'We've seen previous activists sacrifice principles for a 4x4' v 'how can we deny people the joy we got from air travel?'

January 26, 2007

'We've seen previous activists sacrifice principles for a 4x4'

Elizabeth Dodd, a second-year theology undergraduate at Magdalene College, Cambridge, is junior common room green officer at her college and Cambridge University student union ethics and environment officer for fair trade.

Students of this generation are not part-time lobbyists. We have seen the activists of previous generations sacrifice their principles for a 4x4 while our political figurehead, a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in his student days, pushes on with nuclear proliferation.

The political climate we have grown up in has seasoned our youthful idealism with a good measure of cynicism because conventional politics has left us so little to celebrate - there's nothing glamorous about the power of voting because there is no power in voting.

Students deserve to be heard and, if the ballot box won't facilitate that, we are empowered enough to find other ways. We are planning our lives around our principles, not the other way round.

Certainly, students have shied away from direct action since the failure of demonstrations against war in Iraq and top-up fees, but those students who do engage in direct political action are still a significant force.

The web means that we are, in general, better informed than generations before us, and what is so impressive about our generation is that our awareness comes with an instinct for action.

Rather than feeling - like our parents did - that the movement will right world socioeconomic wrongs, young people today are facing challenges on an individual level. The results of this survey expose student awareness, not hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is when criticism is levelled at supposedly apathetic students by previous generations who abandoned their champagne socialism the moment it threatened to infringe on their graduate salary.

We are a generation who believe that neither the Left nor the Right will be able to save the world: empowered individuals will.

'How can we deny people the joy we got from air travel?'

Brendan Burchell is a sociologist and admissions tutor at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Optimists will take heart from the good intentions of young people today to prioritise the environment in their lifestyle choices.

But pessimists will remind us of the gulf between good intentions and actions. And realists will be thinking what it will take to turn these young people's attitudes into behaviours.

So what, if anything, does an attitude survey tell us about how these undergraduates will live out their lives? Are they really going to be walking and cycling more, consuming ethically and supporting environmental charities?

My generation, as undergraduates in the 1970s, were not lost for words when it came to criticising the establishment and decrying the status quo. But finding fault in others turned out to be easier than creating an alternative, and our plans to build a green and pleasant land came to little.

One task facing future governments is to create the circumstances that will encourage their citizens to reduce their personal carbon footprints.

The responses concerning air travel suggest that young people are deeply resistant to being denied the pleasures of intercontinental flights.

I personally find it difficult to think how we would deny people the gratification that my generation has derived from international travel.

This sobering thought brings us back to the ground with a bump. Individual intentions, as measured in this survey, focus our attention narrowly on the role of individual choice in shaping the future.

British universities have a duty to the next generation to provide them with the skills and the knowledge, through teaching and research, to rise to these challenges.

Without this level of institutional support, I am concerned that the convictions of today's undergraduates will be transformed into neither political nor individual action, but will come to as little as the left-wing and peace-movement activism that was so rife when I was at university in the 1970s.

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