Schools have now been open again for a few weeks and already the lunchtime trail of debris from our local academy to the nearest supermarket is growing. Thankfully, in beautiful downtown Banchory we have a number of public spirited individuals who undertake regular litter picks, but the question remains why the young people are still despoiling the local environment, despite the popular belief that it's young people who are most concerned about climate crisis and the attendant destruction of the natural world.
The school janitor some years ago expressed the view that it wasn't possible to involve the students in clearing up their litter as they could claim it would be an offence under human rights legislation. I'm not sure about that, but when I mentioned the issue some years ago on a local social media platform, it raised a veritable hornets' nest of complaints: 'It wasn't MY kids – and anyway YOU can't criticise THEM!', 'We try and educate them in school so we've done our bit', 'There should be more litter bins about' (there are, in fact, several). A neighbour who filmed the extent of rubbish was threatened with an accusation of paedophilia. Strange that something which should be fairly easy to tackle can cause such a maelstrom of anger.
Being one to make connections when they aren't always obvious, I wonder if some of this 'fouling of the nest' has to do with the tendency to isolation in current society. The pandemic obviously hasn't helped, but even before then young people have often been leading lives which hardly exposed them to wider society. The emphasis on the importance of paid work at the expense of community involvement has meant it's been difficult to find adults prepared to take on youthwork activities such as Scouting, Guides, or local sports training. And although social media has the potential to bring people together, so far it hasn't developed a sense of being part of a local community, where everyone has a role to play and everyone feels responsible for its upkeep.
I don't know how possible it would be these days, but when my son was at a small rural primary school 30-odd years ago, it was run on rather idiosyncratic lines by the head and her deputy, who happened to be two lesbian ladies who were personal partners as well as professional ones. They took the view, like the Jesuits, that if you trained children to embrace certain behaviours before the age of seven, they would retain them into adulthood.
Consequently, the school had a small herd of sheep, whose wool they would colour using natural plant dyes and spin into textiles, they grew giant sunflowers, and they harvested some of their own food which they would cook for school lunches. They also organised regular litter removal walks in the village. The children grew up with the view that we are all part of our local environment and we all have a role to play in looking after it.
This isn't to say the children were little angels either: when one of the sheep rather objected to the annual shearing process and chased Ms X the deputy head around the field, there was general rejoicing from the naughty kids who watched. But I would be surprised if any of them as adults would drop litter or allow their children to do so.
Given the way that education has tended to become much more formalised and subject to central control, I'm not sure how feasible it would be to replicate this type of educational environment. However, at the very least, it would appeal to a much wider range of learning styles and particularly to those young people who prefer to learn by doing something practical to sitting passively in a classroom. A friend who grew up on Orkney would only like going to school on Wednesdays – because Wednesday was woodwork day and, as an Orkney farmer's son, that was the only skill he needed from school.
The Christian religion hasn't exactly covered itself in glory regarding its relationship with the natural environment, seeming to suggest that humans are the bosses and the rest of the natural world should jolly well obey them. Even Jesus was apparently from time to time a bit frosty with nature – remember that to cure a mentally ill person he made a herd of unfortunate pigs jump in the sea and drown. And there's the story in Mark's gospel where he zaps a fig tree for not having any fruit on it, when it was the wrong season anyway. (Theologians try to explain this story away as symbolic of something or other, but I've always thought the good Lord was just in a plain bad mood that day. I know how he felt as I've occasionally lost my temper with recalcitrant vegetation.)
Paganism has always been much more aware of the fact that the whole of creation is interlinked in a sort of 'psychic soup' or world soul, suggesting that while we might be the cleverest and strongest species, we certainly aren't the nicest – and are surely the most dangerous to the rest of life on Earth. Paganism seems to be a growing religion as concern for the environment grows, and I have learned a lot about it as my daughter-in-law has been studying to become a witch. I had hoped that her studies into witchcraft would eventually enable her to turn Boris Johnson and his chums into frogs. Sadly, it appears this would take excessive psychic energy and in any case would be an insult to the amphibian community who wouldn't dream of voting for such individuals.
It appears that the idea of magic is to work with the positive forces of nature to bring about desirable outcomes. With this in mind, I look forward to the day when the local Wise Woman puts a spell on the Morrisons plastic bag that the young tearaway from S3 has carelessly thrown away, so that it continues to chase after him and attach itself firmly to his designer trainers, until he deposits it correctly in the litter bin.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant