DAELE HEALY describes her experiences at the International Youth Forum held in South Korea August 11-21, organised by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO.
The forum was made up of around 100 people from more than 30 nations. The participants were under 30 years of age (the United Nations' definition of youth). That is pushing it by Australian standards, but in some countries youth extends to 40, and in others you are a youth until you marry.
This forum was young people themselves, discussing the future: environment, media, employment, volunteerism and peace. By virtue of suffering from dreams about black daisies and an earth ruled by cockroaches, I had chosen the environment stream.
Two main dialogues occurred here, one largely from the Asian, African and Pacific participants, which was hopeful, practical and centred on their own lives, the other from the Western participants, who liked to pose complex and theoretical questions such as "How do we balance economic development with protection of the environment?". Korea is a good country to ask these "How long is a piece of string?" questions because the Koreans, newly democratised, have an answer: "As long as the people want it to be".
In the last 30 years South Korea's GDP has increased 100 times. With industrialisation there has been a mass exodus to the cities, where four-fifths of the population now reside, as opposed to one-fifth 30 years ago. The roads are full of new cars, they have one of the world's great collection of neon signs, and the nuclear power industry is thriving. The country has suffered massive environmental degradation, but you don't find many South Koreans who don't think economic growth is a Good Thing.
The Western world's environmental practices took a beating at the conference. People in the USA throw away each year 2000 million razors, 80 million car batteries, 220 million tyres, 25,000 million plastic foam cups, 30,000 million tin cans, 18,000 million disposable nappies and 30 million tons of paper.
An average North American uses 40 times the resources of an average Indian. "The American way of life is not negotiable", announced President Bush in 1992, when the Rio Earth Summit was occurring. What he failed to note is that it is also not sustainable.
Indigenous traditional knowledge got a big yes vote. At the same time, the developing countries' enthusiasm for our romanticising of the "noble native" is tempered, because they know that traditional life is hard. In droves young people are fleeing rural life to city areas where they can't get work but they can watch Madonna videos. The thought of hundreds of millions of young unemployed people is bad enough without thinking of them all watching Beverly Hills 90210.
Urbanisation is a problem with great potential for us to learn from others' experiences. A city like Mexico City with a population of around 40 million is unprecedented in history, is both a social and environmental disaster in planning terms and is the future.
An international youth conference if not actually a sobering experience (I learnt more about other cultures late at night as we discovered the universality of some drinking games, than at the dawn flag-raising ceremonies) is certainly a disturbing experience — but in a positive way.
There is something infinitely more real about the statistics — 5.4 billion people in the world with 92 million being added annually; forests being cleared at a rate of 17 million hectares per year; 24 billion tons of topsoil lost each year; 600 million cars; 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year — when discussed by a community representing a diversity of nations. And many of the stories of fighting the bureaucracy were heart-achingly familiar.
"The National Arts Centre of the Philippines High School of the Arts is overshadowed by the sacred and majestic Mt Makiling. The hill beside Mt Makiling, once green and lush with tall trees, is now completely bare. Brown and dry, the land has been bulldozed as part of an ongoing subdivision-construction plan. But that's not all they did. They had to inch their way up to almost half of Mt Makiling's side and clear the area of trees ... Mt Makiling is the home of one of the few remaining rainforests in the Philippines today, and it's being threatened by promises of a glimpse of paradise via a residential subdivision right in the heart of the mountains! Beautiful and downright stupid ...
"The last thing we heard is that the recent rains brought by typhoon Goring flooded the foot of Mt Makiling, something unheard of in that area until this time."
I was to hear this story many times throughout the conference, with only the names changed: the mud flats in Germany, the maple trees in Canada or "bee-less" flowers in Korea. Some of the other stories which stuck in my mind were Japan importing food because it's "cheap", crowds gathering under a single tree on a Thai street, "poker machines" in Singapore that take cans for recycling and the Nepal forests, a story which crosses national boundaries:
"If Nepal had planned the cutting down of forests, an old saying in Nepal, "green forest is Nepal's wealth", would not have been obsolete. Simply zoning the forests and planting a tree for every tree that is cut down, then the deforestation problem would have been avoided."
So would the deaths of thousands of people in the Bangladesh floods. Bangladesh is located on the delta of an immense watershed, which causes devastating floods when upstream neighbours like Nepal get rid of the "sponge" of natural vegetation.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. With a population of 110 million, or 750 people per square kilometre, it is also one of the most densely populated, and they're facing losing a sixth of their land mass if sea levels rise a metre. They have enormous problems with poverty, illiteracy, natural disasters, environmental degradation and resource exhaustion, and the Bay of Bengal is well on the way to being stuffed by the many thousands of metric tonnes of oil spilled into it every year.
Judging from suicide statistics, those from developing countries have a more optimistic outlook than Australian youth. Developed countries eventually have to face the fact that once you've got a hair dryer, the further levels of material comforts that can be attained become fairly marginal, and you need something else in your life, like a job. In developing countries they're still high on the tangible benefits of development that cuts down and digs up quickly, exploding GDP from cash crops like coffee, cigarettes and other drugs, and the excitement of your first plastic bag.
There is a value in this sort of event challenging the values of all participants. While Westerners can obviously re-examine their own lifestyle, there is also a role for developing countries to learn from our mistakes, particularly that of short-term planning. It is a revelation to participants from many countries to learn that decentralisation, multi-use closed systems, traditional indigenous knowledge — systems they have always used — are considered by us to be progressive.
Multiracial gatherings of young people have an undeniable feel-good quality. Look at all those adorably different features. See the children play happily. World peace, it is.
At the forum I saw human pyramids, swaying circles, hand-holding and singing and a lot of enthused and sincere clapping. One by one conference participants promised to continue their gift of community action to make it a better, better world.
This "naivety" is extremely irritating for many Westerners, with their cynicism about the increased complexity of international relations after the dissolution of the East-West divide, and sophisticated coffee-shop theories about the global market's dependence on the arms race.
I've come back committed to opposing our government's making war on the country of anyone I've shared food, got drunk or showered with. I know the real invasions by the West are with money and movies.
[Daele Healy is publications officer for the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYPAC), the peak national youth affairs organisation in the community sector.]