Forget top-down European programmes to fight climate change ‒ follow the lead of 21st century citizens


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Xavier Damman

Founder & CEO of OpenCollective and Co-Founder of Storify and 2017 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Xavier Damman, Co-Founder and President of Open Collective & European Young Leader (EYL40)

Interacting with institutions is a last resort for 21st-century Europeans. Whether it is a question of political parties, organised religion or the concept of marriage, the online generation is more detached from traditional institutions than any previous generation. So what can European institutions do to re-engage them?

A 2018 survey conducted by Deloitte found that 71% of millennials believe that political leaders have a negative impact on society. Over the past two decades, the European Commission has launched countless programmes to encourage citizen engagement with its institutions. But for the online generation, institutions seem disconnected from the issues they consider to be most important. Why engage with structures you perceive as irrelevant and ineffective?

But in today’s reality, the idea of a European programme for citizen engagement is an oxymoron. Young people are turning away from traditional institutions and choosing to build their own movements instead. These movements look beyond national interests and government policies towards long-term issues that will shape the future of communities all over the world. And we can already see examples of them succeeding.

71% of millennials believe that political leaders have a negative impact on society

According to a poll from The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has grown by 350% over the past decade. Nearly half of them are aged between 15 and 34, suggesting the movement will continue its rise in the coming years. Meanwhile, movements around zero waste and anti-plastic are gaining more and more momentum across Europe. These are initiatives kick-started by millennials and promoted using digital platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest.

Millennial entrepreneurs like 23-year old Boyan Slat have demonstrated the 21st-century citizen’s drive to work outside traditional structures. When the Dutch inventor first pitched his Ocean Cleanup project in 2013, figures from political institutions and industry were quick to call him naive for believing he could remove 50% of the plastic floating in the world’s oceans. Five years later, Slat has created a global movement around his work, proved the viability of his solution, and crowdsourced more than $31 million in donations to make his vision a reality.

The impact of such movements is significant: citizen-led, they have authenticity, and when they strike a nerve, they can spread like wildfire. Unlike EU programmes that invest time and resources into developing priorities and strategies, these movements organise spontaneously and follow the direction set by the support they receive. The same digital tools that gave birth to trends like the “selfie” and #foodporn hashtag are enabling 21st-century citizens to organise and turn seemingly small ideas into global movements.

Locally-coordinated movements are engaging young people in ways that institution-led programmes cannot. Through entrepreneurship and civic involvement, often working as a network, citizens are succeeding in reshaping the debate on climate change. The online generation has no confidence that institutions are able to deliver genuine change, so they are taking action into their own hands.

Locally-coordinated movements are engaging young people in ways that institution-led programmes cannot

That is not to say that Europe should stop investing in programmes to fight climate change, but rather that those efforts should be more carefully focused. European institutions need to pursue big investments and infrastructure that cannot be tackled by citizens. Policy also has an important role to play, as governmental bans on single-use plastic are showing across the European Union. But initiatives themselves should come from citizens, not from institutions.

If institutions are to help citizen-led movements, they must become comfortable with removing themselves from the decision-making process. They must learn from the world’s most innovative start-ups and focus on operating as a platform that facilitates initiatives instead of producing them. They can start doing this right away by committing themselves to match fund every euro crowdfunded by European citizen collectives. But financial backing on its own is not enough to make these initiatives succeed ‒ what they really need most is more time on their hands.

Building a citizen initiative from the ground up can be an exhausting experience. Simply wanting to accept donations may mean that the group has to formally register a legal entity, to write up a legal charter and to learn how to comply with their states’ tax requirements. This can be daunting. In France, for example, such a legal entity is called Association de loi de 1901, which tells you everything you need to know about how up-to-date it is.

There is desperate need for positive social change that is driven by the people themselves

Europe should create a more agile legal framework for this new generation of non-profits. What if creating the legal basis for a movement was as simple as creating a Facebook group? What if European institutions could directly contribute to the crowdfunding effort already being made by citizens? Not only could this channel much needed money to these causes, but it could also save them a lot of time.

The easier it is for people to start initiatives, the more initiatives there will be. All over Europe, there is desperate need for positive social change that is driven by the people themselves. Global citizen-led movements, such as The New Citizen initiative, have a real and powerful potential to bring about change. Therefore, we need Europe to realise this opportunity and act as an enabling platform for social movements everywhere. Europe started in the 20th century as a platform for big industries; in the 21st century, Europe has the opportunity to become the platform for citizens. If we can achieve that, we will never have to worry about how to engage citizens ever again.

The new citizens of the 21st-century are driven in their values and goals to create positive change. They are passionate, creative, determined, and they will build movements with or without the participation of traditional institutions. If we wish to help them, we must start by recognising that they can be a very powerful force in the world. It is institutions that need to learn how to engage with them, not the other way around.

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