There was a time when I believed politics was a place for aspirations. A space for bold ideas and searches for progress. As a young student within a democratic system looking to make her contribution to society, becoming involved in politics was the noblest thing I could think of. Especially in times when we are repeatedly reminded of the flaws and fragilities of our social systems, I believed politics was the perfect place to participate in their resolution. Unfortunately, in the last few years, I’ve grown disappointed.
As planetary boundaries topple like a string of dominoes, our leaders have recurrently shown themselves unfit or unwilling to address citizen demands for ecological action. In this way, the ecological crisis also reveals a crisis in political responsiveness which perpetuates a system that does not work for people and the planet. It is time for a renewal of politics. A new, bold and transformational political leadership that can see beyond electoral terms and searches for power, and can correct the systemic inequalities that we continue to experience, from their roots. While the challenge may seem monumental, I believe the solution starts with the incorporation of a new generation of voices into our political systems.
The cost of unresponsiveness
Global youth communities are demanding politicians take meaningful action to radically transform present-day socioeconomic development models. They wish to see the neoliberal, shareholder capitalism that we have known for the past decades, replaced by an economy that facilitates the participation of all, and rests on economic sustainability, and social and environmental justice. Today, youth everywhere are challenging their political leaders to address their communities’ most pressing issues. For instance Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist is raising awareness of the impacts of climate change on the African continent. Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines speaks on the intersection of climate justice and social freedom from authoritarian regimes. Máximo Mazzocco, an activist and entrepreneur from Argentina empowers environmental organizations across Latin America to advocate their causes. These and countless other voices bear testimony and give concrete reasons why the political-economic system we live in is not working. Despite differences in the causes they advocate for, today’s youth is united in the spirit of action and in their denunciation of a common challenge: the lack of political support.
By not responding to the calls of the youth communities, politicians are alienating an entire generation from the decisions that determine their future. This bears immediate costs to them as elected leaders; but also long-standing consequences on their constituents. People between the ages of 16-25 are increasingly experiencing severe eco-anxiety; emotional distress and fear of the future due to the dangers of ecological breakdown, compounded by feelings of being betrayed and neglected by their leaders. For today’s youth, discussions about the ecological crisis are personal. They reflect our agency in deciding the life we want to lead and the choices we want to make in the future. It is uncertain whether the things that have been traditionally associated with a happy life - i. e a house, a family, a dream job - will be available to us in the world beyond the 2-degree Celsius threshold. The COVID-19 pandemic gave a preview of what awaits us beyond this limit: a shortage in abilities to meet basic needs, unstable physical living conditions, international conflicts, new diseases, and aggravated health concerns. Today's youth will be the first generation that will have to live on an uninhabitable Earth, and the apathy of those who are meant to protect us makes it all the more terrifying.
The challenges are not simple but there are reasons to be hopeful. Countless breakthroughs and initiatives are enabling the bottom-up establishment of a system that truly serves the well-being of people and the planet. We have never been better equipped with information, connections, and technology to understand and reverse the ecological crisis. Studies on socio-ecological effects, policy briefs and guidelines for policymakers are recurringly produced by global institutions to advise leaders on how to implement a just green transition. While there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, there are countless indications of places to start. Yet, what politicians often lack is the inspiration, the energy and the sense of accountability to acknowledge the end of business as usual and search for an alternative path. The meaningful engagement of youth communities can give politics a much-needed momentum.
Citizen participation, in general, is vital to communicate local priorities and promote local solutions. But the engagement of youth groups is unique in that, for the most part, their ideas are not constrained by traditionalist thinking nor by fealty to the political-economic theories of late 1900. The incoming generations have grown up in a more pluralistic and globalized world and, consequently, interpret social issues and priorities differently. They pay attention to the situations of social groups and environments that have traditionally been excluded from the political equation, and when they perceive injustice, they do not hesitate to question those responsible – structures and people alike. Their diagnosis of prevalent issues rests first and foremost on inclusivity. They continue to enhance the importance of listening, gathering local experiences and wisdom to elaborate holistic and local solutions. Their way of thinking highlights the e framework of emerging economic and political theories that fundamentally depart from the primacy of shareholder value and maximizing GDP. Engaging in authentic, unencumbered dialogue with youth organizations and movements is the key to reinvigorating our political systems, and endowing them with the purpose and credibility demanded by their citizens.
There is no trade-off between prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable societies; countless voices attest to that today. However, politics – arguably the most important voice – has not fully embraced this idea. Only honest backing from politicians can enable the future we want to become reality. Politics needs to find the courage and imagination to do things differently, and it can do that by listening to its people. They already have the answers. Openness, humility and integrity are the features we wish to see reincorporated into our political representation. Through active listening and dialogue, politicians can allow themselves to be inspired by the energy, creativity and wisdom emerging from the ground, and assist people in carving an alternative path for humanity and reinvigorate themselves in the process.
Hickman, C. et al. (2021) “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey,” The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), pp. e863–e873. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(21)00278-3.