© Matt Larsen-Daw
We are at a pivotal moment for our planet, reflected by the global release of the Our Planet television series and online hub. Prior to his lecture at the University of Cumbria later this month, we caught up with Education Manager for Our Planet and a member of the Education Leadership Group for the WWF Global Network, Matt Larsen-Daw, to discuss his highlights of working on the series and the challenges for reaching a sustainable future.
Tell us about your background – have you always been interested in environmental issues?
I’ve always been passionate about nature and wildlife, and as a child was rarely indoors.
After university, I spent several years designing educational software and volunteering for a socio-educational charity in Nepal, before moving to work in international development, designing and delivering participatory projects that enabled issue-affected communities to share their stories and perspectives to influence decision-making and public perceptions. I then moved into the environmental sector and joined the Woodland Trust. I was given the task of uniting diverse sectors and communities across the UK in a shared vision of a future in which the full benefits of trees and woods are appreciated and realised.
Joining the Our Planet team was a natural coming together of my experience re-orientating public and political perspectives on an environmental issue in the UK, and my previous international development role. My role is to ensure that the messages carried by the Our Planet series and related online content reach and engage young people in a relevant way, and that they are given meaningful and appropriate ways to take positive action.
© Sophie Lanfear
How was working on Our Planet?
We knew that the release of the series worldwide on Netflix would be a huge global moment, and that this would create an opportunity to shake up the public and political conversation around the state of our planet and the future prospects for nature and humanity. We therefore felt huge pressure to make the most of this and ensure that those shocked and inspired by what they saw could learn how their actions and voices could help to change the future.
The real challenge for the team was to tread the fine line between mass entertainment and hard-hitting scientific facts. The campaign’s success depended on reaching huge and diverse global audiences in a way that conservation messages rarely do. When the series launched we were all glued to Twitter to see if we had succeeded. It became clear early on that we had managed to strike the balance perfectly. Millions were talking about the beautiful footage and incredible wildlife shown on screen, but also about its emotional impact. Pivotally, people were tweeting about the series but also mentioning climate change and the decline of wildlife.
A particularly memorable moment for me was during pilot testing for the educational programme in Ecuador. We worked in offline communities on the frontline of conservation in the Amazon and on the Galapagos, and their reactions to the Our Planet footage were incredible. Students were familiar with their local wildlife and the conservation issues and activities relevant to their local wild spaces, but were not used to thinking about the global picture, or about the connections between different natural landscapes around the planet. It became clear that framing the world as one interconnected living system helped young people not only to understand scientific concepts about the workings of the planet, but also the importance and relevance of the conservation efforts and individual actions in their own area.
What are the challenges for reaching a sustainable future?
The scale and pace of change needed to limit climate change to ‘acceptable levels’ and avoid triggering a catastrophic feedback loop is intimidating. I think the real barrier to achieving this is the obsession with growth at all costs that underpins our current economic and political systems. On a finite planet with a growing population this mindset is inherently flawed, but it feels as if we are locked into a system that can only measure and reward success if it is in the form of increasing profits or wealth.
Another challenge is that people increasingly know there are problems – and are scared about the potential impact on their lives – but they don’t necessarily know what positive action they can take. We need to ensure that people who are energised to make changes in their own lives – and to demand change from politicians – know exactly what is required to turn things around.
We also need people to grasp the complexity of the issues and how they are interrelated. Climate change is talked about more than ever before, but biodiversity loss is as much of a threat to our future. If everyone focuses on one problem (for example carbon emissions) at the expense of others that feel less urgent, then even success in that area will not be enough to prevent catastrophe. Our Planet attempts to join the dots so that people understand there is a whole range of things that need to be addressed at the same time for the planet to be brought back from the brink.
What can educators, parents and young people do to meet these challenges?
The next generation needs to feel connected to nature and escape the idea that humans are in some way separate from wildlife and the survival or decline of other species and ecosystems.
Educators and parents can help young people to experience nature and learn the science and geography that explains how a healthy planet functions. They can also support young people to reimagine the world, and encourage and empower them to challenge the current norms in our society. Now that we know just how much the future of life on our planet will be defined by what people do or don’t do, we need to respect that young people are the most important stakeholders in any political or business decision taken today. Education and careers advice must seek to prepare young people not for the world as it looks today, but as it should look tomorrow.
What can the audience expect from your talk – is there a particular message you’d like the audience to come away with?
I’ll try to show that there are a few core principles that should frame every decision we make as individuals and as a society, and try to show how these can equip people of all ages to play an active role in shaping a sustainable future. I’ll warn people to beware of simple readymade solutions and binary perspectives on issues related to climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainability. Above all, I’ll try to leave people with a feeling that there is still hope, and with some ideas for how they can nurture this hope in themselves and in young people preparing to take on the challenges that lie ahead.
Our Planet: in the hands of young people will take place at 6.30pm on 28 November, at the University of Cumbria in Ambleside. Find out more.
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The winners of the 2019 Young Geographer of the Year competition and Rex Walford Award were presented with their awards in a ceremony held at the Society on Tuesday 12 November.
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