Youth & Sustainability

2011 will be remembered as a year of protests.  From Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park to the streets of Santiago and Homs, protest movements have gained more traction than at anytime in recent memory.  Despite their many differences in backgrounds, motivations, and demands, there is a common theme of youth involvement that runs through all of these protests.  While there has certainly been representation from every generation, the protests have been dominated by those under thirty.  Indeed, high school students were some of the most vocal leaders of the protests in Santiago, Chile.  The protesters, no matter where they are, saw a future that they do not approve of and have taken to the streets to demand change.

That the protesters felt they had to take to the streets in order to make their voices heard is a strong indictment of the current system of government.  A significant number of these protests have taken place in countries that are, at least nominally, democracies.  The youth of a democracy should not feel that they must occupy a city park or a college campus in order to have a say in their future.  Rather, there should be opportunities not only for their voices to be heard at the ballot box but in other ways as well.

Although not explicitly environmental, these protests are as much about sustainability as any ‘green’ or ‘eco’ movement.  Regardless of your preferred definition, sustainability is, at its heart, about considering and involving future generations in today’s decisions.  From the Brudtland Commission’s definition as meeting “the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs and aspirations” to the Stern Report’s statement that “future generations should have a right to a standard of living no lower than the current one,” sustainability demands that future generations are considered.  We must not forget that “the needs of future populations” refers equally to those not yet born and those who are youths today.  And that means we can go beyond just considering future generations and instead actively involve the same young people protesting around the world in today’s decision-making process.

This idea – to take into account the views of those youths whose lives will be shaped in the future by the decisions their leaders make today – was the foundation of the Future Partner’s Forum (FPF) convened this past year in Christchurch, New Zealand.  This forum brought together twenty American and twenty New Zealand students to participate in the US-NZ Partnership Forum as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership  (TPP) discussions.  What set the FPF apart, however, was that the students were given a mandate not only to listen to the participants of the partnership forum but also to provide their own recommendations for the TPP and how the US-NZ relationship should evolve in the future.

Bringing students together and demanding that they not only observe but also participate was the brainchild of the U.S. Ambassador David Huebner and the head of the NZ-US council, Steven Jacobi.  Both of these men make it a priority to actively engage American and New Zealand students and young professionals in the actions of their organizations, a rare opportunity in a world dominated by elder statesmen.  By doing so, they commit themselves to sustainable action: they are not only considering how their decisions will affect future generations – they are also allowing those same generations to have a say in decisions that will affect them.

The challenge moving forward will be to maintain this kind of engagement with future students.  The final meeting of the first FPF concluded last week and the forty young participants gave their recommendations to both the United States Embassy and the NZ-US council.  Those in the audience should be aware that in addition to acting on the recommendations of the first Future Partner’s Forum, they must also actively engage a new set of students and young professionals to continue this work.

The US-NZ relationship is just one example of how young people can become engaged in the decision-making process.  Fortunately, there are similar opportunities to engage youth around the world, as in the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum. While this process is not easy, including youth from the participating countries in the summit will continue the engagement of youth in the decisions that will shape their lives.  The yearlong protests the world-over demonstrate that young people demand to be heard.  It remains to be seen if the establishment will listen.