Atlantic Views: Joanne Matheson

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Having recently spent two days in a room with a hundred 18- to 23-year-olds, I’m still in a state of shock, but not for the reasons you might imagine.

Highlands and Islands Students’ Association chose ‘climate and sustainability’ as themes for their conference, and over the course of two days we debated several aspects of the situation.

I’m sorry to report that any expectation we might have had that this age group understands the problem, are making the necessary changes and will soon be leading the way in turning around our lack of action was not borne out in that room.

I took the bus to Inverness with some trepidation, since I was likely to be at least twice the age of most attendees, but determined to watch and listen to my new cohort.

The group discussed all manner of issues related to their studies including access to support, virtual classrooms, online submissions, the cost of accommodation, transport and the Inverness canteen.

Proposals were made, debated and voted on covering policies which might be adopted and actions that could be taken.

Unfortunately, when it came to discussing climate-related issues I was surprised and disappointed by their general lack of knowledge and extreme reluctance to act.

Of proposals submitted about actions which could be taken to help mitigate the problem, the one with the greatest potential for impact was banning beef on university premises.

An Our World in Data graph had been circulating (, which showed that of the top 29 food products eaten worldwide, beef has by far the greatest negative impact on the climate.

We might not need to become vegan or even vegetarian, if we drastically reduce the production of mass-produced, factory-farmed beef.

Having watered down the proposal from banning beef products in
university canteens to a token ‘meat-free Mondays’, we took a vote. This proposal came 12th out of 12.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the other 11 proposals were far reaching and ambitious, but they weren’t – they included asking the university to install more recycling bins. Really…

The Youth Strike for Climate activists, who in my humble opinion are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness, always read a particular statement at their events.

During one in Fort William last year, I positively squirmed when Holly Gillibrand, Lochaber teenage school climate striker and activist, outlined how those adults of my approximate age have failed dismally to get to grips with the situation.

I was somewhat put out by the way I was castigated for having done so little, but they have a fair point – we now know that the oil and gas industry
started discussing the likely outcome of their activities at around the time I was born.

There was a great deal of vitriol in the room about governments and big business not making radical decisions to dramatically change direction and make meaningful progress, but these students weren’t willing to do the same themselves.

Effectively, they all wanted somebody else to fix the problem. There was lots of well-meaning talk about people doing as much as they feel they can, and everyone needing to accommodate change within their lives, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years.

I sat silently applauding when one brave soul stood and said: ‘What is it about the word “emergency” that you don’t understand?’

To borrow Greta Thunberg’s analogy – your house is burning and you can’t be bothered to throw one bucket of water onto the flames. In 20 years – please don’t blame the adults for not having done enough.