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The power of youth

Lee Franklin, college campus coordinator at EARTHDAY.ORG, explains why youth-led movements are inspiring hope for the future
EARTHDAY.ORG projection ahead of UN Plastics Treaty negations in Ottawa

This article first appeared in our World Environment Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 05 June 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Main image: On 22 April, EARTHDAY.ORG projected messages on the Supreme Court, Ottawa ahead of INC-4 negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty

Young people and college students have always stood at the forefront of change – and especially when it comes to the environmental movement.

Whether it’s because of their sense of empathy, their inherent optimism or, more recently, the existential threat of climate change faced in real time, you can always count on youth to step up and fight for our planet.

As we mark World Environment Day (05 June), we have never needed them more.

While the very first Earth Day was inspired by veteran environmentalists like Rachel Carson and conceived by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, it was planned and executed by young people.

Student anti-war activist Denis Hayes organised the very first Earth Day and worked with young people and student organisers to mobilise 20 million Americans to protest on the first Earth Day in 1970. He went on to co-found EARTHDAY.ORG.

Empowering action

Today we continue to see bold leadership from youth from across the world – most famously Greta Thunberg, who started Fridays for Future.

Sunrise Movement and the Campus Climate Network are just two of the many other organisations started by young people to harness the power of youth and students to advance the environmental movement.

EARTHDAY.ORG, for its part, revived its college campus outreach programme this year with the Earth Day Campus Coalition (EDCC).

Like other youth-focused environmental organisations, the EDCC has stepped into the arena to unify and empower college students to act – but of course, we aim to make Earth Day the focal point of our efforts.

Real-world impact

In a media market that defines success and profits using ‘views’ and ‘clicks’, young people are inundated with messages about which issues they should care about.

These messages come from the media, political campaigns, charities, advocacy groups, corporations and even governments.

It is easy to be overwhelmed and dismiss everything; if every issue is the most pressing issue of our time, then how can we tell what matters?

The reality is that we do face a wide range of challenges. The EDCC is not here to tell students and young people what issues they need to prioritise over others; we are here to provide information and the help they need to take substantive action.

Everyone knows the situation we face is dire, and young people are anxious for the future.

College students don’t need another flashy environmental campaign to get their attention; they are looking for tangible and credible actions that drive actual impact.

Student protests calling for university divestment from fossil fuels are a perfect example of this.

Students who care about the climate crisis already know they cannot change the policies of multi-national corporations, and governments are hard to persuade as well.

But they have a real shot at calling for their universities, who they help fund, to divest from fossil fuels. Some US colleges have already, either wholly or partially, divested.

Meaningful opportunities

Earlier this year, the Campus Coalition used this knowledge to inform our strategy of working with college students across the US to organise demonstrations, rallies, cleanups and signature-drives.

These events were aimed at pressuring the US government to advocate for limits on plastic production in negotiations for the United Nations Global Plastic Treaty. 

These actions came to a head on 22 April – Earth Day – the day before the fourth convening of the negotiations, INC-4, in Ottawa, Canada.

Along the way, we urged state governments to repeal laws making it illegal for municipalities to regulate single-use plastics and we worked with municipal governments to join us in our call for a strong treaty aimed at reducing the use of plastic in their own operations and departments.

The EDCC brings an approach to student organising that is not driven by the need for ‘clicks’ or ‘views’. We work alongside students to try and work out how best to leverage the power of Earth Day and then provide truly meaningful opportunities for action – plus funded logistical support to make sure these actions happen.

Join the movement

With the 55th anniversary of Earth Day now just a year away, we are at a critical tipping point in both our efforts in dealing with it and its escalating impact.

We invite all college students to sign up, get involved and join us in making the next Earth Day as impactful as possible.

We need your help to mobilise; we need your help to decide what our next steps will be and we need you to make your voice heard.

This movement belongs to students, college campuses and young people. It would be a true privilege to work alongside you over the next year and beyond – please join the movement.

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