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Eternal Pessimists?

An International Youth Day in need of optimism calls for a fresh approach to action towards a sustainable future.

Taya and Tivona Kovacic Chan are grade 8 and 6 students in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Toucans in the Amazon rainforest, which is being deforested so extensively that it’s in danger of becoming like a savannah. Photo: Alberto Campos

Over 45% of young people around the world said their feelings about climate change negatively impacted their daily life and well-being. Beyond the physical effects of the climate and ecological crisis, what adults don’t understand is that young people are also experiencing a crisis of hope for the future. We can barely imagine how things could get better, for nature or us. Many of us don’t like thinking about the future at all, except in very personal terms.

Is this how society should be? It feels wrong for children to dread what this world is becoming. To restore our hope on International Youth Day, adults and children need to work together to change systems towards sustainability.

A part of the problem is that adults just don’t understand what it’s like to grow up amidst a planetary crisis that isn’t being met by real action.

Did you know that humanity outweighs all wild mammals on Earth? By 6 times. That’s 1 species trumping 5,400.

If this surprised you, we bet you’re an adult. We weren’t surprised. Children our age always expect the worst about the environment. But our parents and their siblings were shocked—they thought that wild mammals still outweigh humans. They had grown up with nature documentaries showing a boundless, flourishing wilderness. Even though they know it’s different now, the new reality hasn't sunk in.

The adults were also taken aback that we assume human domination of the planet. Of course we do! Think of the news we’ve been immersed in: up to a million species at risk of extinction, rampant deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, 50% of the world’s coral reefs lost with more to follow….

We’re not on the same page. We’re barely on the same planet.

Our parents grew up when the climate and ecological crisis was barely an idea, let alone a real-life danger. Scientists warned about ‘global warming’ as some distant threat, and even that was still hotly debated. Now, though, it’s a terrifying reality that we live with every day, with heat domes, forest fires, and atmospheric rivers that flood regions.

What makes the crisis even harder for children to bear is that adults—those we depend on—are asleep at the wheel. Governments know it’s an emergency, but their actions don’t reflect that. Adults need to get serious about these crises, so we can trust that our future is in good hands.

We wanted to take action, but being only children, it felt like protesting was our only option. So we joined the millions of people who hit the streets, demonstrating our concern. The energy was infectious, and it was fun to make headlines, but now we wonder what comes next. Do we just keep protesting, and what are we even asking for, specifically?

Many of us focus on greening our own lifestyles, by eating plant-based and eliminating waste. But it’s frustrating to do all this when many others don’t. The private actions of a committed few don’t add up to sustainability. The hopelessness is paralyzing.

If young people knew what kinds of system change we need and how to accomplish it, and if we had company working on that, we could find optimism. That’s why the two of us still haven’t given up—we’ve been immersed in conversations about meaningful solutions since we were little. With adults alongside the youth movement, this burden wouldn’t feel so heavy.

Fortunately, science can help. Recent international assessments show where change is most needed in systems (they call these “leverage points”), and what interventions are most helpful (“levers”). Just as importantly, science can guide how we push for social change, like helping us realize that we’ve got to go beyond our private actions to change laws, rules, and social norms.

The problem is that the science that provides a multi-sector pathway for global sustainability, and how to achieve that, is mostly inaccessible for many of us. There are efforts to change this, though, such as CoSphere, an initiative of UBC. If we build community, by enabling people to express what they want to see in the world—and understand how to go about changing that—maybe we can instigate the change needed.

No matter how you act on the climate and environmental crises, please start now. People, especially children, have lost their way. Don’t give up—for our sakes. Despite our dread, we choose to believe that a better future is possible, if we work towards system change together.


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