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Opinion: Young people are demanding action on climate and biodiversity, we can't let them down

Yvonne McKenna of Gaisce outlines their plans to encourage biodiversity by asking the public to plant bulbs for the bees.

Yvonne McKenna

THE LAST 18 months have forced us to rethink how we live. Everything that seemed the natural order of things in February 2020 ground to a halt or disappeared in a cloud of facemasks and sanitiser a month later, and we all had to change how we lived.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged to the point we’re tired talking about it, and yet we must, because the collective trauma on us all has been so sizeable that it’s important we grapple with it rather than think it’s normal for this to be something any of us, at any age, could expect to handle as just part of life.

The emerging crisis in our biodiversity, and the knock on impacts of that and climate change, is another. They’re near-mammoth phrases we hear daily like the word Covid. Another global phenomenon, one that will also have a profound impact on us all and the way we live, and not dissimilar to Covid, how we are impacted by it will be different across our counties, across our Island, across the world.

Stepping up on climate and biodiversity

By comparison with Covid, however, the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss might not be felt as urgently and immediately. We’re also faced with the fact that no mistake or anomaly caused it, instead, humanity itself has been responsible so far for the rapid changes in our environment.

I represent a youth development Award for everyone in Ireland between 14-25. I have seen, as we all have, this generation of young people being completely thrown off the courses they expected for themselves, even the short-term ones.

Despite that, it is a generation of young people who are rightly refusing to let society forget that, long before Covid existed in our vocabulary, the earth around us needed our attention with the same urgency.

Young people have struggled to tip-toe around the cracks that have appeared for them over the last 500+ days. The loss of contact. The loss of relationships. The move entirely online of vital social moments, milestones and interactions.

Youth services, youth workers, and those across the education sector have done heroic work to keep doors and conversations open over this time. Organisations and networks have battled all the odds to make things work in a meaningful way.

They have been incredible. But the impact on our nation’s young people is not one that is measurable in a way that will quantify this time period for them.

Programmes like Gaisce – The President’s Award have been part of that, providing a framework for personal challenges with the requirement for flexibility, without a focus on competition or a need for extensive resources to get involved.

This year marks our 35th anniversary, and in the ‘before times’ we might have sought an in-person event at Áras an Uachtarain, or had a special ceremony at Dublin Castle to celebrate the quarter of a million Awardees over that time. Instead, we changed tack and proceeded to step up on the issues that young people are telling us every day that matters to them.

We decided to be part of highlighting the chaos undergoing our biodiversity in Ireland because that’s what the young Gaisce participants of 2021 are demanding of us. It is what they now expect: that the ‘adults’ in the room will start listening to what we know will be the legacy we pass on and enabling change where we can.

The ‘All Island Pollinator Plan’ is an impressive collaboration of Irish academics and activists who use a strong evidence and research-led framework to bring pollinator initiatives across the island together. We recognise that Gaisce itself is not a biodiversity or climate change organisation, but we don’t need to be.

Working with the All-Island Pollinator plan for advice, we embarked on developing Ireland’s largest ever pollinator-planting drive, in response to the uncomfortable fact that one third of our wild bee species are threatened with extinction from Ireland. Why? We have drastically reduced the areas where they can nest and the amount of food our landscape provides for them.

With support from Minister Roderic O’Gorman and his Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, we set out to get as many pollinator-friendly bulbs to as many people across Ireland as possible, regardless of age, location or size of back garden.

Just like the Gaisce Award itself, we know that planting a bulb will take time, care and commitment to bloom next Spring. And like a Gaisce Award, it can be transformative.

What is the story with the bees?

While small and often overlooked, wild Irish bees play an essential role in the pollination of vital food crops. It’s estimated that one-third of the food we consume each and every day relies on pollinators. Pollinator-friendly bulbs vital sweet, sugary, carbohydrate-rich nectar, which bees depend on as part of this important process.

Gaisce’s #BulbsForBees campaign is essentially urging everyone to plant a pollinator-friendly bulb this autumn to help safeguard the future of this vital bee population. It’s that simple.

In the last month, over half a million bulbs have been distributed across Ireland to every organisation that delivers Gaisce, including post primary schools, youth services, disability services, third level institutions, sporting organisations, youth justice and, uniformed organisations and direct provision centres.

Community organisations the length and breadth of Ireland have been collecting bulbs from local development companies. As a result, pollinator-friendly bulbs like Muscari, Crocus and Alium moly have been planted everywhere from the Aran Islands to Island Bridge, from Dunfanaghy to Ballyhoura, and Castletownbere.

Supporting the initiative, President Michael D Higgins said:

By planting a pollinator-friendly bulb this Autumn, you will be making your own significant contribution to this important work, and to enabling the urgent change that we must achieve for our generation and generations to come. I thank all those who will be partaking in this special Gaisce challenge and who, by doing so, make a profound statement of their real desire to protect the life we share on this planet.

The President is challenging young people as part of the Gaisce programme to ‘dream big and realise their potential’. This isn’t a lofty ambition, its one that we have seen have huge and long-lasting impacts on generations of young people learning new skills, committing to physical activity, challenging themselves in team or group situations, all the while being part of a non-competitive environment in which they are encouraged to create themselves.

Community efforts

Now it’s our turn to step up as organisations, as influencers in our families, businesses or communities. We can all do something, even if that is as small as planting bulbs to support our local bee populations.

It shouldn’t take a climate or biodiversity crisis at our own doorsteps to step up and act for our communities and our future – the thousands of young people who pursue a Gaisce Award every year are a daily reminder of that to us.

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We know that this initiative is not the full stop on our commitment to helping reverse the impacts on our biodiversity across Ireland and spreading education and knowledge with not just young people but the wider community we directly engage with, but we’re sticking to this project, and we will support in empowering thousands of Gaisce participants every year to do the same.

To get involved, you can find pollinator-friendly bulbs suitable for planting at this time of year in your local garden centre, and once you have planted, sign up for your special Gaisce commemorative cert on www.gaisce.ie/BulbsForBees.

Yvonne McKenna is CEO of Gaisce – The President’s Award, a non-competitive, non-school based self-development Award for young people marking its 35th Anniversary this year.

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