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Conversations on a Just Sustainable World

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This past Friday, the second annual “Sustainable Development in Latin America & the Caribbean Conference” was held at Yale University. Other than being able to get off campus for an extended amount of time, I was excited to engage in conversations on how climate change can be addressed in these areas. Given that most of my extended family resides in Mexico, I wanted to hear how sustainability was being implemented to negate issues like pollution, waste, water quality, etc. Is the solution to regulate emissions? More renewable energy? Carbon pricing? Windmills?

Walking out of the conference, I was reminded that in order to create a truly sustainable world, we need to do more than just recycle and talk about polar bears.

Our keynote speaker was Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho, the Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations. In his remarks, he spoke on the vast environmental issues that plague Mexico. He mentioned how there are foreign owned factories, called maquiladoras, discharging harmful chemicals to the surrounding communities, deforestation is destroying natural habitats and forests, and that Mexico City has gotten to the point where the air pollution has become physically visible.

Gomez made an important point on how these environmental issues are connected to many other social issues in Mexico. The discharge of chemicals contributes to poor labor and living conditions for working class citizens, deforestation has destroyed the homes of indigenous groups, and how air pollution has affected the health of children and families being raised in the city. He spoke on how the development of sustainability in Mexico must address these other social issues. Otherwise, it isn’t sustainable development.

So, how can we begin explicitly integrating social issues with sustainability? One manner that can be done is to look at how this conference was structured to facilitate conversations that touched on multiple issues.The organizers of this panel, in my opinion, did an amazing job of gathering a diverse group of environmental leaders to speak on sustainable development.

By environmental leaders, I do not mean they invited Al Gore or Bill Nye. And by diverse, I do not mean they invited a variety of folks from “Environmental Careers.” There was no one from the EPA, no one from the Sierra Club, and not a single scientist. In fact, only two of the fifteen speakers had the words “climate change” or “sustainable” in their job titles.

Instead, these environmental leaders came from various countries, backgrounds, and professions. To showcase what kind of professions; allow me to list off a few of the panelists and their respective titles: Ms. Renata Segura is the Associate Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum of the Social Science Research Council. Mr. Ronald Jackson is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency CDEMA. And Ms. Judith Morrison is the Senior Advisor for the Gender and Diversity Division GDI for the Inter-American Development Bank.

At first it may be odd to think how this group of people and their work can relate to sustainable development in Latin America & the Caribbean. On the contrary, they have everything to do with sustainability. They, as well as all of us, should be viewed as environmental leaders.

The panelists were amazing in describing the connections between sustainability and their lives. Looking at my notes; the topics discussed ranged from zero waste, violence in Colombia, gender equality, impact on drugs, multidimensional poverty, and many more. One of my favorite examples came from Jackson on how disaster management should be viewed as addressing climate change—How, when it comes to climate justice, the work of disaster management organizations is crucial for sustainable development.

What was remarkable was how organic and natural these conversations were. The panelists naturally transitioned from topic to topic without forcing the direction. And it shouldn’t be forced. Sustainability is truly connected with everything.

This idea was highlighted by our closing keynote speaker, Dr. Chantal Line Carpentier, the Chief of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. She gave a presentation on the Sustainable Development Goals that were created by the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals that was born out of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The SDG’s range from environmental goals like “Affordable and Clean Energy,” economic goals like “Decent Work and Economic Growth,” to social goals like “Gender Equality.” Each of these 17 goals has targets that need to be reached in order to achieve the goal. For example, a target for the “Clean Water and Sanitation” goal is: “by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.”

Carpentier spoke at one point about a project lead by David Le Blanc, the Senior Sustainable Development Officer in the Division for Sustainable Development. Le Blanc and his team examined the SDG’s to create a network that highlights how each of the goals and their respective targets are connected to one another. They went and coded all of the goals and targets to find connections amongst them. Their findings showcased that there is a network that connects all the SDGs and their respective targets. In fact, Carpentier highlighted that, if you happen to work on at least three different SDG’s, (it does not matter which three), then you are working on all of them.

I find it a beautiful thought that the work we all do is connected. That somehow, we are all working towards one goal: creating a better world. While I may not label myself to be an environmentalist, I am happy to think that my future role as a teacher can contribute towards climate justice.

With all this being said, I do believe that we need to recycle! And I love polar bears! But I don’t believe that the conversation of sustainability has to end there. We are in an amazing position to recognize this expansion, and continue to expand what sustainability means. It means that sustainability has to work for all. That everyone needs to be included in the conversation on sustainable development, especially those who are being most affected by climate change. That barriers to participate in these conversation must be deconstructed. That those conversation are held in spaces where everyone is able to contribute their voice. That we emphasize connections and work in solidarity with one another.

There is a lot more that needs to be done to advance sustainability to just sustainabilities. Obviously, one conference and one article published for college students is not enough. But I do see ourselves in a special place and time to join together to work towards a shared goal, vision, and dream.

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