Prompted by my children and younger colleagues, I joined the hundreds of thousands massed along the Thames River on Friday, Sept. 20 to demonstrate our concern for our one precious planet, and our futures. While the crowds were impressive, it was the speeches, mainly from youth – mostly teens -- that was most inspiring. As we listened, there was plenty of time to ponder what we were doing there and what our role should be.
My first feeling was that whatever else might come from it, to be amongst the crowd felt hopeful. I remembered human rights activist Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope:
Hope … is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed … It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Indeed, hope is necessary to a life well lived, but is it sufficient in the case of climate change? Young people have turned the tables on adults and are pleading with us to commit to real solutions. We’re witnessing a historic moment of feedback; a global movement is telling us all what it needs to succeed.
Through partnerships with others, these youth activists need to build enough pressure and momentum to cause the needed structural reforms to the economy. Conversations and action need to move from every family dinner table and classroom to every workplace and board room.
There are a growing number of powerful social institutions (like foundations, universities, and museums) that are taking our environmental challenges seriously, but they are the all-too-rare “positive deviants.” There are also companies stepping up. Patagonia’s mission statement is, “We’re in business to save our home planet.” Mars says, “The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today.” It is following a rigorous “sustainable in a generation plan.” In 1994, the world’s largest maker of commercial carpets, Interface, set out through Mission Zero to eliminate its negative impact on the planet by 2020. As it nears achieving its goals, Interface has raised the bar further through a program “to take back the climate and start loving the world.”
This points to an exciting opportunity for philanthropy to connect the dots between today’s youth-led social movements and leading progressive companies and institutions, and then to everyone else. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, seems to think so. He recently wrote:
We can see how our capitalist systems have broken down, while also appreciating that markets have helped reduce the number of people around the globe who live in poverty. Indeed, we can and should acknowledge the positive step forward by the Business Roundtable and a group of 181 global CEOs, who, this summer, committed to redefining the purpose of a corporation in order to benefit all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Now, let’s ensure that BRT members follow through on the changes in corporate behavior reflected in the lofty principles in their manifesto.
Our young leaders remind us that “our house is on fire.” Philanthropy needs to hold its feet to that fire. As we do our work, we must remember to support communities that are most dramatically affected by climate change, and be guided by their feedback on our efforts.