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Respect our elders? No chance, writes Laurie Penny

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

It is some testament to the awfulness of Christmas telly this year that I took time out in between the Queen's message, the Archbishop's sermon and one of the most mawkishly pointless episodes of Doctor Who ever broadcast to read the blurb behind the government's new "Positive For Youth" strategy.

After twelve months of devastating cuts to schools, universities and youth services, a million unemployed 18-24 year olds and voiceless, frustrated young people burning and looting in the inner cities, it would be nice to think that someone has finally decided to start taking an interest in the generation currently on the cusp of adulthood.

Unfortunately, there's nothing new about this strategy but the spin. Precisely no additional funding is being allocated for youth services - the plan is just an involved way of making it look as though there is. Meanwhile, fresh research has revealed that schools across the country are being forced to cut frontline services, from extra-curricular activities to arts, music and careers services. Thousands of careers advisors have been laid off, and presumably some of them had not yet reached the stage of rocking, crying and inviting young jobseekers to pray with them over the latest unemployment forecasts. Local councils are also slashing their provisions for young people, from youth clubs to special needs grants.

At every level of government, youth services are the first to go when cuts are imposed, because they have few measurable outcomes - meaning that by the time the damage done can be properly tallied, the political careers of the current administration will be beyond scrutiny.

Instead, the "Positive for Youth" strategy echoes the Queen, the Archbishop and the rest of the Westminster machine in replacing actual ideas with lots of rhetorical flourishes about duty, family and responsibility. There is much talk of "listening to" young people - which is all to the good, as young people in Britain today have some fairly urgent about education and economic policy, some of which have been written on the Treasury wall in spraypaint for the attention of ministers - but no coherent plans to actually take any of their concerns into account. One young participant told me that teenagers who were consulted in drawing up the document had to fight to get phrases like "young people will learn to respect authority and their elders" removed, but the sentiment is still there in the meat of the text.

As we move into 2012, with all the old certainties disintegrating into the scurf of yesterday's consensus, the message to young people is simple: please, just don't kick off anymore. We may not have done anything to deserve your respect, but respect us anyway, or we'll send in the police. Sit down and shut up. Sois jeune et tais-toi.

There is no strategy here for the future, because there doesn't need to be. Nobody votes for the future anymore. For at least thirty years, politicians have played to a lexicon of temporary, individual self-interest and short-term profit. Even today, those who talk of decreasing the deficit through austerity measures have quietly ceased to speak the language of long-term growth. Nobody is investing in young people, in the environment, in infrastructure, in education, in any of the things that might make us - in an addictive little phrase I picked up at Occupy Wall Street - "good ancestors".

Instead, all the current crop of politicians seems to be able to do is beg and bully the young and disenfranchised into giving them respect. The riots were a gift, because they allowed the centre-right to frame social breakdown in terms of delinquency rather than despair. Nonetheless, I can think of few historical moments where respect for our elders has been less appropriate. From government cuts to the Eurozone crisis to the meltdown of the Durban climate talks, the political elite is fairly obviously making a total hash of almost everything they're in charge of.

Respecting them at this point would not only be unfitting - it would be downright foolish.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.