My environmental activism started back in the 1980s when I was a teenager. Like many of the teens that came onto the streets last week, my passion about saving the planet and fighting for the future was sparked by a growing global movement. We young people felt we were part of a great movement, a great wave of action, which had sprung from the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the Bruntland Commission, and the 1987 report which resulted – Our Common Future. That report, whilst seen by many as not radical enough, set out a series of measures which had to be implemented. It coined the phrase ‘sustainable development’ and defined it as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
The Bruntland Commission set in motion a whole series of global conferences to examine how the report could be implemented. The most important of these was the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which was much anticipated given the role that the Amazon played in the protection of biodiversity and climate stability. Among those who addressed the conference was a twelve year old girl, Severn Suzuki, who, with her friends, had formed a children’s movement for environmental protection. They had raised the money themselves to come to the summit with a clear message: adults needed to change their ways to safeguard their generation.
Like thousands of children of my generation, I looked to Severn and the movement she sparked, as inspiration – with a firm believe that the then grown ups would listen. We dived right in with passion and commitment. Many of us chose careers in international cooperation and ecology as a a result. As the strikes exploded all over the world last week, I found myself watching the grainy video of Severn those 27 years ago. It was extraordinary, and extremely saddening, to observe how strikingly similar the words of Severn sound to those of Greta and all the youth across the world.
Back in 1992, Severn started her message saying:
“Coming up here today, I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election, or losing a few points on the stock markets.”
She proceeded to give leaders a talking down begging them to ACT. It led me to think how on earth this message – told with such passion and such directness – fell on deaf ears? In the intervening years, all but one of the measures of planetary health set out at the Earth Summit have been breached. Climate emissions have risen exponentially. Bio-diversity loss has reached a critical point. In fact, the only issue which has been substantially addressed is the hole in the ozone layer – and even that is now coming under serious strain.
The reality is that there have been many ‘Gretas’ before. At almost every UN conference I have followed there have been powerful moral voices – from Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and her baby from the Marshall Islands addressing the UN General Assembly, to Yeb Sano’s moving intervention at the COP in Poland in 2013 as his home town was pummeled by Typhoon Haiyan.
Almost every conference has been opened by a clarion call to protect the future. All of those calls are met by an emotional, sometimes tearful response – after all, the negotiators are human beings too. It is impossible not to be moved. And yet, the relentless destruction continues via policy chouces those same people make. After the emotional moment, business as usual continues. Each country representative reverts to form – to protect a mythical “national interest” which is entirely blind to the inter-connectedness of all our interests as one planet. Our planetary interest is silenced.
So I ask myself, how can the message of this Greta be not only listened to – but acted on? How can we translate the emotional response into action with a level of urgent action that is needed? Can we dare to hope that in 27 years we will not be remembering another brave young woman in a world in ruins?
A number of things give me hope in this most recent uprising. The first is the power we people possess through our instant, inter-connected world, and particularly the power of youth to harness this via social media. This power gives us the possibility not only to have one Greta – but thousands, possibly millions of Gretas in every nation, city and town across the world. We are all discovering local Gretas now. We can all be Greta. This means we can all simultaneously “stop the world”, at least on Fridays, and start to build the future we need. This growing movement is tenacious, and hungry for change. The leaders of this movement understand how to mobilise in ways older generations could not even have dreamed of. Moreover, there are early signs that what started as a youth movement could morph into a more widespread planetary movement – with many more joining forces with the children. This is not just their battle. It belongs to everyone.
The translation of this into political action, however, is by no means a given. The path to policy change is fraught with difficulties and blocked by some incredibly powerful vested interests. They have frustrated efforts for thirty years and will not cease now as this report shows. Back in 1992, we firmly believed our aspirations of Earth Summit would become change because they were right. Now the stakes are so high both for the older generations that control vested interests, and vast resources, and for the younger ones who will risk everything for change. Power is never ceded by the powerful. It is always won by a more powerful force. It will take us all to unite to subvert those interests.