Heather Kuhlken, our Blue Ocean contributor at large, just returned from the Our Ocean Youth Leadership Summit held in conjunction with the 2017 Our Ocean Conference that took place in Malta earlier this month. Here is Heather’s report Hope For Our Ocean, on the inspiring people young and older that she met and the important issues they discussed.
A Future We Can Look Forward To!
Richard Louv, the author of several books including “Last Child in the Woods”, frequently explains that the key to conservation is to inspire hope and motivate people to action by creating a picture of the future that people want to go to: a “nature-rich future.” The Our Oceans Youth Summit accomplished this monumental feat.
With presentations from world leaders, founders of NGOs, economists, scientists, and ocean advocates of all kinds, the overall picture created at the Youth Summit was that of a future that we can look forward to going to. (photo – Kyle McBurnie)
“Do Things No One Has Done Before”
Sylvia Earle stated her feeling that “there is no more exciting time to be on this planet than now.” She told the youth leaders to “do things that no one has done before… and be excited about it!” and “There is a reason for hope because we know what we know… and you’re going to take a different path.” Tiago Pitta e Cunha, CEO of Ocean Azul Foundation, described what his generation expected their lives to look like when they entered adulthood (big house, big job, lots of cars), then said “I am sure you, the next generation, will live your lives in a very different way than my generation did. You’ll be more connected to nature … and live in a more sustainable way.”
“A future that we will all want to go to”
From the concept of a circular economy that mimics the natural cycles on our planet to a small machine aboard a sailboat that converts plastic trash into diesel fuel, I saw creative solutions to all kinds of problems facing the ocean. In her talk at the end of the Youth Summit, Sylvia Earle explained that there are four reasons to be hopeful, quoting Jane Goodall’s book “A Reason for Hope,” and the first of those reasons is the human mind. After witnessing the work done during the Youth Summit, and learning about the work being done at home by the Youth Leaders, I am excited to say that I now have a glimpse into the future and it is a future that we will all want to go to.
“The Ocean is the Blue Heart of our planet. It is beating, but it is sick.”
The main Our Oceans conference was focused on awareness to incite ambitious commitments made by high level officials to make large scale, impactful changes in their own countries when they return home. There was a large focus on urgency, cooperation, and the need for follow-through and accountability. There were many tracks focused on during the conference, but the two most consistently discussed topics were plastics in the ocean and the need for Marine Protected areas that can potentially renew fisheries and protect ecosystems worldwide. Awareness of the problems facing the ocean to inspire large-scale commitments from countries around the world was the work of the Our Ocean conference. A quote repeated throughout the Our Ocean conference was “The Ocean is the blue heart of our planet. It is beating, but it is sick.”
Young Ocean Leaders Have Innovative Solutions!
The flavor of Our Oceans Youth Summit was that of solutions. The goal of the Youth Summit was that everyone walk away with the “conviction that we can do something about it!” (Daniela Fernandez, founder and director of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance) The participants ranged in age from 15 to 35 and many of them already had years of experience creatively solving substantial problems in the ocean, some with global capacity already. I had the privilege of meeting a graduate student doing research that showed (with collected data) that environmental education does change behavior in a community, a 16-year-old who started an NGO that is successfully removing plastic bags from her country, youth using art and social media to raise environmental awareness world wise, and a 22-year-old who has already learned how to navigate the worlds of science, politics and NGOs to potentially create Peru’s first Marine Protected Area. And that was only four of the 100 participants who had earned a spot in the Youth Summit.
During the Summit, amidst incredible speakers and inspiring discussion sessions, the young ocean leaders were given a challenge – to work together to solve a major ocean problem in an innovative way using the concept of the circular economy as a guide. The participants were collaborative, creative, and committed to coming up with economically viable solutions. The final portion of the Summit consisted of presentations by all 12 groups of Young Ocean Leaders on the companies or NGOs they would create to tackle the issue they chose.
“Is Climate Change a Sympton of Our Society?”
Before the groups started working on their challenge, Dr. Nathan Walworth asked them to consider this thought-provoking question “Is climate change really our biggest issue, or is it merely a symptom of our own society?” He described a relatable experience in which we all go on vacation to “disconnect and seek bliss on a beach with nothing” but then return home and suddenly need tons of material goods when back in the city. His point provokes thought: what do we really need and what will the next generation of adults live without to potentially create a less complicated life with a much smaller footprint? And what if material goods were produced with the intention that they be disassembled and their parts used to make the next version of themselves, instead of being thrown away when they become obsolete?
In addition to inspiring Young Leaders to use ingenuity to solve many of the problems facing the ocean. They were also given advice, that was quite different from the advice given to previous generations, on how to move forward creatively in the face of such enormous global environmental challenges.
“it is arrogant to think that you can save the world by yourself.”
Adrian Grenier, co-founder Lonely Whale Foundation, presented the idea that “it is arrogant to think that you can save the world by yourself. It is better to do one thing faithfully, embedded in your lifestyle. Then collaborate, share the burden, and brainstorm. It is more fun to connect and bond with others.” “Find a partner, give yourself a break, take care of your instrument (your body), and know this is a sustained lifetime of effort.”
This emphasis on enjoying your work, your life and infusing your messages with humor inspired the Lonely Whale Foundation’s campaign “Stop Sucking!” which aims to get whole cities to “skip the straw.” And once they have the awareness and make the small change of asking for no straw, the plastic cup and the lid follow closely behind, naturally, without anyone having to suggest it.
At the end of his presentation, he added “life is kinda awesome … that we have the opportunity every day to make the world a better place.”
“We have grown up connected and we CAN change the world”
The energy of the Youth Summit was positive, forward-thinking, collaborative, and solutions-based with very little emphasis on the doom, gloom and overwhelm that faces many environmentalists. Even the opening words from Daniela, director of SOA, started with “We have grown up connected and we CAN change the world!”
“Whenever there is a problem, there is always a solution.”
“You are not apart from nature. You are a part of nature.” – Celine Cousteau, Film Director, Founder/Director of CauseCentric Productions, Founder/President of Celine Cousteau Film Fellowship
“Question everything all the time.”
How you become a scientist is to “start asking questions.” “Scientists never grow up.” Talking about scientists asking questions throughout their lives, just as children do. “Observe carefully the natural world. Report honestly on what you see. Anyone can do that. And everyone should do that.” – Sylvia Earle
Malta: Memorable and Moving Forward!
Three young ocean leaders putting their heads together, immersed in nature, recharging, collaborating, and ready to take on solving the ocean’s problems creatively.
By Heather Kuhlken, Blue Ocean Contributor and Founder and Director of Families in Nature
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