Just Do as You're Told

By Egan, Beth | New Statesman (1996), April 16, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Just Do as You're Told


Egan, Beth, New Statesman (1996)


Beth Egan finds surprisingly authoritarian attitudes lurking behind teenagers' concern for the environment

How many tree-hugging authoritarians does it take to swing an election? Party campaign managers who hope to attract first-time voters will have to learn how to appeal to hippies with control-freak tendencies, according to the latest findings in our survey of generationNEXT.

Our e-mail survey of 15- to 21-year-olds finds a predictably rich seam of interest in all aspects of the environment and associated beliefs and activities. Overwhelmingly, young people believe that they are more concerned about such issues than their parents are: one in five is already vegetarian, and another 13 per cent are considering laying down their burgers. Nearly a quarter say that policies on animal welfare are at least "very important" in deciding which party to support.

On animal welfare, our 2,200-plus respondents judged that the three main parties are much of a muchness. Asked which has the best policies, 12 per cent plumped for Labour, 9 per cent for the Tories, 8 per cent for the Lib Dems. The Green Party was the easy winner, with support from 50 per cent of respondents. But our respondents were divided (see chart) on what they thought was the most important green issue, though global warming was well out in front, with 33 per cent.

Although an interest in all things environmental is clear, it does not translate into a clear or consistent outlook on environmental politics. GenerationNEXT reveres Swampy, but it also endorses the practices of big supermarkets. A majority believe that supermarkets provide a good choice of affordable, convenient and high-quality food. While many respondents avoid GM food, check food labelling and feel strongly about intensive farming conditions, their relaxed attitude to the intervention of big business is clear in comments such as "Food wouldn't be sold if they knew it was a risk" and "I don't let media hype alter my eating habits".

In total, a quarter (28 per cent) believe that scares about food safety are over-hyped, and a third (32 per cent) are unconcerned about foot-and-mouth because it doesn't affect humans. Yet nearly all (90 per cent) named steps they had taken to change their eating habits, and 27 per cent had given up eating specific products as a result of publicity over issues such as mad cow disease and GM food.

GenerationNEXT's decision-making, it seems, is based on a combination of self-interest and altruism. Our respondents had changed their eating habits, partly to minimise risks to their own health, partly to promote specific ethical beliefs. Change was prompted by fear of salmonella and CJD, alongside a wish to purchase dolphin-friendly tuna and to boycott products such as Nestle confectionery and Pringles, made by Procter & Gamble. Such expressions of consumer power form an undifferentiated approach to "the environment" which is as much about individual rights and self-expression as it is about the greater good.

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