By Mariana Calderon
Recently, in an online conversation about expectations for Rio+20, and the point of it all, Nathan Thanki was informed that “nothing of any worth” would happen at the conference in June. Entirety of the conversation, arguments and responses aside, I was struck by a simple truth in Nathan’s reply: “We’re students, and so place value in learning.” We are students. Students, sometimes “youth,” in halls dominated by those who are older, sometimes wiser, and certainly more experienced. So what does it mean, to be a student at a UN conference?
Being a student means that these days, I am often putting aside my visions of historical change and progress, or catastrophic failure and apocalypse, for a simpler, more selfish, and more immediate turning point in my life: My impending degree in Human Ecology. One year remains to me – a year in which I must simultaneously complete my courses and requirements (would anyone like to offer me an internship?), craft and produce a final, culminating project, and decide what Human Ecology means (and then write about it). I might even squeeze in time to sample student-budget-friendly wines, read Game of Thrones, Issac Asimov, and Sherlock Holmes, and cultivate my Tumblr account.
So why do I, in addition to these simple aspirations, also aspire to spend time at as many international environmental meetings in the next year as possible? I’m not crazy. I don’t even own a time-turner. It’s simple: The time spent at these meetings is invaluable to me and my studies. I am cultivating the collection of stamps in my passport, my collection of “that time in Rio when we took the wrong bus” stories, and my knowledge and experience in international environmental politics and the UN circus. For someone who currently is more comfortable navigating negotiating texts than filing a tax return (is anyone comfortable with filing tax returns?), the prospect of finally earning the degree is almost as unnerving as the price of food within the conferences. Therefore, I am packing a lunch, and aiming to make it the most nutritious, well thought out and organically produced lunch as possible, with a cordon bleu-worthy presentation, and some guilty pleasure, hardly-real-food type dessert (I’m thinking a Twinkie type of comatose post-conference time on the beach with 50 Shades of Grey). With all that preparation in the morning, I’ll have a meal that has everything I need to continue in the afternoon (no, don’t ask about graduate school). In short, if I’m going to earn that degree, I’m going to make it one that will serve me well, and do so outside of school. And I won’t do it by extending terrible metaphors.
It’s official. According to the UN, my age defines me: 15-24. I am a “youth.” This means a number of things. It means that some in the crowd around me take a look and confide that they see themselves in me, 20 years ago (with the current state of the international environmental governance, this is sometimes infinitely encouraging, sometimes cringe-worthy). It means that some of those I strive to work with and learn from can be unwittingly condescending. I get virtual pats on the head. It does mean that I am often surrounded by an enormous amount of positive energy and collaboration. It also means leading a very hectic life: Normal coursework is time consuming. Staying informed about the latest international policy is time consuming. Being actively involved in youth efforts to make a difference is time consuming and devours email inboxes. Those who roam the UN halls alongside me know this – more official participants could likely teach me a lesson or two about time-consuming work.
But as students go, the writers of Earth in Brackets are lucky. We are lucky enough to pursuing degrees that are flexible, with coursework that actively grooms us, arms us, and then sends us to international negotiations to make what we will of them. Our work in the UN world is part of our work fulfilling degree requirements. Add the fact that our degrees are individually crafted, and four years of undergraduate work can become a sort of international environmental policy degree, if we so desire, complete with courses in economics, statistics, ecology, cultural anthropology, domestic law, and photography thrown in for good measure. With that sort of background, or even just the beginnings of it, for a first-year, we can take the long days, dragging negotiating sessions and miniscule amounts of sleep, and glean an incredible amount of learning from it all. We might even enjoy it.
I am often asked what it is that Earth in Brackets does. What do we do that we enjoy so much, enough to travel to exotic locales and spend the majority of the time in over-air-conditioned buildings? “We tweet, we blog, we shout.” The catchphrase has a lot of truth to it: We do tweet. We do blog. Sometimes, we shout. We also meet with other youth, and with representatives from other Major Groups, NGOs, countries, and coalitions. We sit in on negotiations, and chuckle at the co-chair’s dry jokes while taking notes on attempts to water down the Right to Water. We discuss the poorly-defined Green Economy, and the idea of a Sustainable Development Council. We plan actions (where we shout), and analyze newly-released text at 2 in the morning. At 5am, we tell the world on twitter and facebook that, once again, things didn’t go the way we so desperately hoped. And then we write here about why, and how, and how to turn what happened into something useful.
In between all of that, we learn. We can be optimistic, but we are not naive. We know that the chance of our work creating a perceptible difference is slim. But we try, and we learn, and we try again. We get pushy. Some of us may continue the work, and the years of experience between will pay off. Yes, we’re writing, analyzing, and networking, but most of all, we are learning, about the policy, the atmosphere, and the relationships. We learn when to be aggressive and when to be charming, and to give out our cards. We learn how to understand the language. We see the possibilities and impossibilities, and try to stop defining them as such.
In attending the international meetings I study, I can develop a more holistic perspective on the UN and international environmental governance. I can meet the people I know on paper as “Representative of the US,” or “Representative of the G77,” and try to understand them as human beings as well as negotiators. I can understand how the mood in a negotiating room can drastically change the pace and results of the negotiations – and why optimism, if not idealism, is so important. I think this all to be of great importance. It will be an integral part of the degree I craft and what I choose to do with it. I look around at other student-participants and feel that their being present is a step towards the Future I Want. Learning alongside other “youth” at the negotiations often gives me much more hope than watching negotiators does.
Some also ask, why waste time with the UN? After all, it is bureaucratic and slow, frustrating and, in the minds of many, useless. We’re raking up carbon emissions in order to “feel better about ourselves” and “failing to produce results.” I’ve been informed of this many times. It is a discussion that never ends, and one that I am still developing answers and opinions for. Nonetheless, in the end, I still feel justified, perhaps wrongly, perhaps self-centeredly, in participating – in flying across a continent to take part in what I see as a turning point. Because nothing beats experiential learning. And it is important to know your enemy. Or important to understand the world you work in. Or important to understand that which you seek to change. And important to bring that understanding back home.