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Awaiting our own environmental Malala

This article was originally published on The Jakarta Post.

“People are busy exploring options for life on Mars — why don’t they fix and protect our Earth instead?” said Krishna, a college student in environmental management, when asked about his interest in environmental protection. Krishna, 21, participated with 19 others in a boot camp as part of the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Indonesian Young Thought Leaders on Environment program. The 20 were selected from almost 100 applicants through a nationwide essay competition.

When it comes to voicing concerns globally, youth are taking charge and acting to protect the environment and support threatened livelihoods. In the United States, for instance, a movement to fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline began with a group of teenagers who later established the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC). The youth movement believed their cause had to spread, not because they necessarily believed they could stop the pipeline but because the movement had brought together youths who initially were disconnected and unfamiliar with this issue. Young Hollywood actress Shailene Woodley has also been consistently vocal in the protest.

Youth like Krishna and the IIYC are indeed important key actors in fighting for environmental protection and promoting sustainable development. Data from UNESCO suggested that people under the age of 30 made up half of the world population at the beginning of 2012 and have an increasingly strong social and environmental awareness. Asia especially has the largest share of young people, but their environmental awareness may not be as high as that of their contemporaries in the developed countries. In particular, the understanding of Indonesian youth about the environment might be limited to issues concerning waste, air pollution and saving energy. While these sectors are important, there’s more to sustainable development that Indonesian youth can champion.

Almost half of Indonesia’s national greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and land use change, as a result of the conversion of carbon­rich tropical forests and peatlands into plantations and agricultural land. Energy use also contributed 35 percent to the national greenhouse gas emissions, with energy used for transportation being the major contributor in cities. Another factor that is important for climate change, yet is often neglected, is food loss and waste. WRI research suggests that if food loss and waste was a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. It is particularly alarming to see people waste so much food while millions of Indonesians can’t afford to bring any to the table.

Today, when climate stability is at stake, young people have so much to offer in raising awareness, promoting sustainable lifestyles, conserving nature and implementing adaptation and mitigation projects. That said, it might be easy to say that young people are important because of their demographic power and potential, but how should society, including policy makers, create a meaningful engagement with youth?

Several rules of thumb for a meaningful engagement must be observed.

First, we need to invest in resources, be it with money or time, to start the engagement and create meaningful activities. An example of such a movement is Hutan itu Indonesia (Forest is Indonesia), founded by a group of young people trying to make forests a part of the national identity and bring forests closer to individuals’ everyday lives by telling stories from the forests, introducing forest products and recently, campaigning about their messages through a music concert called Musika Foresta. Today, the movement involves well­known musicians such as Glenn Fredly, while the numbers of its young supporters are increasing.

Second, we must create a sense of purpose. In his Harvard University commencement speech, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, mentioned that youth generally already have a sense of purpose, but the challenge is to “create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose. Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for.” This year’s WRI­Indonesia’s youth boot camp aimed at instilling that sense of purpose by introducing sustainable development to participants and training youth in research and messaging. Perhaps most importantly, participants found themselves among like­minded peers concerned with sustainable development and this might be how we can create a sense of purpose for others: by building a community.

Third, we should make young people subjects rather than objects. Programs such as Hutan itu Indonesia and the boot camp on environment should be treated as a trigger to start the snowball rolling. For a movement to grow and last, it has to be internalized within youth themselves. Big movements often emerge out of crisis, as is the case with the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US and the 1998 reformasi in Indonesia, but we don’t have to wait for a crisis to make youth engagement sustainable.

The youth engagement program has to be mainstreamed rather than allowed to continue on an adhoc basis. Policy makers, for instance, could treat youth as subjects by actively engaging some youth groups in the early stage of formulating environment­related policy rather than only making youth the awareness­spreading machines.

Finally, just as Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, a 19­yearold Pakistani activist working for the education of girls, has sparked an international movement for equitable education and youth empowerment, we might need a few dozen more Malalas for our environmental issues, given their dire need for serious attention. For now, let’s continue spreading seeds for youth like Krishna to build a sense of purpose for promoting sustainable development.

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