Mind the eco-gap: Are today's teens really greener than their parents?

The public clash between Jeremy Clarkson and his daughter Emily – in a nutshell, he thinks Greta Thunberg is a spoilt brat, while Emily thinks she’s an inspiration – was a salutary reminder that every generation is baffled by the one before it. And for today’s young people, the gap is often most keenly felt around environmental issues.

As the Extinction Rebellion protests take to the streets, it’s clear that many young people are now making admirable efforts to live eco-friendly lives, while raising an eyebrow at their parents’ more wasteful approach to the earth’s resources.

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But are they really greener than their mums and dads? We asked three teenagers and their parents for an honest appraisal of their own habits.

‘I’m what you call an aspirational recycler’

Mum, Naomi Richardson, (48)

“‘You will die of old age. I will die of climate change.’ The first time Rachel said this to me it shocked me to the core. It was a couple of years ago. We were gathered around the TV watching a David Attenborough documentary. I thought I was pretty environmentally aware but since Rachel’s pronunciation we decided to take a look at what we could do to reduce our impact on the planet. It hasn’t been an easy passage. It’s all too easy to jump into a car and drive to work, despite the traffic. I wince when I think about how many work-related air miles I’ve racked up this year alone and It turns out I’m what you call an aspirational recycler. Half of what I have been recycling is probably going to landfill. Rachel nags me about my fossil fuel habit, I remind her that fast fashion is almost as bad a crime. By her own volition orders from cheap clothing websites have ceased.

“This summer we sorted out the room at the top of the house that seemed to have no insulation. It did, but not enough, so we added more. The solar panels have gone up meaning the oil-fired central heating goes off in March and isn’t switched on again until October but it’s clear we will have to come up with a better way to heat our house in the winter. We’ve let half our garden go wild in a bid to create a natural habitat for indigenous wildlife. And just this week we found a local shop that sells loose fruit and veg, grown locally without pesticides. As Rachel says, it’s a start but clearly we have a long way to go.”

‘I convinced my mum to take the bus to work’

Daughter, Rachel Lee, (13)

“A couple of years ago, I was watching a documentary, Blue Planet 2, and it was showing us how naturally beautiful the world is. Then it showed all the pollution in the water and clips of the polar ice caps melting, and it made for very uncomfortable viewing. I was so disturbed I decided to take a look at my own family, to look at what we could do to become more environmentally friendly.

“Since then I have convinced my parents to become more aware of their daily habits. Both my parents often travel for work and commute in their diesel cars, but now I have convinced my mother to take the bus and my dad works from home when he can. Just a few weeks ago my dad and I planted some trees and we hope to plant more before the winter. I made my mother swap plastic soap bottles with unpackaged soap bars, and now our washing power comes in a recyclable box.

“I’m also very aware of food waste and we have taken steps to reduce it. These are small steps but every little thing we can do can make a very big impact. The generations before me have destroyed the environment for us and they will never have to live with the consequences. All the natural wildlife at our fingertips and what do we do? We destroy it. The rain forests that we allow to burn when we all know if we really wanted to do something we would do it.

“If we all do our part and not just say we do on social media then we still have a chance to revive our planet.”

‘Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change is stupid’

Mum, Deborah Donnelly, (42)

“I am 100pc a fan of Greta Thunberg and it was actually my daughter Franky who introduced her to me. I am an eternal hippy and believe that the earth has a cancer which unfortunately is us. 

“I have always been worried about the hunt for oil and when it was announced that they wanted to set up an oil rig on Dalkey Island and then put in the fracking gas line pipe on the west of the country, I followed all of it intently and was very concerned. I have long been aware that the planet is in trouble and I’m sure that I passed that on to the children. But the climate change strikes have really made it all very present and now I try not to buy anything with plastic in it anymore, but sometimes I have no choice. I also recycle food waste and have a very small general waste bin. I try to stop waste at source and am aware that my children are watching what we are doing all the time so I need to be a positive role model — I really do worry about this generation. 

“I think anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change or in some cases actually say that it’s a ‘hoax’ are commercially driven, focused on things like taxes and profit — and they are stupid.”

‘I make my mom take plastic off groceries’

Daughter, Franky Sheridan, (13)

“I am so worried about climate change — about places being flooded, the yellow storm warnings we keep getting and the icecaps melting. If we don’t do something about it fast, before we know it the world will be under water and the human race will die. So I do what I can to try and make a difference by recycling everything and trying not to buy too many plastic things — I actually make my mom take the plastic off any groceries at the cash register and I also go to all the (climate change) marches. 

“At home, I make sure to have short showers and turn off all lights after me and we tend to go to thrift shops for clothes rather than buying new ones. I also love to garden and do what I can to save the bees. All of my friends are the same — we believe that we have to save the planet as there is no planet B. I know some people don’t believe in climate change but I wouldn’t try to argue with them as they are not opening their eyes wide enough.”

‘I love Katie’s energy and her passion’

Dad, Bill Linnane, (44)

“You expect a bit of friction with teenagers. The battle to save the planet is in a different league to what constitutes studying though. My daughter’s desire to save the world has caused more strife than it should, given that we are on the same team. We are doing what we laughably call ‘our bit’ — inept recycling, worrying about how climate change might affect the value of our property, and not much else. For Katie, this is not enough, she is actually paying attention to the crisis, and she sees that my generation have given little heed to the planet. Teens used to shout at their parents that they had ruined their life, now they are shouting that we have ruined their planet. But nobody likes being shouted at, even when they are in the wrong. 

“Katie refuses to buy new clothes, opting instead for charity shops and Depop. This doesn’t bother me, as it means that while she saves the whales, I save money. It’s win-win. But for her mother it is harder to swallow — she loves fashion, and would like to have a daughter she could go shopping with without getting a lecture on sweat shops, carbon footprints and rising sea levels. For me, it’s different — I love Katie’s energy and her passion, and I wouldn’t expect any of her generation to respect their elders when all we did was stuff the oceans with plastics and set fire to the Amazon. Why respect us when we couldn’t even respect the ground we walk on?”

‘My dad jokes climate change doesn’t matter’

Daughter, Katie Linnane, (16)

“My grandad left his house to my dad, he also left all the problems that went with it — cracked windows, faulty bathrooms and leaking ceilings. It’s the same logic my parents use when it comes to the climate crisis — they think they are leaving the planet to me to repair. My dad often jokes that he won’t be around for long, so the climate doesn’t matter. My mom and I fight over her being so uneducated on the topic and refusing to listen to anything I have to say. My mom refuses to make small changes like not buying plastic straws — her excuse being that drinking out of paper straws is disgusting, completely ignoring the fact that she is not four years old and that she does not need a straw. 

“Older generations are constantly talking about how hard their lives were when they were younger, talking about how they had to walk 1,000 miles to get to school. But they got used to the luxury of having everything they want and now they don’t want that to change. It is just so selfish, taking away the lives of future generations just for the sake of luxury: wanting to have a long shower, eating meat, buying clothes we will only wear once.

“My parents are constantly telling me that I’m only one person and I can’t make any difference, saying that big companies are the real problem, but who is supporting the massive companies? You are, so change has to start with each individual. People don’t want to change; they don’t want to have to learn and see that what they are going is wrong and that’s something that goes with age. Maybe it’s embarrassment, the thought of a 16-year-old educating you and knowing something you don’t — it scares people, so they refuse to listen. Older generations don’t care because they see it as not their problem, they don’t care that this is all their fault.”

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