Generation Y and the Global Green Economy: Counting Us In
I am Generation Y: a generation that grew up with technology, armed with smart phones, laptops, and other gadgets, plugged in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are entrepreneurs, visionaries, activists, and innovators confident in our abilities, proud of our achievements thus far, and unafraid to challenge authority when we disagree. We are also underestimated, misinterpreted, and overlooked by our elders. The only common factor between Generation Y and Generation X are global problems: a financial crisis, environmental depletion, and poverty. It is through our engagement, however, that we can work towards solving these problems and build a better tomorrow.
In 1992, international income disparity was at its worst, according to the United Nations Human Development Report (HDR). Having doubled over the past 30 years, the richest twenty percent of the world’s people were 150 times richer than the poorest twenty percent. The Cold War was over, military spending declined, and there was a growing public awareness of environmental issues involving ozone depletion, rainforest destruction, and species extinction.
The 1992 HDR called for “a world summit on human development [that] should be convened to enlist the support of the world's political leaders for the objectives of the compact and their commitment to the resource requirements it will entail.” In response, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was created in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Agenda 21 was born: a global plan of action and pact between 178 countries to take a balanced and integrated approach towards environment and development problems facing the world. Twenty years later in 2012, member states will meet again this June in Rio de Janeiro to report on progress and reassess strategies towards reaching the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) during the Rio+20 conference.
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said that the real social contract in society was "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." The institutional framework implemented for sustainable development during Rio+20 will be the responsibility of Generation Y to continue in the future; Rio+20 should therefore be concerned with not just global institutional action, but regional participation of member states both within and outside of institutions. In order to achieve the MDGs, the tasks involved should be broken down in such a way that anyone can contribute and participate in global progress—both current and future generations.
Agenda 21 does briefly call upon public participation, but not with enough emphasis, especially towards the participation of my generation, Generation Y. Roughly half of the global population is under the age of twenty-five. Using population pyramids to compare and analyze “youth bulges” in developing countries, the influence of a largely young population becomes clear, as witnessed in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Those effects are especially evident when the youth are made up of educated citizens that cannot find a job; Eighty-two percent of Egypt’s unemployed are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, and unemployment among Egyptian college graduates is ten times higher than their uneducated counterparts. The median age for the 48 least development countries, or LDCs, is 19.08 years, and according to available data, the average unemployment is an alarming 24.2 percent. Youth bulges, however, if utilized effectively can help catalyze a nation to progress towards sustainable development, starting with a green economy.
The most feasible and effective way to involve individual global citizens in the achievement of the MDGs is through a green economy. In the US, California’s economy experienced a 53% job increase in 2009 for businesses working with clean energy, recycling, reusing materials, conserving natural resources, and reducing pollution compared to just 12% job increase in the overall economy. In 2011, India invested $10.3 billion in clean-energy—the largest investment in clean-energy worldwide—with the largest increase in the solar industry totaling at $4.2 billion. While developing countries provide a clean slate for the shift to green economy, the largest impact would come from developed countries, such as the United States, where energy consumption is the largest worldwide. Instead of attempting to change American habits of consumption, redesigning energy consumption can be more profound towards sustainable development.
Poverty, environmental degradation, and consumption are intertwined, and while the average individual in America cannot single-handedly eradicate poverty, small changes in their spending habits can help alleviation. Living in America where our options are abundant, we tend to consume more than we need. Influenced by a materialistic society obsessed with ever changing trends, we never fully exhaust our resources because we already replaced them with something new. Consumer America cannot be changed overnight, neither can it be changed without bringing to light the way our habits affect our environment. For real change to happen, however, those consequences cannot be presented without a proposed solution—one that also still appealing. Individuals in society will not change if they are not given options that with benefit them.
The answer to this lies in what Volkswagen calls “the fun theory:” the idea that fun can change people’s behavior for the better. We all know that we are more likely to do something if we enjoy doing it, like taking a dance class instead going to the gym – but Volkswagen took this basic and somewhat obvious concept to the next level by finding ways to better society as a whole through ‘fun’ positive reinforcement. One of the first “fun theory” projects implemented in Germany was turning a flight of public stairs into a large-scale piano to seduce people away from the escalator and onto the stairs. The response was not only successful in getting people to use the stairs, but also, well, FUN.
Incorporating positive reinforcement and competition can also catalyze a community towards sustainable development. What if the US government agreed that each year the state with the lowest trash rate and highest recycling rate could receive tax cuts for everyone within that state for that year? It might significantly increase awareness of landfills reaching capacity nationwide and inspire action, or it might not have a significant effect at all—but it’s still worth thinking about. Other ways to incorporate positive reinforcement and the idea of fun can be by awarding college credit for volunteer hours, awarding “green points” for those who use public transportation, or even a lottery for registered carpools to win a hybrid car.
Raising awareness within the public in each nation, focusing especially on the next generation, and awarding those that take action can help guide the world towards sustainable development. Although an equal global distribution of physical capital is not likely, improving the distribution of knowledge and skills can parallel the distribution of development opportunities both nationally and globally.
In order to reach the average global citizens of Generation Y, three things must be done:
- First, the objectives explained in the MDGs should be divided into viable tasks that can be achieved on an individual level, such as shopping locally or using public transportation. Integrating the objectives of Agenda 21 & the MDGs into the curriculums at schools and universities worldwide can allow students to understand the importance of sustainable development and develop the appropriate skills to enter a new, green workforce.
- Second, these smaller tasks should be communicated in the language of Generation Y: social media. Social media outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter act as a universal platform that can diffuse the topics discussed in Rio+20, why they’re important, and what can be done individually to achieve the MDGs, to users worldwide.
- Thirdly, and most importantly, is answering why the involvement of the next generation matters. A simple “call to action” is like a tree that falls in the woods with no one to hear it—it does not make a sound. The involvement of Generation Y matters because whatever progress is made now and during Rio+20 will be lost if the next generation is not following behind, picking up wherever Generation X left off or faltered; it matters because we have the power to shape the future we want.
The opinions expressed in these articles are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of UNEP