Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Post 19: Impact! 2014 and Student Leadership in Sustainability

When was the last time that you stood in a room full of 175 people, knowing you could turn to any of them, and strike up an interesting conversation? For me, that was 3 weeks ago at the Impact! 2014 Youth Leadership in Sustainability Conference. WOW --- what a blast!

                                   One of many, many jottings and scribblings and ideas and
                                                collaborative discussions noted at Impact!

Even now, a couple weeks after returning from Guelph, I feel optimistic and recharged and amazed at the variety of ideas young people have for tackling sustainability! Alongside the boundless energy, optimism, and we-can-do-this attitude, there were hundreds of great ideas. Everything from a sticker campaign to try to get people to use only one sheet of paper towel in washrooms (which reminded me of these really powerful social media campaigns), to a national campaign on climate change education in schools by the symbolic turning off of lights for a day with the Lights Out Canada campaign to someone wanting to design a game-style app to help people keep track of and decrease their personal C02 use, to founding a cooperative, to starting a bike coop... and innumerable other brilliant ideas!!!

If you are a young person with a concern for the trajectory of the planet, apply to attend next year. It will change your life. I am so so so glad that I went. If you want a supportive environment, and be connected to funds that will help you carry out your sustainability ideas, go. (There is a fund you can apply for to help you undertake your projects, post-conference.)

For the rest of this post I'll talk about a few highlights from the conference, including the structure, but I won't be able to talk about all the good things; the post will get too long. I may return to this in the future again.

The conference was essentially a three day adventure of conversations and brain food.
We arrived Friday afternoon, and were shuttled to Guelph from the Toronto International Airport. We put our things away in our residence rooms on campus, then marched across the small campus to the hall where dinner and the opening panel was starting.

We heard from Elizabeth Thompson, the Executive Coordinator of Rio +20; Toby Heaps, the President of Corporate Knights Inc.; and David Miller, the CEO of the World Wildlife Fund. Each brought their own and wide-ranging perspectives on climate change, sustainability, and assessment of where we are now. From hearing about some very neat sounding ideas (like governments of the future having a Ministry of Tomorrow) and sharing nuggets of wisdom, like (I'm paraphrasing here), "For people who think the little things don't matter, just remind them of what it's like to be bitten by a mosquito." (This, particularly relevant for folks who don't think the small initiatives like petitions for social change make a difference.) And, as young people, we were encouraged to not let ourselves be ignored. Our voices count just as much as any CEO or voting citizen or business owner. We should not feel a need to apologize for our views and our concerns, and we should use the clarity of our visions to instigate social change, and ask for what we want in a better future.
Yes, a lot of it was a call to action, but it was also incredibly encouraging.

                                  We walked past the beautiful president's house every morning
                                               on our way to breakfast and the conference.

The next morning, up early. All 175 of us had been split into ten sustainability challenge groups; mine was Canadian Resource Development. For the first 3 hours of the morning we basically griped about what we disliked about the current energy systems in Canada. A lot of discussion about the tar sands and oil and gas production came up, a lot about pipelines, a little bit about coal, and then a number of comments about the systemic issues of how these energy systems are integrated into society, as well as the lack of support/progress with renewable energies.

The first few hours of the afternoon were spent imaging Canadian resource development 30 years from now. Where would we be? What would we have? How would society be organized around energy production then? All sorts of things came up. About have the comments were directly aimed at renewable energies that don't produce greenhouse gases (GHGs), and the other half were comments about social conditions, like having a functioning democracy, and bettering communication.

The last part of the activity was a two-parter: discussing which factors enabled and which factors disabled our current resource development from reaching that future state.
It was an awesome day, with a wide variety of comments. In my group we had students from engineering, and chemistry, philosophy and other social sciences—an awesome spread of views and perspectives that led to a really rich discussion. The name of this day-long activity: back-casting. You assess the current state, imagine a future (utopic) state, and think about how you can get there and what's preventing you from getting there.

The next day we had Commander Chris Hadfield come and speak to us. What an amazing speaker with a powerful message: collaboration can lead us to do great things, like putting an international space station (ISS) in the sky, and sending a man to the moon. He showed a number of images of the earth from the ISS, including one snapped of the great lakes and Guelph. You couldn't see that city from the image, but that was kind of the point. You couldn't see a lot of things from there: roads, houses, borders, security checks, etc. It reminded me a lot of Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" -- and the perspective that makes us realize we're all on Spaceship Earth together. It's us and this tiny little planet, hurtling through space at 25,000 km/hr, and so we better work together to make the best of our time here. His talk was really a call for taking personal responsibility seriously: if I don't choose to make change, then how can I ask someone else to?
Commander Hadfield teared up when we gave him a standing ovation. After 25+ years of being an astronaut, and much of it spent out of the country, he was really touched by our appreciation and expression of gratitude towards him.

                                    Commander Chris Hadfield receiving his t-shirt! :) Looks to
                                                                 be about the right size!

We had a World Cafe where people could bring forward project ideas and receive feedback from three different groups or students as we rotated through the hall; in the evening we also had an African drum session which was a great way to do something physical after all the brain work and thinking.

On the last day, we had wrap-up speech by Chad Park, the Executive Director of The Natural Step. The main two points he wanted to make were:
1. Believe. Be passionate, powerful, and know you are right.
2. Be empathetic. Listen. Know that you are wrong.
And he spent the talk unpacking what he meant by those two statements, including busting some myths about sustainability (such as it simply meaning to do 'less bad,' [it isn't, it's meant to be a movement of finding ways to do more good, and to help more people]) and encouraging us to call out people who try to get away with lazy sustainability.

Overall, one of the most important aspects of the conference was meeting a whole bunch of like-minded people who are so motivated to make change, that, echoing one of the rhetorical questions by one of the student leaders, I feel compelled to ask myself, What excuse do I have not to act?

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