This was my first time attending any sort of climate conference, where I had the privilege of hearing from a diverse group of attendees and hosts. The Columbia Youth Climate Summit offered me a chance to take on a new approach as to how I think about sustainability. It gave me an understanding of how cynical and single-faceted the general ideas about climate change are. The most heavily consumed information regarding the climate crisis is often pushed forward by the very corporations who are reducing our time to prevent irreversible damage.
The summit began with an introduction centered around fact-based research, a short breakdown of where we are now and where we are headed ecologically, and concluded by creating space for general questions from students to a professional in the field—all information was supplemented with diagrams and visual aids to create a well-rounded presentation similar to (though far more versed than) one a student would receive in a high school classroom.
There was then a transition into four workshops. I noticed, though I was only able to attend two, the central idea all speakers were driven by was the relationship between people and the planet. A relationship that is more disconnected than ever before, and how we as individuals can undo that polarization and adopt some awareness of how to restore the mutually benefitting aspect between a person and their environment.
The first talk I attended was labeled “Art & Sustainability.” As an avid artist and appreciator of the arts, I was immediately intrigued. I had seen a number of individual pieces motivated by sustainable thinking and climate change, though I had never before witnessed the steadfast dedication that independent artist Basia Goszczynska showed as she attached her name to the word “repurposed.” At the start of her journey, Goszczynska was implored by her own financial limitations as an aspiring artist to turn to reuse and reinvention. She talked about how the expansion of knowledge can often lead to the destruction of nature, using plastic as a specific example. Goszczynska talked about overproduction, using the metaphor, “water is life-giving, but when you get too much of it you have a flood.” With plastics, there is not only the issue of production but of containment.
“I’m taking the discarded and making it precious.”
Goszczynksa’s work is completely inspired by sustainability and addressing that cultural numbness that most of the world has towards interactions with the planet. “As a civilization, we are trying to categorize and organize the world.” Self-gain and financial benefits are motivating our evolution and modernization.
Goszczynska is one of many attempting to shed light on this fact and find a new approach. She concludes by explaining that art creates a space for conversation, and can perhaps be the answer to breaking down the intense polarization surrounding the conversation of the climate crisis.
The second workshop I attended was centered around “The Rise of Sustainability Ethics,” led by Columbia professor in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, Adela Gondek. Gondek introduced the idea of ethics with questions like “What are ethics?” and “What do they mean to us?”
The concept of modern practical ethics is one pushed forward by majority youth—these are understandable, step-by-step, serve mind and body, and can be made into politics, environmental protests, movements, and more.
Again, Gondek has the idea of self-awareness very present in her talk. For example, we as a society are hyper-focused on controlling other species' size and population, yet not our own. How this same ignorance enacted the idea of sector-based justice—labor force treatment and pay, food, energy, housing, apparel access, and the idea of “keeping the environment clean” are examples of this. Access to recycling and proper disposal of waste is a privilege not afforded in many parts of the world.
This parallels environmental justice, covering racial or ethnic discrimination surrounding the climate crisis, marginalized people experiencing toxic land, water and air, victims of segregation and gentrification, as well as those deprived of advantageous opportunities surrounding sustainability.
“Sustainability is historically honest.”
Gondek addressed earth justice last. Finally, we come full circle with the relationship between people and the planet. Earth justice extends to biota and abiota, humans and non-humans. It generally has three pillars: colony, society, and economy. This is a climate-change concerned sector, as the previous were.
Lastly, a question is presented to us students: How do we act on these ethics? And I have come to accept that it takes a good amount of selflessness and hard work to take on accountability beyond yourself as an individual. It takes endurance, leadership, direction, and ambition. All of which can be difficult to feel when presented with such discouraging news seeming to come from every direction at every hour regarding the state of our planet.
Yet I believe, that through youth-centric conversations that can create understanding and strong climate intelligence, the generational disconnects, political polarization, and climate ignorance can be addressed in a meaningful and change-inspiring manner. I hold true to the idea that leaving your opinions subject to change, and accepting perspectives contradicting your own, is a meaningful part of the climate conversation. This summit introduced me to new approaches, a collegiate-level manner of thinking, and more ambition than ever before to take on the challenge of reversing environmental damage before permanence sets in.