Young People Help Environmentalism Get Its Groove Back

“This is our moment, this could be the turning point,” said the young Belgian man at the front of the room. Around him sat youth from all around the world, young environmental leaders who had come to Rio de Janeiro to attend the United Nations Earth Summit. Though Rio+20, as it’s commonly known, won’t officially begin until June 20th, hundreds of young people have already begun organizing around what is expected to be the largest UN gathering in history.

The young people in the room were discussing other ways to measure progress aside from GDP, a hot topic of late that is expected to be discussed during Rio+20. As the session leader, Sevan Holemans, pointed out, there were a combination of factors that led to the formation of GDP as the global indicator of choice: the pervasive Keynesian economic theory, American hegemony after World War II and the strong belief that economic growth would lift all boats. Now, the world has entirely changed.

Many of us in that room have seen our friends and neighbors take to the streets, and, whether they occupied a park or toppled a government their message was clear: this system isn’t working. As the old adage goes, ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ and our sole focus on the production of goods and services has led us to a system that optimizes economic efficiency at the expense of our social and economic values.

As JFK pointed out decades ago, GDP (and its corollary GNP) count numerous destructive activities as increases in GDP:

“The Gross National Product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulance to clear our highways of carnage.
It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. GNP includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior…GNP measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile…”

For two weeks, hundreds of youth will work with thousands of civil society members and political leaders to better measure and integrate the three key development spheres: social, environmental and economic. Of course, simply measuring these spheres isn’t enough and that’s why we’ve developed policy briefs revolving around our ideas on the best ways to develop sustainable development goals, end fossil fuel subsidies, create a UN guardian for future generations and strengthen the United Nations Environment Programme.

Though we may not get everything we want in Rio, all of know that sustainable development is a process, not an outcome. It’s a paradigm shift that has already begun and will take each of us, working in our communities and governments around the world, to turn it into the new normal.