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Young environmental activist Melati Wijsen enters into a dialogue in boardrooms: 'You can't do business on a dead planet'
By: Sebastian Maks
'How dare you!' Many consider the well-known Greta Thunberg as the voice of protest of young generations against climate change. But she is by no means alone in this struggle. Environmental activist Melati Wijsen from the Netherlands (22) started stirring up change at the age of twelve. With her film Bigger Than Us she shows that young people all over the world are starting to raise their voices. Wijsen wants to encourage more young people to do the same. But what does she do when desperation overwhelms her?

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Melati Wijsen, half-Indonesian and half-Dutch, has become one of the best-known Asian environmental activists. TIME magazine included her and her sister in its list of most influential teens in 2018. She calls herself a changemaker (not to be confused with Change Inc.'s Today's Changemakers). I speak Wijsen on a bench in Amsterdam's Oosterpark. Her schedule is full; she visits the city for a few days and walks from meeting to meeting. Nevertheless, she likes to make time to share her thoughts between the companies. About change, the role of young people, the balance between optimism and despair, and her conversations with CEOs of companies.

How did your career as an environmental activist begin?

“I grew up in Bali, where plastic pollution is a very visible problem. My sister and I wanted to do something about that and we didn't want to wait until we were older. We discovered that 40 countries have banned single-use plastic bags. We also wanted such a ban in Bali. That is why we set up the 'Bye Bye Plastic Bags' campaign in 2013, which was followed by a very long process. We mainly focused on information provision by means of flyers and workshops. We finally got the ban done in 2019. This showed that change is possible thanks to the power of people and organisations. Now, ten years later, I am inspiring and helping young people to become a changemaker just like me.”
How do you do that?

“In 2020 I founded YOUTHTOPIA. This is an online and offline platform where young people can learn from each other to bring about change. 2020 was the year the world came crashing down, and I noticed that people craved a way to gather information about how they could contribute to the real world. YOUTHTOPIA has now grown into a network of young changemakers who all have their own projects and share their experiences with students. They do this in the form of masterclasses, mentorships and workshops.”

“I wish there was such a platform when I started 'Bye Bye Plastic Bags' with my sister. It is quite intimidating for young people to start with change. For example, they have the idea that you have to be as openly activist as Greta Thunberg and be on the road all the time. But the great thing about YOUTHTOPIA is that we show that there are so many ways to effect change, whether you are a writer, musician or politician.”

The young generation speaks
Young people form the common thread through Wijsen's work. As an accelerator of change, she wants to share her experiences with young people to ensure that they can effectively express their concerns and convert them into concrete actions.
How do you see the role of young people in the fight against climate change?

“Especially as an accelerator. CEOs see climate change as a difficult calculation, while my generation sees the simplicity of it. Young people are not burdened by their ego, money or political status. It is our role to make that clear in the boardrooms of companies.”

You once said that you used to be seen as "the cute girl with big plans," when being cute wasn't your goal. How did you turn this around?

“It still happens sometimes. It depends on the space, but sometimes I am still put in the box of the young Indonesian girl with many ambitious ideas for the future. But it has largely changed from "oh how cute" to "what do you have to say?" Thanks to the determination of my sister and me. We didn't go anywhere until the job [banning plastic bags in Bali, ed.] was done. Nowadays it is easy to get very excited and passionate about something very quickly. But it is important to have a long-term vision and to keep pushing until the goal is achieved. That is sometimes lacking.”

Seven young change agents speak
Her movie Bigger Than Us was released in 2021. In the film, Wijsen portrays seven young activists who each fight for change in their own way. The stories vary widely, from 22-year-old Mary who lifts stranded migrants from the ocean, to 25-year-old Rene who brings stories about racism and inequality to the world with his established news medium.
How did Bigger Than Us come about?

“We searched for suitable people with a team. The director, Flore Vasseur, absolutely did not want armchair activists or people who say that everything will be fine. We just wanted stories about life and death. People who wake up every day and risk their lives for a good cause. We started with 88 people and eventually narrowed the list down to the seven who were in the film.”
Optimism versus hopelessness
While all seven young people hope to bring about positive change, it's hard not to get depressed by their stories. For example, Mary, walking past a giant pile of discarded life jackets, the legacy of hundreds of thousands of refugees. She rips one open and shows how poor the quality of the flotation material is. Despair drips from her eyes.

Recognize that feeling of despair?

“It's not an inspiring movie. I always have to laugh when people do. Then I ask: were you awake? It's not an easy movie to watch either. You must be ready to face the inconveniences of the world. But on the other hand, it also shows the enormous amount of creativity, passion and love that young people can have. In that sense, it is a hopeful film.”

“But therein lies the crux of bringing about change. There are constant peaks and valleys. More dips than peaks, I'd say. You have to be able to find a balance between desperation and optimism. The biggest frustration of young people is that change is not happening fast enough. I've been doing this job for ten years. That's fantastic, but sometimes I also think: why so long? I've had enough personal downs in those ten years. I have always realized that they are because I have lost sight of the goal.”
What do you do to overcome that feeling of despair?

“Then I go into nature. That reminds me what I'm doing all this for. I also imposed a rule on myself: if I talk to six hundred CEOs, I also have to talk to six hundred students. That keeps me balanced. I find conversations with CEOs very interesting and I learn a lot from them. But it's also frustrating because they see climate change as the hardest math problem they've ever seen, when we young people think it's so simple. It's really a challenge to get that across. Now that I'm older, I like those challenges. But I do want to keep talking to students because I keep thinking broadly and they ask me interesting questions.”

Talking to leaders
Wijsen is increasingly having conversations with CEOs. Earlier she found that she is often used for 'youthwashing', a term she coined herself. Companies hire her for an inspiring speech to boost their image, but behind the scenes nothing changes at all about their business operations. That is why she wants to go behind those scenes and talk to the leaders. Behind closed doors, without anyone watching.
What do those conversations with CEOs look like?

“YOUTHTOPIA has a program in which young people talk to CEOs about sustainability. This is very instructive for both parties. We have to stop pointing fingers and creating contradictions. Only then do you come to know that people do want to change, but sometimes they are simply ill-informed, uninspired or even supported in their efforts. Who better to help with this than young people? But then they should be given the chance.”

“I once spoke behind closed doors with CEOs about prioritizing the planet over profit. I think I saw twenty of them drop out immediately. They said, 'How can you ask this of us? We have shareholders to reckon with!” Calm down, I tell them, we are not asking you to become cavemen. We are only asking you to do business smarter in the long run. There is no business on a dead planet. But that concept is sometimes still difficult to convey. That is why dialogue is so important. If you yell at them outside their office but never want to sit down with them, that dialogue will not happen.”

And the future?
Finally then. The question has become a big cliché, but nevertheless interesting to hear from someone like Wijsen. How does she view the future? Does she have hope for the challenges we must overcome?
In Bigger Than Us you warn against the idea that technology will help us towards a sustainable world. Don't you see technology as a remedy for climate change?

“I am certainly not against technology. It's about our perception of how we're going to get out of this situation. It's still too black and white at the moment. We think that there is going to be one solution that will solve everything, but that is simply not the case. There is no one solution and no one responsible. It requires commitment from all of us in our own way. As António Guterres [Secretary General of the United Nations, ed.] said: we need everything, everywhere, all at once.”


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