As British naturalist David Attenborough — an indisputable “influencer” of today’s youth — has noted on various occasions, time is running out for our planet. The move to action may now lie in the hands of young people. Maybe it’s time to do more than simply pretend that we are listening to the concerns of the new generation.
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For my 20-year-old son, who is studying finance at Edinburgh University, engaging with business investment and social entrepreneurship is what matters. In other words, unlike his father, he is a born capitalist. At the same time, not unlike many in his age group, this should not come at any cost. Equally critical is what we are doing worldwide about climate change, sustainable development, and other key issues such as human rights and wildlife conservation.
It is simply not acceptable, my son argues, for the Hong Kong government to be arresting and repressing political opponents. “Western reaction was pretty reprehensible,” he maintains. “We basically cold-shouldered them in favor of business.” Or for China to intern a million Muslim Uighurs in concentration camps or to force them to pick cotton like southern slaves. Or for Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan to jail and beat up outspoken journalists, lawyers, artists, and other critics. Or for President Trump to have favored megacorporate interests rather than ensure good schools and essential health care for all.
Furthermore, as a UK resident he is witness to what Brexiteers have done to undermine the benefits of being part of a Europe which has more or less known unprecedented peace (apart from the 1990s Balkan Wars) for 75 years thanks to those who fought — and died — during World War II. This includes the right for a whole new generation of Brits, many desperately seeking jobs, to live and work anywhere within the European Union, and for young Europeans to do the same in the UK.
For a parent concerned by his generation spending too much time on social media, I was startled to learn that my son had recently deleted his Facebook and Instagram accounts. This was, he explained, because of their proliferation of “fake news” coupled with the artificial and often destructive trend of self-validation by young people seeking to appear as having better lives than anyone else.
“Such platforms monetize consumer attention by promoting counterproductive behavior such as the mindless scrolling of social media without people obtaining any real benefit,” he says. “They seek to engage without really contributing to society.”
Time to “Name and Shame” Abusers
As with other young people today, my son wasn’t around for sanctions during the 1970s and ‘80s against the South African government during apartheid, the boycotting of Israeli Jaffa oranges for its discrimination against Palestinians, and the Nestle baby formula scandal. But his concern echoes what so many amongst previous generations sought to do, notably to “name and shame” those seeking to do business as usual regardless of on-the-ground realities and abuses.
The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, for example, which has declared its support for a nonrepresentative Hong Kong regime. Close your HSBC account, many are now demanding. Let them know what you think. Or Switzerland’s collaboration with China by allowing Beijing police to interrogate potential deportees on Swiss soil, even if such activities are supposedly “legal” under federal law. Demand that the Bern authorities be more transparent rather than kowtow.
Basically, with over 42 percent of the world’s population under the age of 25, we are witnessing a new generation that expects more. They are far more amenable to change, such as gender equality, gay marriage, or the right to question the determination of a dysfunctional king to remain unaccountable as in the case of Thailand. From Belarus to Hong Kong, youth are speaking out against repression, but they also want proposed remedies to be turned into real action. They don’t just want talk.
The United Nations Needs to Step Up
Perhaps more so than their parents or grandparents, they see a far more constructive role for the United Nations for dealing with the planet’s problems. Many learned this through “model UN” and other educational initiatives while at school. Naïve though they may come across to some adults, they actually believe in a more global, multi-sectoral approach with greater accountability and involving everyone from high school kids to Nobel Prize winners.
If properly reformed and less open to political manipulation by member states, the UN could actually have a decisive role to play. At the risk of receding into mediocrity, however, the UN still has a long way to go to assert itself as an effective proponent for change. It also needs to open up more to solutions-oriented criticism by the press and outside advocates.
With far too many politicians, such as America’s Donald Trump, Britain’s Boris Johnson, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, only concerned about themselves, young people increasingly see planetary solutions as the only way forward. This is the message that has been emerging from young activists.
While such approaches may be more the result of a privileged international school education from Geneva to Bangkok, my son admits, “It is important to involve young people elsewhere. They, too, want to bring about real change in their lives. One problem, though, is that young people are also more emotional and easily distracted by populism through misinformation. Many of us have never witnessed abusive regimes or even war, so we don’t know what it’s really like.”
Whether in Afghanistan, Uganda, or Haiti, youth are becoming aware through social media that they share many of the same problems — and possible solutions — such as obtaining a good education, finding jobs, or dealing with climate change, political repression of independent voices, and environmental degradation. Only with more collaborative approaches can we bring about effective change. Regional — if not global — cooperation may prove the only viable response for implementing disaster prevention measures to thwart hurricanes, ocean surges, and earthquakes, or for introducing more appropriate reforms for eliminating poverty or racial and religious discrimination.
For many of today’s engaged youth, governments and companies should no longer have the right to exploit irreplaceable wilderness reserves for commercial purposes, whether tropical rainforests or Arctic refuges. As young people are grasping, natural resources are finite. And not only that, as David Attenborough so fervently maintains, time is running out. Whether pandemics, wildlife trafficking, or droughts, such phenomena are increasingly interlinked. COVID-19, for example, may only be the first of many such outbreaks. (See William Dowell’s and Keith Somerville’s articles in Global Geneva.) When ecosystems are destroyed in the Amazon or Indonesia and Malaysia, they affect everyone from Seattle to Colombo. No one is left untouched.
The New Planetary Generation
So what has changed? We need to pay attention to what young people are saying, particularly given that it is their future — and the future of their kids — that is under threat.
Compared to 20 years, or even a decade ago, today’s youth are far more interconnected. With social media now reaching the entire world from the slums of Mumbai and the most remote parts of northern Kenya’s Turkana region to the Los Angeles suburbs and the heart of Buenos Aires, young people are all using the same tools to communicate.
No longer can a bigoted provincial official in China abuse local villagers or the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party in Tanzania kill political dissidents without — at one point — a revealing “name and shame” YouTube video or Instagram shots emerging. This is also how journalists ranging from the BBC to local news gatherers managed to piece together witness testimony concerning massacres in Sri Lanka, the deliberate burning of forests in Brazil and Indonesia, and the bulldozing and bombing of cultural heritage in ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq.
But such viral spread does not necessarily mean that young people today are better informed. Much of the content that now splurges across their mobile phones, iPads, and computers cannot be trusted. Cyber abuse and dis/misinformation are now regarded as one of the most subversive challenges facing our children. It was far easier for us — their parents — to determine what was credible or not by the trust that we put into our daily newspapers, evening television news shows, or magazines. We had time to absorb and to compare. There were also far more journalists reporting from the ground to determine what was really happening.
An Urgent Need to Confront Misinformation and Cyber Abuse
But times have changed. Young people do not have this luxury. As both Trump and Brexit have shown, but also worldwide troll onslaughts by hackers from Russia to Bangladesh, we are constantly bombarded by false news, lies, and manipulations of the truth from the moment we wake up to the time we sleep.
My son admits that this is a huge problem. He also argues that he can probably get around it by exploring other online sources or being in touch with his friends. Important, too, are credible sources such as the BBC or the Economist, but also peer review as a means of deciding what can be trusted, and what cannot. This may work to a point. But cyber abuse is massive with much of our data up for grabs.
The debate around coronavirus vaccinations is only one of many examples. Health workers have been lynched for organizing polio vaccination drives in Pakistan and West Africa, while even in Europe and the United States there is a common belief among many that immunizations, including the COVID-19 vaccine, are dangerous or part of a government plot. Obviously science and informed medical opinion are the way to go, and yet we have allowed such established knowledge to be subverted by ignorance
As journalists, we seek to help remedy such information abuse through quality reporting. But we also need to involve schools and universities as well as reach out to young people in the workplace or at large to make them more aware. This can only be done through information that is credible and trusted. If we don’t wish to lose this generation, it is time for us oldies to wake up and to invest properly in our young people.
Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent, author, and editor of Global Impacts Magazine. He is also director of Youth Writes, a writing and public outreach initiative of the nonprofit Global Geneva Group.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Friends of the Earth Europe / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).