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Help us inspire future generations

Every day, the media is awash with bad news of existential and acute crises – biodiversity loss, climate change, Covid and post-pandemic issues, rising cost of living, food insecurity, geopolitical tensions and war – and many people are feeling exhausted and dispirited.

Young people in particular are struggling to cope with mounting pressures and expectations in a world that is changing fast, both physically and socially.  Amongst all the major issues that threaten their future world, and compounded by 24-hour in-depth news coverage and negative social media, they are experiencing another, perhaps less obvious but more pernicious, crisis – one of uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety, despair.  So many I have spoken to have real concerns about the fragile state of the world and the apparent indifference and slow reactions of the adults in charge.  They feel powerless and hopeless, overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges they face.  They need our help, to protect their futures.

RSGS has built a strong reputation for being future-focused and effective.  One of our key strengths is our ability to inspire – with our heritage, knowledge, networks, and influence, we are uniquely well-placed to inspire learning, action, change, and hope.  And we think people need inspiration now more than ever.  Yes, we need to inspire and inform young people about geographical issues.  But we also need to inspire and help deliver positive solutions which can give young people more hope for their futures.  And we need to inspire and engage young people in shaping the futures that they want to see.  We are determined to do more to make a difference.  But for us to step up the work we are doing to help young people, directly and indirectly, we need your support.

Inspiration lasts a lifetime

I know many of us can recall moments of inspiration from throughout our lives – people we’ve met, stories we’ve heard or read, images we’ve seen.  Since the late nineteenth century, RSGS has brought some of the most fascinating people and their stories to our members and supporters.  And the inspiration they bring can last a lifetime.  A great example, which I was reminded of recently, came in a letter I received from a long-standing RSGS member.  He was reflecting on the joy he had experienced as a member, and recollecting one of our public talks.  The most memorable of all for him, he told me, was the exciting lecture given by Hermann Buhl, an Austrian mountaineer who was the first to climb Nanga Parbat, which at 26,660 feet is the ninth-highest mountain in the world.  Buhl ascended on his own, from the top camp, carrying very little kit, and was forced to spend the night standing upright on a tiny ledge just below the summit and well above the infamous ‘death zone’.  At the end of the lecture, our member recalled, Buhl held up his hand to show parts of two fingers missing – his fingers and toes had been damaged by frostbite during the ascent.

It was only later when I checked our records that I realised the astonishing impact of this one lecture.  The climb took place in 1953, and Buhl spoke for RSGS in 1955.  Yet this member recalled the whole thing as if it were yesterday, and had carried the inspiration with him ever since.

Hermann Buhl’s RSGS lectures inspired others too – Dr Adam Watson, the wise old man of the Cairngorms, for instance.  He was a young man when, with fellow climbers Tom Patey and Graeme Nicol, he met Buhl at the RSGS talk in Aberdeen’s Music Hall.  He recalled, “He asked about local peaks, and we explained that most cliffs were in corries.  He asked their height in metres.  Thinking usually in hundreds of feet, Tom and Graeme did not know immediately.  Considering the highest ones at Creag an Dubh Loch and Shelter Stone Crag, which I had measured for the climbers’ guide, I said up to 300 metres.  Graeme and Tom nodded impressively.  Buhl commented, ‘Small cleeffs, small cleeffs!’”

Buhl ignited in all these young people an intense inspiration that lasted well into their older age.  And Buhl is just one of hundreds of people who have spoken for RSGS over the past 138 years.  Some – such as Ernest Shackleton, Freya Stark, Neil Armstrong, David Attenborough – are famous, inspiring whole generations to grow up in awe of their achievements or spurred on by their example.  But all have been capable of deeply affecting those who met them and heard them speak, of awakening passion and intellect, of challenging ideas about what is possible.  Of course, we deliver a lot more than talks – our magazine, our journal, our collections, our events, our visitor centre, educational resources, and policy advice.  Just imagine the cumulative inspirational impact of all that!

Inspiration in the real world

That is the kind of inspirational impact we want to bring to more young people today – through our public talks and events where they can meet fascinating people, through our collections and publications where they can explore broad geographical ideas, through our work of informing policy and positive action on critical geographical issues which affect their futures.  And through more direct engagement with young people – listening and responding, supporting and encouraging, offering opportunities and experiences.

The world has changed significantly since Buhl’s time.  Our increasing human impact has transformed it physically, and our augmented media awareness means that global concerns weigh heavily indeed.  No wonder that young people are finding it hard to be positive about their futures.  I think most of us would subscribe to the view that we should hand the world on to future generations in a better state than we inherited it, but with the many and various current crises, especially climate change and imperilment of nature, we are largely failing to do that.

So, now I want to ensure RSGS does everything it possibly can to make things better for young people, our future generations.  We need to offer leadership.  We need to reawaken joy in simple, direct, real-world experiences, cutting through the noise and distraction of phones and social media.  We need to reconnect young people to nature and geography.  We need to give them faith in the future, and inspire them with hope.  And we need to involve young people in helping to solve some of the real-world problems that affect them most.

Inspiration for the future

At RSGS, we know that we can make a real difference for many of our young people and future generations.  But to do that, we need your help.  We are determined to accelerate our efforts to engage younger people more, involve them more, provide more opportunities and platforms for them, and give them some decision-making powers.  We want to begin by establishing a Young Geographers Committee, by running another Young Geographer magazine mentoring project, and by creating a fund for travel and outdoor activity and fieldwork – something we hope we can build up over the next five years.

With your help, we can do so much more.  We can encourage and support more young people to study, learn about and explore the world.  With your help, we can provide individual and group mentoring and guidance, and create exciting and rewarding opportunities for participation.  With your help, we can empower more young people to feel they have control over their futures, we can provide outlets for their concerns, and we can use our contacts and platforms to give them more of a voice.  With your help, we can use our networks and strategies to help solve some of the most critical global issues, and we can help influence policy to ensure that science and young people’s interests are being upheld.

Of course, we can’t do it all and we can’t reach everyone.  But with your help we would like to build a Future Generations Fund to better resource the work we can do with and for young people, to provide support for young people directly and indirectly, now and into the future, and to underpin our future-focused policy and educational work.  At the same time, we can use this example to encourage governments and others to create future generations funds of their own, and so maximise the impact of our own efforts and energy.

We all treasure the legacy of those who inspired us in our youth and helped to shape our lives.  We all treasure the legacy of our real-life experiences, travelling and exploring near home or further afield.  And we all want to feel we have some influence over issues that affect us, and that life can be full of hope and possibilities.  Please help us to bring this special legacy to our young people today – help us to build up our Future Generations Fund.

Together, let’s inspire future generations.