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Demand change: an open letter to Japan’s rising generations

by Stephen Hesse

If you’re like my 17-year-old, then you probably already know just about everything there is to know, and reading this column you’ll likely just say: “Yeah, right, whatever,” or “So?”

But if you have a few minutes, younger readers especially, please bear with me.

As a father, professor and environment journalist, I am seriously concerned about our use and abuse of our planet Earth, soon to be your planet Earth.

With the human population growing, marine resources dwindling and every inch of our planet touched by human-made chemicals and waste, I’m less than optimistic about the state of the world you will soon inherit.

From a different perspective, however, we can say that your generation is facing the most exciting challenges of any generation in history. We are on the cusp of dramatic changes environmentally, politically, socially and economically, with the effects of climate change multiplying, the Arab Spring phenomenon and Occupy Wall Street protests gaining traction, and developing nations rushing headlong forward while developed countries grind to a crawl.

In your lifetime, you have a chance to recalibrate the way we do things on this planet: to create a society that prioritizes justice, human rights and the quality of human life; to harness safe energy for all; and to introduce global, sustainable resource use.

Of course, there is a distinct possibility that we will fail to deal with such pressing issues as shrinking fresh-water supplies, loss of critical biological diversity and the effects of climate change feeding back upon itself. Then all hell will break loose.

To help you visualize how quickly things are changing, take a look at the website Worldometers (www.worldometers.info).

Seeing the numbers click over faster than a high-speed gasoline pump, births and deaths, expenditure on military, CO2 emissions in tons, and energy use from non-renewable sources — to name a few — helps make stunningly clear how much and how fast your world is transforming, and in many ways not for the better.

Humans have never faced so many challenges and the stakes have never been higher: Human society and our planet as we know them are on the line.

The good news is that solutions are as endless as human creativity. The bad news is that the problems are global and they are entrenched in our systems of governance and business. And the clock is ticking.

So, on a recent splendid day of blue skies and fiery foliage, I asked fellow educators in Japan who share some of my optimism regarding this country’s university students for words of encouragement to share with the next generation of planet-keepers.

No doubt you will disagree with some of my and their thoughts, but don’t dismiss us completely. We have decades of experience teaching in Japan and perhaps even taught your parents — though we don’t take responsibility for how they turned out!

One of my colleagues, a professor from the Chuo University Law School, offers advice for students who are job-hunting or trying to decide what to do with their lives.

“The first step is not the last step. Setting goals is worthwhile, but ambitious goals are rarely achieved all at once. This applies to careers as well as social movements. What’s important is to keep at it, to scan the surroundings for opportune moments and to be ready when the time is right,” he suggests.

From Sophia University, a professor urges young people to take action in the face of discouragement.

“Sometimes a bleak situation can motivate you to act in ways you would not have the courage to do in good times. Today, with a bad job market and disconnected politicians, it is time for young people to act up, to speak out, to protest injustice, to dance in the streets and to sing at the top of your lungs. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he explains.

A long-time friend and professor at Japan Women’s University sent me two quotes from the Buddha focusing on the spiritual aspects of one’s personal growth and life work, and explained why she chose them.

The first quote is: “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

“You’ve probably wondered at times how much difference you can really make, but there’s so much that can be achieved through the efforts of one person,” she notes. “It’s easy to get into a mind-set where you feel that if you help others, your own energy and happiness will be depleted. But it actually works the opposite way!”

The second quote: “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”

“I’ve included the second quotation,” she explains, “because it’s so important to devote yourself heart and soul to what you feel passionate about. This is how we can bring the greatest benefit to ourselves and society.”

An environmental educator in Kyoto focuses on the issue of production and waste.

“For a sustainable future, it is time to ‘look back and move forward’ to the old adage ‘waste not, want not,’ and to show that truly advanced countries can use their wealth and know-how to develop technologies that reuse everything. Then, like in the rest of nature, waste will once again become a resource in a closed-loop cycle, giving sustenance to the future.”

Another educator from Kansai focused on the Internet’s potential for political change.

” ‘The System’ has always been that the rich give lots of money to politicians and tell them what to say and do. Once in a while we can replace these politicians with new politicians who perpetuate this false democracy. But now we have Internet democracy. Millions of people uniting every day can make politicians think and act for ecological sustainability, instead of unsustainable economic ‘growth’. “

Finally, a colleague at Aoyama Gakuin University who teaches environmental politics sent several quotes that inspire him.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” (Often attributed to non-violent peace activist Mahatma Gandhi [1869-1948].)

“Idealists foolish enough to throw caution to the winds have advanced humankind and enriched the world.” (Lithuanian-American anarchist Emma Goldman [1869-1940].)

And another he sent that is an old favorite of mine from Gandhi: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Which brings me to some suggestions of my own.

First and foremost, demand change. Political, social and economic changes are all urgently needed, and all are inherently part of conserving the global environment. You might not get what you demand, but you certainly won’t get what you don’t ask for.

Second, stay informed. The great British war leader Winston Churchill (1874-1965) once stated, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” However, he also wryly noted, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So don’t be that average voter, because what you don’t know can hurt you. Imagine what Tepco (operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant) and the government would never have told us if the media and civil society had not asked questions, again and again, and demanded answers.

Of course, average is fine, but don’t be average if it means being ignorant. Demand transparency and accountability in politics, in your universities and companies. Olympus might still have a rosy future if someone had demanded these things years ago.

And when your politicians, universities and companies do wrong, be indignant, especially about injustice. Demand justice, demand equality — and demand fairness.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take chances. One of the greatest obstacles to positive change is fear of the unknown; fear that what happens next may be worse than what we have. The world is changing environmentally, socially, politically and economically, and society must change to respond. Yesterday’s solutions are, by definition, out of date.

Of course, change simply for the sake of change can be wasteful, but I can’t count how many times I’ve heard decision-makers in Japan insist that something should not be done because it has never been done before. Solutions come in myriad forms, from purebred to hybrid, so if something has never been done before, that may be one of the best reasons to give it a try.

The truth is, human society needs change and needs it desperately. Most of us will not find a cure for disease or invent a pollution-free energy system, but we all contribute to society and our planet, for better or worse. So, be someone who contributes for the better.

No matter what you do with your life, however large or small your contribution to society, begin by acting for those around you: your family, your neighbors, your fellow students, your workmates, your community. You might not be the next Bill Gates or Mahatma Gandhi, but the ripples from your good works and kindness will spread — and carry you with them.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the law faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com.