When I was just beginning kindergarten, the leaders of the world came together in Rio de Janeiro for a groundbreaking Earth Summit that put the concept of sustainable development and biological diversity on the global political agenda. While I was chopping the hair off my sister’s Barbies in third grade, the United States whacked the teeth out of the world’s first agreement on climate change by refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. When America gave me the license to drink, I flew to Copenhagen and watched world negotiators water down the Copenhagen climate treaty till it was virtually worthless–effectively drowning out the cries of hope and change from our U.S. youth delegation and close to 100,000 other civil society members. Twenty years after the first Earth Summit, the leaders of the world are coming together for Rio+20 under the slogan of “the future we want.”
For the majority of my life and the lives of my peers, our leaders have worked hard to give us a future we don’t want. Global energy needs are skyrocketing and the climate is heating up fast–with normally conservative institutions like the OECD, the IEA and McKinsey predicting dire consequences from our carbon emissions and explosive population growth.
Twenty years after sustainable development was first put on the agenda the world’s youth are planning to call this meeting to order. After all, for us, this isn’t merely about “the future we want,” it’s about the future we will live.
So what type of future do we want to live? Well, world, we’ve already begun showing you. We’ve tweeted and facebooked our way into an Arab Spring that has succeeded in removing dictators. We’ve #occupied cities across the world, calling for the global elite to pay their fair share. Now we’re taking on a new type of tyranny, the tyranny of an energy system and a concept of development that has enriched a handful of fossil fuel companies and corrupt leaders at the expense of the 99% and our planet.
Fossil fuel-based development is proving to be anything but sustainable. As Carl Pope recently wrote,
“There is not enough cheap oil or coal in the world to elevate the lives of the world’s four billion poor; trying to do so will kill millions, mostly the poor, with soot, smog, and heavy metals; and will bankrupt the treasuries of nations like China, India and America that face trade deficits for the deadly carbon duo, coal and oil.”
We need to rapidly transition to clean energy but more than that, we need to put our world on the path to sustainable development. Sustainable development encompasses a wide range of practices but as our U.S. youth delegation is urging world leaders at Rio+20 to define it, “sustainability” must convey underpinning ecological, social, cultural, and economic principles. We want world leaders to think of development in the sense of creating a “green economy,” one that prioritizes the well-being and basic needs of people and recognizes that infinite material growth is impossible in a finite world. A green economy must minimize ecosystem degradation and move beyond GDP as the sole indicator of prosperity.
Our demands are great but our need is even greater. Watch out world, we’re no longer toddlers gurgling bathwater and we’re tired of the way you’ve been playing with our future.