Youth Leaders Urge Renewal of Earth-Centered Values

Former Vice President Al Gore and the “Choose Us” panelists: (l. to r.) Jamie Margolin (Zero Hour); Naomi Hollard (Sunrise Columbia); Sophie Anderson, Extinction Rebellion (XR) Youth; Xiye Bastida (Earth Guardians), and Alexandria Villaseñor (Earth Uprising).  Photo by Susan Haig.

Former Vice President Al Gore and the “Choose Us” panelists: (l. to r.) Jamie Margolin (Zero Hour); Naomi Hollard (Sunrise Columbia); Sophie Anderson, Extinction Rebellion (XR) Youth; Xiye Bastida (Earth Guardians), and Alexandria Villaseñor (Earth Uprising). Photo by Susan Haig.

On the evening of Monday, September 23, a diverse crowd of students, professionals, educators, and volunteers filled the auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Central Park West. The event, scheduled as part of Climate Week, was called Choose Us: Youth Climate Strike Demands Solutions and Actions Now!

As the overhead lights dimmed and the music (Doobie Brothers' "Takin’ It to the Streets") faded, former Vice President Al Gore took the stage and addressed the youthful audience in phrases that were both hopeful and sobering. "Our way of thinking - short-term - has created dysfunction between humanity and our ecological system," he said. "We emit 140 million tons of greenhouse gases each day, and have ignored the depletion of our natural resources."

Acknowledging that we seem to be on a path toward more stable global population, he quickly warned against false hope. “This [climate crisis] is the life-and death battle for this generation. This is Thermopylae, this is Agincourt, this is Lexington and Concord and Trafalgar and Dunkirk and the Battle of the Bulge and Pearl Harbor and September 11th.”

“At such times,” he continued, “young people will volunteer to put their lives on the line.” Then, raising his voice, “Is it really too much to ask that politicians do what they already know is the right thing to do anyway—” Gore was drowned out by fervent applause, and concluded his remarks.

He then introduced five panelists one by one: Jamie Margolin, Founder of Zero Hour, Naomi Hollard, Founder of Sunrise Columbia, Sophie Anderson, Co-National Coordinator of Extinction Rebellion Youth, Xiye Bastida of Earth Guardians, and Alexandria Villaseñor, Founder of Earth Uprising. The women sat side-by-side onstage, united by undercurrents of capability and passion, enthusiasm and defiance.

Responding to Gore's probing yet supportive questions, the panelists were candid and often blunt. “The climate crisis is mostly the result of… four things,” Margolin said. “Colonialism and the idea that everything is for extracting, everything is ours to take... unregulated capitalism… patriarchy, and racism."

Xiye Bastida took a gentler approach, emphasizing thinking as a prelude to action. “We need to switch our mindset. If we switch our energy source to renewable energy, and we don’t switch our mindset, then nothing’s going to change. We need to switch to a mindset of… love and peace in this movement. We don’t want to be in competition but collaboration.”

The panel discussion was wide-ranging, spanning each speaker’s individual experiences in climate activism, the dangers of public apathy, what they want to see change, and taking care of themselves. A common thread, however, was the necessity of reining in what Margolin called the “fantasy of constant growth” and returning to natural life cycles, regeneration, and a connection with nature.

Following the panel, Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, Vice President of Communications & Engagement at Project Drawdown took the stage to give a brief talk as a self-described “solutionary.” She presented some of the hundreds of ways people around the world are changing the ways they use resources, reducing their carbon footprints, and moving toward the more earth-centered and nature-centered living practices that panelists had been advocating.

At one point during her talk, Wilkinson asked everyone in the crowd to place a hand on their heart and turn to make eye contact with their neighbor. There were a few nervous laughs, but it was a moment that cultivated a feeling of familiarity and connection among the audience.

The stage was host to just three men over the course of the evening, noticeably outnumbered by the women. Awe and excitement about the young leaders rippled through the crowd, also voiced by Gore and the other male speakers, New York City Council member Costa Constantinides and Henk Rogers, Founder and CEO of Blue Planet Alliance.

“I’m not quite sure how I follow all these amazing leaders,” said Constantinides when he took the podium. “I am in awe of all of you. Every day I think about… the world that you’re fighting for. And it gives me hope. Thank you for leading.”


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