Published on 29 May 2019
Près de 30 000 personnes ont signé le Manifeste étudiant pour un réveil écologique depuis son lancement en avril 2018. Thomas Samson/AFP

Corentin Pinsard, AgroParisTech - Université Paris-Saclay, discusses the mobilization of French youth for ecology, in particular through the Student Manifesto for an ecological awakening.

In the wake of the European mobilisations for ecology in recent months, the French youth have expressed themselves and their desire for profound societal changes in order to take into account environmental issues.

This generation is not only more aware of these issues and their urgency than its elders, but also physically feels this imperative. What could be more natural for these famous "future generations", so much mentioned at the Earth Summit in Rio in 2012: without taking into account the global limits and without drastically reducing our ecological footprint, the medium and long-term prospects look bleak.

If the slogan "Let's be the change we ask for" has been so much promoted during the recent climate walks, it is because youth engagement goes far beyond an urgent and wait-and-see attitude. This is reflected in different ways, from community activism to participation in climate walks and strikes.

The Student Manifesto for an Ecological Awakening, of which we are members, is one of its forms. As students, many of whom mobilized in other environmental associations, we have chosen to gather into this group to make our voices heard.

The new aspirations of young graduates

As early as April 2018, a few months before the start of the European ecological march movements, students from environmental associations gathered to share - and then formalize - their environmental and societal observations.

Around the observation of our unsustainable trajectory, the movement is enriched and prioritized horizontally in order to let the diversity of points of view be expressed. The tone and argumentation of the text on which our initiative is based remain general in order to avoid the guilt points (air travel, meat consumption, etc.) that demobilize; the aim is to reach students widely, beyond traditional circles.

Today, we have 30,000 signatories, a large proportion of whom are in the initiating schools: 25% from Polytechnique, 36% from AgroParisTech and 10% from Parisian business schools. This desire to commit professionally and personally to a world that is consistent with the environmental emergency that we are addressing in our text is shared beyond the French borders. Thus, we have been joined by students from more than eleven different countries, and we exchange with young people from several continents.

From October 2018 on, the beginning of a media spillover allows us to attract the attention of major French companies. The series of interviews that followed allowed us to establish communication between two worlds that have little exchange on a common vision of the future. Success here does not come so much from the ecological urgency itself as from the resulting change in aspirations among young people that we seek to express....

The fear of having difficulty recruiting young graduates triggers change better than the long-term environmental risk!

Empower students to choose

As students, we have one foot in the world of higher education and the other one in professional life. The Manifesto team was therefore quickly structured around two main areas of work: one concerning higher education and the other concerning companies.

It is often difficult for students to understand the true impact of companies, sometimes hidden behind greenwashing operations. We are therefore looking to develop tools for students who will be leaving school next fall: a company reading grid, sector sheets and an interview guide (relevant questions to ask to determine the company's environmental trajectory). It is a question of sensitizing students to avoid a Manichean typology of companies; to better know in order to make better decisions.

To participate in the necessary reversal of our society's trajectory, being aware is not enough: we need to be trained and informed, capable of formulating critical judgment. Indeed, on the subject of education, we are working to ensure that common and transversal knowledge is transmitted to all students through higher education, and that they can apply it concretely to their professional lives.

We also provide concrete assistance to students to engage in dialogue with the institution's stakeholders (students, faculty and administration), such as at Polytechnique, ESCP, ESSEC and Centrale Nantes. On a broader scale, we are pushing the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, school rankings and institutions to be proactive on the issue of courses and research.

The urgency of changing the system in the long term

The results of our work with companies will probably not be measured so much by the changes they will make as by the number of people that will be affected. In this way, we hope to widely disseminate the interview guide, as it is accessible to anyone who is a little concerned about the environment, and will constantly raise these expectations with companies.
The subject of higher education is becoming that of a growing number of actors, as shown by the two forums on this subject (here and there), on the student and teacher sides for example. It seems obvious that a control over environmental issues by all of us is an essential prerequisite for any transformation of society.
Now that a growing part of young people is becoming more aware of climate issues, we are confident that its commitment will turn to more diverse and concrete forms. For our part, we will continue to question the levers at our disposal, to express ourselves as students with the necessary ambition. As the American anthropologist Margaret Mead said:

"Never doubt that a small group of conscious and committed individuals can change the world."

This article was co-authored by Julien Gasc, student at ESCP Europe, and Claire Egnell, student at Sciences Po Paris, members of the Student Manifesto for an Ecological Awakening.
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article in French.