It's Earth Day, and it's a historic day for nature and for young people in Ireland. For the first time anywhere in the world, children and young people will have had their voices heard by government on the issue of nature through a deliberative process designed just for them.
Mirroring the grown ups’ Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, the 35 randomly-selected children and young people aged between seven and 17 have now published their report. Late last year I met with them in Killarney House as they wrapped up their final session. It was a meeting that I won’t ever forget. I left feeling inspired, challenged, sad and uplifted all at once. Why did I place such a burden on such young shoulders?
I knew that as they delved into the issues driving the destruction and loss of nature, that they too learned the awful truth that many of us involved in conservation have known for years. We have pushed so many species to extinction, many more perilously close, too many degraded and disconnected habitats from our peatlands, our native woodlands, our rivers, lakes and estuaries, our oceans...
I am 56. What will our natural world look like when these young people reach my age? I thought.
For me, listening to the voices of children and young people was, from the outset, as important as the grown ups’ Assembly. I was of course conscious that bringing these young people together for such a task would possibly be a life changing event for many, if not all of them. It is important that their voices are heard in all aspects of decision making. Indeed, it is enshrined in the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child. To do so in a way that is meaningful, respectful, safe and fun was our challenge in designing a process.
Dr Diarmuid Torney and his team from DCU designed a participative process that I believe is replicable across all areas of public policy where the views of children and young people are sought. We should be doing much more of this. My impression of meeting the young people on the final plenary day was that all found a voice in the space created by the team and were more than comfortable articulating their views and concerns about nature to me.
They didn’t see it as a burden. Nobody was sad on the day (apart from a sadness about the ending of the process and not seeing new-found friends for a while). There was an energy in the room that spoke to me of a group of citizens, young citizens, who were not just concerned about species and habitat loss, but up for the fight to save what’s left and indeed restore nature. They said to me that they wanted to stay involved. We could very well have ignited a spark that will lead to a new crop of botanists, of entomologists, of marine biologists, of activists! Restoring nature will require an army of them.
Government will consider the outputs and recommendations from both biodiversity assemblies, and I will work to reflect the recommendations in the next National Biodiversity Action Plan. But for the children and young people in particular, representing their generation, the generation who will have to pick up the pieces of decades of exploitation and indifference to the plight of our natural world, the report launched today should be met with an honest and courageous response by us as policymakers and by all of society. We owe this to their futures and the future of all living things.
To read the report, visit https://cyp-biodiversity.ie/