Cultural Equality is Foundational

Translation: Ásdís Sól Ágústsdóttir

“The Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association (YEA) is a platform for young people in Iceland to make a difference in environmental matters. The association was founded in March 2013. Back then, there were 40 core members, but today there are 804 members in the association’s directory, according to its website. Pétur Halldórsson is chair of the YEA, heading up a five-person board with two alternate members. Pétur has been involved with the association since autumn 2015, when the YEA noticed that Pétur was diligently sending in comments on environmental issues. The association asked Pétur to give them some guidance on how they could play the game and send in comments. Pétur’s bond to the association has been unbreakable ever since.

A non-partisan association

Pétur says the association is built on certain principles. “There are three things we emphasize most: being objective, operating nationwide, and being non-partisan. Combining the three is quite the tightrope walk.”

Pétur finds it important that environmental issues transcend political agendas. “If not, the environment becomes a political bone of contention, and there’s a risk that individuals who otherwise would fight for environmental reform end up fighting against it because they’re preoccupied with winning a political battle – not necessarily because they’re opposed to the environmental agenda itself. We want everyone to work on environmental issues, regardless of their opinions on the specifics. The state of the world today simply requires it,” Pétur says, adding: “The environment isn’t quite on everyone’s agenda, and whenever it is discussed, the facts aren’t necessarily there. We like to talk about how Iceland is an eco-conscious nation, but the fact is we are some of the biggest environmental offenders in the world.”

YEA Projects

The Youth Environmentalist Association has its hands full, and its greatest obstacle is a lack of funding. As of today, the association’s work is volunteer-driven, but Pétur says they would like to hire a paid employee. “We’ve been applying for project grants. The issue with project grants is that the funds are usually too limited and wouldn’t cover the cost of a staff member. We’ve requested operations contracts with the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, but those requests have been denied. We’ve also contacted the Prime Minister’s office but still haven’t heard back. We’ve considered collecting membership fees, but we feel it’s unfair to ask young people to shoulder the cost.”

Pétur says there are three big projects in the works for the association. “Originally, our biggest project was visiting secondary schools and giving presentations on how young people can participate and have a positive impact on the planet. Secondary school students often claim that there’s really nothing being taught about environmental issues in their schools. In young people’s experience, they’re being told the world is coming to an end, but not being taught what can be done about it. We frame our presentation in the following way; we educate young people on environmental issues, and then if they want to do something to help, YEA is the platform for that.

“In our presentations we don’t just discuss environmental issues here in Iceland, but also international issues. We give examples from our own work of ways we’ve made an impact to give them ideas on how they, too, can help. This winter we’ll be visiting all 31 secondary schools. We’ve grown gradually. In the winter of 2016-17 we visited 10 schools, last winter 24, and now we’re going to all of them.”

It’s clear that the association’s members are a highly motivated bunch, because all their work has been accomplished by means of volunteers. “The first year we had no money, so we were really just subsidizing our own work. We drove the ring road around the country for two weeks! This was the visionary work of the association’s members. We’re not kidding, after all, there’s a state of crisis in this field. As of right now, thankfully, we can afford to pay our educators.

“Our mission is to train a team of educators all over the country, so it’ll be cheaper to hold these presentations. It also creates better connections in local communities. On our first trip, we didn’t know anyone in the schools, we were just trying to get it done somehow. Given how things are developing now, our work will be more sustainable. It’s easier to give one or two presentations rather than travel the ring road for two weeks straight.”

Pétur turns the conversation to the next project. “We have a new project on our hands, a course in lobbying for sustainable development. The course is designed to provide people with the tools they need to work toward more eco-friendly solutions and to share specialist knowledge within the association, for example how to submit comments on organizational matters. The issue addressed in the last course was the Hvalárvirkjun power station in the Westfjords. These are often large and complicated issues with a lot of people involved, including officials and developers. A large part of the job is talking to people and gathering information. By bringing people together, the Youth Environmentalist Association can achieve better results than would be possible working as individuals.”

The third project Pétur tells us about is an ambitious one, with the goal of creating the Global Arctic Youth Network. “This has really become our biggest project. It came about after we met a group from Alaska at the Arctic Circle conference at Harpa in 2017. The group was mostly young adults from indigenous communities.

“We all agreed that we knew very little about what was happening with environmental issues elsewhere, so we decided to create a global network. We now have 100 members from 28 countries and we are working on putting together a board. We want this to be a platform for young people from different countries and cultures all over the world who agree that climate change, biodiversity and cultural equality are interconnected and must be approached as a single issue,” says Pétur. The Global Arctic Youth Network is intended to revolve around the interplay of these three key issues.

Finally, Pétur mentions that the association plans to host regular events here in Iceland. “We want to start holding regular events to get more people involved. The events could be a meeting about plastic pollution, a meeting about bicycles and public transportation, and a class in environmentally friendly cooking, for instance. There are tons of options, because there are so many things that fall under the umbrella of environmental issues.”

The YEA at the United Nations Climate Conference

The Youth Environmentalist Association recently took on the ambitious task of hosting a panel discussion at the United Nations Climate Conference, which was held in Katowice, Poland at the end of last year. Pétur says he’ll call it the “best panel of the entire conference,” at least until someone can prove otherwise. The panel was held on a specific day where youth organizations were given the opportunity to host such panel discussions.

“The panel centred around how climate change, biological diversity and cultural equality are all interconnected. As soon as you look at them as a single whole, you start to see synergistic solutions to environmental problems. It’s not enough to focus on specific issues; we must see how everything is connected and how we can address the problem as a whole. Otherwise, we’ll never find a solution.” The panel discussion looked at environmental issues from the perspective of the three previously mentioned factors – climate change, biodiversity and cultural equality.

“In the panel discussion there were representatives from Greenland, Madagascar, Eastern Russia, the Åland Islands and Iceland. Each one talked about some topic from their country, the challenges they were facing at home. When we looked at the issues facing these different individuals from different parts of the world, we realized they were actually the same issues. Next, we asked the audience to name some unsolved environmental issues, and right then and there we proposed some suggestions for dealing with these problems. Then at the end, the Swedish Minister of the Environment and Energy joined the panel.”

Cultural equality

Pétur thinks the panel discussion proved that climate change is finally on people’s minds, biodiversity to some extent, but cultural equality hasn’t come so far. “These ideas simply aren’t part of people’s vocabulary.”

“Hearing stories of a twenty-year-old individual who doesn’t speak their mother tongue because his parents were placed in a boarding school and not allowed to speak their native language, it really puts things in perspective. Politically, this is a sensitive subject, because it centres on how certain groups of people have trampled on others. We are in crisis and everything is falling is apart, but indigenous peoples figured out a long time ago how to live in perfect harmony with nature. However, the powerful people of the world don’t follow their example. People in positions of power have no idea how to live sustainably.

“If there were equality between different cultural groups, indigenous peoples would have an easier time sharing with us how to live sustainably. We can’t solve environmental challenges without at least giving these points of view the same weight as we do to those who have no idea where to begin. In reality, so many problems stem from the fact that indigenous peoples aren’t listened to. For example, a new railroad set to be constructed in northern Sweden will cross an area where the reindeer of the Sámi people thrive, and that will negatively affect the reindeer population and therefore the Sámi culture,” says Pétur. The Sámi are an indigenous people who live in northern Scandinavia.

“It is estimated that in the coming years a huge number of languages will die out. For example, there’s this one woman from eastern Russia in our global network, and in her language they have specific words for each stage of a reindeer’s life. It is through their language that they know nature and understand how to coexist with it.

“If you lose your language, you lose this direct connection of how you live in harmony with nature. And that’s exactly what is so important for indigenous peoples, not only just letting people live, but declaring their cultures and their languages equal to others, not seeing them die out. Of course, this is challenging stuff, but it’s exciting at the same time. We think this is the only way to solve the climate problem, and global problems in general.”

Members of the Youth Environmentalist Association are clearly thinking big and have plenty of big projects lined up. It’ll be exciting to follow along and see whether they manage to get cultural equality on people’s minds and into the general discourse.