Brendan O’Neill says that New Labour is deploying Maoist tactics to use children’s ‘pester power’ to crack down on the ‘eco-crimes’ and alleged anti-social behaviour of their parents
When I was a child, ‘pester power’ meant stamping one’s feet in a shop. It involved little more than begging one’s mum in an irritating voice for the latest He-Man action figure or for one of those unusually thick pink milkshakes from a place called ‘McDonald’s’. It was a feeble force, this alleged power of the pest, easily squished by a clip around the lughole or by that most ominous threat issued by mums-in-distress: ‘Just you wait until your dad gets home…’
How times have changed. Today, ‘pester power’ is a powerful political tool. The New Labour government is explicitly recruiting children to its climate change and respect agendas — its illiberal, conformist, thought-policing programmes of ‘good behaviour’ promotion — in the hope that they might, quote unquote, ‘use their pester power in a positive way: reminding grown-ups how to behave’. After coating Britain in CCTV cameras, the government is now nurturing a battalion of Child Spies, an army of ethically minded Veruca Salts, to harry and hector the badly behaved adults of 21st-century Britain.
Earlier this month the New York Times reported the emergence in New York of ‘pint-size eco-police’: ‘very environmentally conscious children’ who ‘pour scorn’ on their parents for everything from leaving the lights on to failing to sort their egg boxes from their bottle tops when recycling the weekly rubbish. Experts refer to them as an ‘army of eco-kids’ who have been ‘steeped in environmentalism at school, in houses of worship, through scouting and even via popular culture’.
This is no American curiosity. Here, too, children are actively encouraged, by the authorities and by popular culture, to monitor their parents’ environmental behaviour. Eco-Schools, a government-funded scheme active in 5,500 schools around the UK, calls on teachers to integrate environmentalism into the curriculum as a way of ‘empowering children’ to police their parents. Andrew Suter, head of the scheme, says it allows kids to ‘tell their parents what to do for a change’.
Cue thousands of ethically empowered pests nagging their folks about how often they use the washing machine or what kind of petrol they put in the car. Some parents aren’t happy. At a school in Worcestershire one mum complained: ‘Can you please tell my daughter that we are allowed to have some lights on — she’s got us sitting in the dark like mushrooms.’ Michael, a dad-of-two in north London, tells me his daughter recently came home from school with an ‘eco check-list’ to find out how green their home is. ‘I used to help her with her homework. Now her homework is about helping me to be a better person!’ he fulminates.
Politicising ‘pester power’ is all the rage in green-leaning education circles. David Uzzell, a professor of environmental psychology at the University of Surrey, reports attending an educational conference a couple of years ago where ‘everyone was absolutely convinced… that “pester power” was the answer [to the problem of climate change]’. A 2006 report by the Department of Trade and Industry said environmental energy efficiency should be made into ‘an integral part of [a schoolchild’s] mindset’ so that he or she can help to ‘shape attitudes in the wider community’ and bring about ‘the desired cultural shift’.
The illiberal, one might even say Maoist, bent to this campaign to turn children into eco-cops is made clear in the book How To Turn Your Parents Green by James Russell, published last year. It encourages children to ‘nag, pester, bug, torment and punish the people who are merrily wrecking our world’ — that is, grown-ups, or ‘Groans’, who spend their time ‘slumped in front of the TV’ or ‘salivating over a holiday brochure’ and who poison the world with ‘Revolting Rubbish, Fiendish Fertilisers and Pestilential Pesticides’. Russell says children should ‘channel their pester power’, ‘gripe’ for organic carrots, and issue fines against their parents and other ‘transgressors’ of the environmentalist code. Children should be the ‘Guardians of the Glorious Green Future’, pestering ‘Groans’ until they sign up to a ‘Glorious Green Charter’.
Bullying and bugging the ‘transgressors’ of eco-orthodoxy… children as the heralds of a Glorious Green Future… harnessing children’s pester power to bring about the government’s ‘desired cultural shift’ in eco-attitudes… I can’t be the only person who is freaked out by this ominous language. How long before children carry around Little Green Books and snitch on their parents to a Glorious Green Council if they book a cheap flight or eat an apple imported from Kenya?
When children are not snooping for ‘climate crimes’ in the home, as James Russell describes it, they have been co-opted into spying on adults on the streets. In April last year the government’s Respect Task Force launched a competition in schools to find children to provide ‘the voice’ for the first ‘Talking CCTV’ cameras: cams that not only watch us, but tell us off too. In 20 towns and cities, schoolkids were asked to design posters that challenge antisocial behaviour. The winning designers were invited to sit in their local CCTV control rooms on the day that the truly Orwellian ‘talking cams’ were unveiled, from where they admonished citizens for littering, loitering, drinking and so on. Respect said this was about getting kids to ‘use their pester power in a positive way: reminding grown-ups how to behave’.
Last month the Daily Telegraph reported that local councils around the country are recruiting young people as ‘Junior Streetwatchers’ to spy on, and even photograph and video, people who commit dog-fouling, littering or bin crimes (i.e. putting the wrong rubbish in the wrong bins or allowing it to spill on to the street).
Some councils refer to these juniors as ‘covert human intelligence sources’ and even give them James Bond-style code names. Ealing Council in west London admitted that ‘hundreds of Junior Streetwatchers, aged eight to 10, [have been] trained to identify and report enviro-crime issues such as graffiti and fly-tipping’. Harlow Council in Essex said it has 25 ‘Street Scene Champions’, all aged between 11 and 14, who are encouraged to email or telephone the council if they suspect that an ‘enviro-crime’ — ranging from vandalism of bus shelters to large-scale littering — has been committed.
It is the mark of a truly authoritarian regime to recruit children to nag out-of-tune parents or to spy on disobedient citizens. A writer for the Guardian celebrates eco-pester power on the basis that children make ‘natural campaigners — no shades of grey, no nuanced arguments, just loads of passion and clarity’. Yes, and that is also why ruthless governments, from the Soviets to Chairman Mao, cultivated zealous little police-kids: because childish minds are easily moulded to accept political orthodoxies. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four it was ‘almost normal for people over 30 to be frightened of their own children’ because they were ‘ungovernable little savages’ who spied for the Party. Before we become scared of our kids, too — as they patrol our homes, speak to us from CCTV cameras, or squeal on us to councils — I suggest dealing with t
his politicised pester power in the same way my mum dealt with my childish demands: by administering a collective clip around the lughole to the Child Spies.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 8, 2008