Column: We must do our best for the best and brightest

Courtesy photoPascal Mittermaier and his daughter, Amelie.

Earlier this month, my daughter, Amelie, and four of her classmates were honored as the top five academic seniors in her school outside of Boston. They all participated in a wonderful evening event with similar students from high schools all across the North Shore.

Almost 400 seniors, along with their families and school principals, got dressed up (a rare tie day for me) and gathered in a big hotel ballroom. The chamber of commerce and corporate sponsors supported the event and a university president gave the keynote speech. It was appropriately festive and honored some amazing academic achievements.

A constant theme was that these young people were the best and brightest – the top 5%, the future leaders who will go on to shape the world for all of us. The speakers were confident that the students would one day return as community leaders and help ensure Boston continues to be an economic and innovation powerhouse.

So far, so good. 

But as the evening progressed, I could feel myself observing a few things that felt really out of sync.

None of the speakers mentioned the huge challenges facing these young graduates: No mention of climate change or of the million-species extinction. No mention of Boston’s sea-level rise challenge over the next decades. No connection between the good wishes for the future and our global warming crisis.

I don’t mean to be too dark or rain on the parade – but if there ever was a moment to cleverly build some of these themes into the evening, this was it.

These students will be asked to solve overwhelming global challenges that my generation has failed to address. The evening was a reminder how out of touch our daily lives are with these global challenges. These topics remain top of mind for a few – they are not part of a broader consciousness. Surely, during the space race with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s, the speakers would have encouraged the best and brightest students to join NASA or become engineers. Why not now challenge them to dedicate their careers to solving climate change?

There was also the usual hotel restaurant food waste. I observed that roughly 50% of the food was uneaten, sent back, and no doubt thrown out. No connection was made with the food source and waste. What a missed opportunity to remind and motivate families of these critical issues. Why not use a creative approach and turn the event into a real learning opportunity for these smart kids and their families? Lack of creativity? Or worse, lack of awareness?

All drinks were served out of plastic bottles, every child received a flower to put into their lapel which came in a dedicated plastic box. As if all the daily news about plastic pollution (even recently found in the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth!) wasn’t relevant at an event honoring the best and the brightest.

The car park was the usual selection of oversized SUV as everyone piled in and drove home.

I could argue that these choices indicate that we don’t really love our children as much as we say we do. Why else would we tolerate business as usual? What other moments are we waiting for?

But I also know it doesn’t have to be this way. There are solutions for almost all of these challenges. In some cases, big policy shifts will be required, and I’m working every day at The Nature Conservancy to bring together the partnerships that will be required for this transformational change, But in the meantime, we can all make small choices in our daily lives that contribute to leaving a better world for our children. And, of equal importance, we can leave better children for our planet!

How could we transform this type of event to both honor the students and put their studies and careers into a more relevant, pressing context?

First: Acknowledge the dire situation – but don’t dwell on its negativity. Don’t talk about making things slightly “less bad.” Rather, frame this time as a watershed (NASA “put a man on the moon and bring him back safely”) moment. Talk about the opportunities that connect their future leadership with our current challenges.

For example, we can talk about their role in inventing non-polluting plastics or the next generation car; or the many exciting green jobs that will be created in the new economy; or how consuming food in a more mindful manner is both good for our health and for the planet. We can talk about how all of this will contribute to a more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful planet.

My generation is failing in a spectacular manner at creating moments to show we are connecting these challenges with key moments in our children’s’ lives. I felt a deep sense of pride for these high-achieving young adults but a sense of despair at how we, their parents, continue on the path of destruction – even on days meant to honor their future.

We can do better for Amelie and all the other young people graduating this spring. I can do better.

Pascal Mittermaier of Manchester-by-the-Sea is managing director of Global Cities for the Nature Conservancy.

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