Creating The Future - Challenges for Youth in the 21st Century

This address by Anwar Fazal was presented by Anwar Fazal at the Seoul Women's University, Korea on 10 September 2001.

Assalamu'alaikum … May Peace be upon you.

I start with the word "Peace" because there is no other word in the vocabulary that is more relevant, more important and more necessary during this time.

"Peace" however, is not just about the absence of war. It is something more proactive, more holistic, and deeper. It has three dimensions, all linked together intimately and are vital core of human security and human survival. The three dimensions are:

  • Peace with ourselves (Inner Peace)
  • Peace with other people (Social Peace)
  • Peace with the environment (Earth Peace)

Today, unfortunately, we are in a world in which this peace is severely shattered in the personal, social and environmental dimensions. There are many ways of illustrating this, and one stark reminder was provided for us by the World Health Organisation (WHO) - "World Report on Violence and Health":

  • One person commits suicide every 40 seconds
  • One person is murdered every 60 seconds
  • One person dies in armed conflict every 100 seconds - the bulk of them civilians and "intra-state" as against "inter-state" victims.

Overall, the WHO estimates 1.6 million people met premature and ugly deaths in 2000. the most exhaustive international study on the subject, it highlighted the extent of violence in the home and in the street, abuse of children and elderly, suicide and war. And these figures, we are told, are only a part of the story. Physical, sexual and psychological abuse occur daily, extensively undermining the health and well-being of many millions of persons. (the full report can be accessed at http://www.who.int/violence-injury-prevention) .

It will be a gross understatement to state that we live in the most uncertain and most dangerous of times!

If Almighty God established an interplanetary commission to investigate how we earthlings are managing this planet, the members would be shocked at our irresponsibility - our rating for 'planet-hood' would probably be between poor and dismal!

First, they would find an 'economics' driven largely by "casino capitalism", 'mad' or speculative money, pornography, gambling, puerile entertainment and various kinds of criminal activities. The greatest growth indicator they find will be the "Gross Criminal Product" - GCP! And they will find mushrooming new cradles of modern civilisation - the tax havens, the fiscal laundrettes and not to mention, creative accounting.

Secondly, they will find a 'society' marked by violence and inequity where we have billions for space exploration and armaments but not the dollars and cents for basic health, education and shelter for billions of poor.

Thirdly, they will find an 'environment' so destroyed that the air, water and soil is often taking paths of no return and leading communities of living things into self-destruction sometimes called "ecocide".

But it is not the economics, equity or ecological failures that will strike them as the foundation of our seemingly reckless and maddening approach to human security and sustainable human development. The "father of all failures", they will discover, is a governance failure.

The Interplanetary Commission will find, among the littered landscape, a culture of violence, manipulation and waste.

Our Mother Earth

Let us look first at the history of Mother Earth.

GAIA (pronounced 'gayah') is the Greek word for mother earth, a living, complex sphere. GAIA, we are told, is 4600 million years' old. If we condense this mind-boggling figure into something we can understand, and assume that GAIA is 46 years of age, we are told:

  • Nothing is known to us about GAIA's early life;
  • Nothing much is known to us about GAIA as a teenager or young adult;
  • Only at age 42 did GAIA begin to flower;
  • Dinosaurs and the great reptiles appeared only a year ago, when GAIA was 45;
  • The ice age enveloped GAIA only last weekend;
  • Modern humankind has been around for four hours;
  • During the last hour, we discovered agriculture; and
  • The industrial revolution with its massive urbanization began one minute ago.

During the minute, those 60 seconds, we have ransacked the planet in the name of development, sometimes for need; very often for greed! We have caused the extinction of some 500 species of animals. We have accumulated such deadly weapons that can kill us many times over. Of course, we have also generated much happiness, creativity and beauty but it is a constant struggle.

Today, it is as if GAIA, the mother earth, is suffering from AIDS. Her immune systems are being devastated as:

  • Her circulation systems - the water and air is being poisoned
  • The lungs - forests are being wantonly destroyed
  • Her skin - the ozone layer and soil are being seared and scraped.

All the devastation may go down paths from where there may be no return.

Can we do something to reverse this madness? Can we create a new paradigm of development and happiness that enables peace in ourselves, with other people and peace with mother earth? As citizens, as community leaders, we can and we must! We must make that our agenda for the 21st century.

The 21 challenges

Because I am talking of the 21st century, I like to share 21 challenges that I believe are the pressure points on which action will need to be focused and from which we can build the strength of civil society groups.

1. The challenge of the holistic approach - unfortunately, so much of work on the environment is fragmented and disintegrated. We need new planning and policy frameworks and leadership that embodies this. We have to break down bureaucratic and territorial mindsets.

The core vision of this holistic approach I see consists of 5 elements:

a) social justice
b) ecological sustainability
c) economic productivity
d) cultural vibrancy
e) popular participation

2. The challenge of partnership - we are not going to make transformational changes if we do not accept that all sectors, the 'prince', the 'merchant', the 'citizen', the 'mandarin' etc will have to work together in cooperative and consensual ways. It is not going to be easy when sheep and wolf have to meet. There will be differences but we will have to manage conflict in constructive ways.

3. The challenge of sustainability - the long-germ aspects, the inter-generational aspects are still too easily ignored. We need to understand the critical linkage between ecological, social and economic sustainability.

4. The challenge of economics - we are all too much stuck into short-term financial returns. Natural resource accounting and external cost accounting must become the norm and part of training of a new generation.

5. The challenge of growth - growth can be 'good' and can be 'bad'. The UNDP's Human Development Report 1996 describes five kinds of 'bad' growth:

  • Jobless growth - the overall economy grows but fails to expand job opportunities;
  • Ruthless growth - the rich get richer and the poor get nothing;
  • Voiceless growth - the economy grows but democracy/empowerment of the majority of the population fails to keep pace;
  • Rootless growth - cultural identify is submerged or deliberately outlawed by governments or destroyed by the global telecommunications revolution;
  • Futureless growth - the present generation squanders resources needed by future generations.

6. The challenge of long view - everyone should read the book "Our Stolen Future", co-authored by Theo Coburn, Diane Dumanowski and John Peterson Myers. It provides a frightening scenario of 'a chemistry culture' gone wrong. Babies born with stubs, alligators with shrunken genitals, declining human sperm count, etc. A pattern that tells us that so-called 'acceptable levels' may not really help us. We are now having to deal with 'endocrine disrupters' which are more potent at small doses than large ones.

7. The challenge of integrity - value systems-based on sound ethics are central to a fair treatment of the environment. Corrupt practices, money politics, 'check book' environmental impact assessment and the 'buying' of researchers and stakeholders can create a culture of dishonesty.

8. The challenge of brown issues - too often green issues, forests and biodiversity get colourful attention. Greater attention is needed for brown issues relating to garbage, quality waste management and the impact of transportation and other infrastructure project. With rapid and merciless urbanisation, these issues are going to need attention the citizens will demand. I commend for your study "The Istanbul Declaration" which was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements. Cities and urbanisation generally have a deep, often virulent impact on a vast environment area, what is called "ecological footprint".

9. The challenge of globalisation - environmental issues transcend boundaries as the haze from neighbouring fires or a nuclear plant in controversial terrain painfully suggest. We have to be proactive internationally. We cannot be secure just by taking care of our national environment. Ecological boundaries transcend political boundaries. We must become more assertive and demanding of international action. We need to strengthen our capacity to deal with international instruments. In particular, we have to be alert about the impact of trade on environment, especially on the operations and impact of WTO, the World Trade Organisation.

10. The challenge of global equity - the issues of global bio-piracy and extraction of resources from the South to the North and other inequities have to be addressed more assertively.

11. The challenge of lifestyles - nothing will make a greater difference than fundamental changes in our lifestyles in resource use. We are only still mostly cosmetic in our approach and there is a clear lack of leadership and commitment everywhere.

12. The challenge of activism - we need to speak out without fear or favour and to organise groups and actions around issues. No social movement has made transformational change without courage and action. This, however, must be done without resorting to violence. Gandhi said it best, "I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent."

13. The challenge of localisation - we have to get communities and local authorities to develop the local Agenda 21. Until we have a movement from below, the environment will be seen as a bureaucratic abstraction or a fringe endeavour.

14. The challenge of security - militarism and armaments are among the greatest destroyers of the environment. From landmines to chemical weapons to nuclear arsenals. We have to develop security systems locally and globally that work towards arms reduction and constructive conflict resolution.

15. The challenge of genetic engineering - "Dolly", the cloned sheep, has stirred a debate against human cloning. The ethical and legal issues are enormous and we must speak out about the immortality of a science going out of control.

16. The challenge of water - it has been authoritatively said that the wars of the next century may be 'water wars'. Wars over water rights and water wrongs. The use of water and wetlands, the wombs that are the cradle of much life are being threatened. A new "Water Ethic" is necessary.

17. The challenge of garbage - the ore the garbage, the sicker the civilisation. Landfills and incinerators are not going to help us fully. They either postpone the problem or create another. We have to start eliminating garbage at the product design, process and use level. If not, garbage will ultimately consumer us. Just in Netherlands alone, it is estimated that it will cost US$3.2 billion to US$5.6 billion to clear toxic dumps and landfills. We don't want to leave such a legacy for future generations. We will destroy their environment and bankrupt them!

18. The challenge of information - information can be expensive. Too often we have to pay for it but much of it, about ecology is known and free. We have to learn to access it and spread it thorough popular domain so ordinary people can benefit from it. A nation-wide system of 'eco-information' centres and media links can help. We need an 'eco-line' as we have a 'health line' but, hopefully much cheaper and more easily accessible. At the same time, we have to worry about the "Weapons of Mass Deception" - media manipulation by commercial and political interests.

19. The challenge of gender - everyday is the international women's day. We know the economic, physical and social impact of a degrading environment is higher on women. We want to move from a HE (hippocritical and expansionist) to a SHE (sane, humanistic and ecological) society. We need to prevent 'poisoned wombs' (which is the title of another important book on the environment). Women are also playing a cutting-edge role as environmental leaders in many countries.

20. The challenge of eco-literacy - we need to build eco-thinking in a functional way in our schools, beginning with kindergartens. Schools must be designed to be eco-friendly. Eco-literacy also is more than tree planting and user-paper collection. A greater diversity of 'do-able' action must be developed.

21. Lastly, the challenge of leadership - society is like fish. It rots from the head down! Leaders at every level will need to begin to make a commitment to help us move forward towards sustainable lifestyles. If our leadership is confusing, contradicting or clearly careless, then we must not be afraid to speak out.

What can we do?

What each of us can do? Is another world possible? Is there hope? I say YES, YES, YES! And it depends on you, the youth.

History has taught us one thing; that one thing above all has made a difference - leadership.
Like I said, that society is like fish - it rots from the head down. Translated into other code words - it means "political will" at the top and 'popular will' from the bottom. It is leadership at all levels - people who are prepared to stand up against injustice and dishonesty at the community level, in government and corporate board rooms.

So, what can we as individuals do in this crisis-ridden world?

The Chinese character for the word 'crisis' is made up of twin concepts - danger and opportunity. History has shown that there is hope as long as there are thoughtful and committed people. Even if there is only one person, it can make a difference. Is there a recipe for building this hope, thinking and commitment? Yes, there is a 'multiversity' of them. My favourite was sent by a friend based on the teachings and struggles of Mahatma Gandhi.

His life and death held many lessons. He advocated no violence. Yet, his assertiveness, steadfastness and courage powered a revolution of change in South Asia, South Africa and the deep south of the United States of America where Martin Luther King followed in his footsteps.

Among Gandhi's more memorable sayings was, "In a gentle way, you can shake the world."

The Ten Ways

Here are 10 things that have been distilled by change makers from his commitment and dreams.

The ideas are not original, nor mine, but they have helped guide many of those engaged in the lonely struggle for peace and justice.

  • Know that all significant change throughout history has occurred not because of nations, armies, governments, and certainly not committees. They happened as a result of the courage and commitment of individuals.
  • Believe that you have a unique purpose and potential in the world. Believe that you can and you will make a difference.
  • Recognise that everything you do, every step you take, every word you speak or don't speak counts. Nothing is trivial. The world may be big, but there are no small things. Everything matters.
  • You don't have to be loud. You don't have to be eloquent. You don't have to be elected. You don't have to be particularly smart or well-educated. You do, however, have to be committed.
  • Take personal responsibility. Never think that "it is not my job". It is a cop-out to say, "What can I do, I'm only one person." You don't need everyone's cooperation or anyone's permission to make changes. Remember this little gem, "If it is to be, it is up to me."
  • Don't get caught up in the how of things. If you're clear on what you want to change and why you want to change it, the how will come. Many significant things have been left undone because someone let the problem solving interfere with the decision-making.
  • Don't wait for things to be right in order to begin. Change is messy. Things will never be just right. Follow the advice.
  • "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
  • The genesis of change is awareness. We cannot change what we don't acknowledge. Most of the time, we aren't aware of what's wrong or what's not working. We don't see what could be. By becoming more aware, we begin the process of change.
  • Take to heart these words from Albert Einstein, arguably one of the smartest change masters who every lived, "All meaningful and lasting change starts first in your imagination and then works its way out. Imagination is more important than knowledge.
  • In order for things to change, you have to change. We can't change others; we can only change ourselves. However, when we change, it changes everything. And in doing so, we truly can be the change we want to see in the world.

The great Sufi Bayazid had this to say about himself:

"When I was young, I was a revolutionary and all my prayers to God was - Lord, give me the energy to change the world. When I was middle-aged, I realised that half my life was gone without changing a single soul. I prayed to God - just let me change my family and friends. When I was an old man, I realised how foolish I have been. Now, I just say my prayers - Lord, give me the grace to change myself. If I prayed for this from the beginning, I would not have wasted my life."

So, the message is that too often, we think too much about changing humanity and too little about changing ourselves.

A six point plan for the Culture of Peace, Justice and Solidarity

I like to leave with you a simple six point plan which we are promoting through a programme called "The Taiping Peace Initiative":

1. Respect all life - respect the life and dignity of each human being without discrimination of prejudice.
2. Reject violence - practice active non-violence, rejecting violence in all its forms: physical, sexual, psychological, economical and social, in particular towards the most deprived and vulnerable such as children and adolescents.
3. Share with others - share our time and material resources in a spirit of generosity to put an end to exclusion, injustice and political and economical oppression.
4. Listen to understand - defend freedom of expression and cultural diversity, giving preference always to dialogue and listening without engaging in fanatism, defamation and rejection of others.
5. Preserve the planet - promote consumer behaviour that is responsible and development practices that respect all forms of life and preserve the balance of nature of this planet.
6. Rediscover solidarity - contribute to the development of our community with the full participation of women and respect for democratic principles, in order to create together new forms of solidarity.

So, be someone who cares and who dares! I wish you the best in your quest for a better world where there is both accountability and justice and where there is peace and humanity.

Thank you.

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