Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
23 May 2022

Youth and multilateral summits in the triple planetary crisis

Read about AHCD PhD Researcher Laura Bullón-Cassis’ work.

The triple planetary crisis—pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss—and recent reckonings with racial and gender discrimination have shed light on notions inherited from the Enlightenment and deeply embedded in Western institutions, such as rationality and progress. These have shaped humans’ relationship to the so-called “natural” world, as well as the relationship between the Western and non-Western worlds through colonial and modernisation enterprises. They are also profoundly embedded in global institutions such as the United Nations. Institutions crystallize what we think of as true but, what happens when what we hold as true no longer holds, when the ideas we took for granted—progress as increased production, consumption, and accumulation—lead to our very destruction, and we are searching for new ways to comprehend our very place in History and on this Earth? How can these institutions become better stewards of the Earth and respond to the claims of those most affected by the planetary crisis? 

Indeed, for many around the globe such as young and frontline activists, the above is not an abstract puzzle but an existential fight. This is why, for my doctoral research, I chose to document the experiences of young people who engaged in UN climate summitry with the hope to see the institution respond to their needs. Through a three-year ethnography in and around climate summits in Madrid, Glasgow, New York City, and Nairobi, I looked at the way they navigated summits to fight for their future, reinventing practices and contesting others in the process. My Ph.D. Co-Chair, Arjun Appadurai, recently wrote a piece contrasting 'global' institutions with 'planetary' issues: it is that tension that interests me. In the process, I developed a strong interest in critical youth theory, looking at how the sociocultural category of 'youth' circulates in global spaces through both online and offline channels. 

These interests in (to borrow Stiglitz's terminology) 'globalization and its discontents' have a long genealogy for me: I worked for the United Nations for several years and studied a Masters in Global Politics at the LSE under David Held, a proponent of global governance reform, just as the global financial crisis was decimating economies worldwide. The social movements that stemmed from it, such as Occupy Wall Street, were not framed as being about 'youth' but about inequality and jobs. Nonetheless, I would argue that a sense of intergenerational injustice was brewing: at the time, an often jobless generation started to look at baby boomers with envy and resentment.

The Centre’s focus on ‘everyday practices of democratic politics […] and dissatisfactions with liberal values, institutions and elites’ is a great fit for my interests. After joining as a Junior Visiting Fellow in 2019-2020, I stayed on as its Outreach Officer and, later, as a Doctoral Researcher in the project "Protest And Engagement, From The Global to the Local: Mapping The Forms of Youth Participation In Europe". This project similarly looks at the interface between youth and political institutions, and, interestingly, combines the claims of the two 'moments' of protest described above: youth climate and labour social movements. This time, we are looking at the way young people carve out new democratic practices at the local level in cities across four European countries. Cities are indeed central to these intergenerational struggles: they contribute 80% to global GDP but they also account for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. They are also a battleground for the legitimacy of democracy: it is well documented that youth political participation begins locally, for example. When are local democratic institutions able to respond and adapt to their claims? And when do they 'lose' young people altogether, sometimes with dire consequences for the political health of democracies? As I wrap up my thesis, I look forward to my upcoming Post-Doctoral Researcher role on this project.