that remember the YTS and MSC schemes of the 1980s, designed to re-skill older people and help the young enter the workplace. For the environmental and heritage sector, these were game-changing schemes. Dreams of better and more expansive/inclusive environmental education programmes could be realised, more conservation work could be carried out on nature reserves (and more reserves created), more volunteer schemes and groups developed, more community-focussed programmes delivered – all because there was access to a new, and in many cases, eager, bright and enthusiastic work force. There’s a big story to be told here as part of the history and growth of the movement – but for another time.

The Youth Training and the Manpower Services Commission Schemes for the longer term unemployed had many faults including accusations of cheap and exploited labour, lack of real training, and social and racial bias.

We can learn from these, not repeat the same mistakes, and properly build back better – if there’s the financial support from Government. 

For our part, it will not be enough if the environmental and sustainability sectors regard this merely as an opportunity to get homes refitted, trees planted, wetlands created or soils restored. We should go further. This is a time to build true resilience with a significant number of people through a full environmental and sustainability, learning programme that runs side by side with the ‘National Nature Service’ and other similar initiatives. It’s an opportunity to build and embed real power within local communities and support them on their journeys to sustainability. It’s a time to join with others in common cause.

I wonder how many organisations are thinking of delivering these seeds of social change as a priority alongside nature recovery, home refit and more greenspace?

My optimistic hope is that it will be all of them.

Doug Hulyer

Doug has spent the last half-century working within the environmental and heritage worlds and is a Trustee of SEEd.