Davos 2020: Being a teen activist is all consuming

By Daniel Thomas
Business reporter, BBC News, Davos

  • Published
environmental activist Melati Wijsen
Image caption,
Environmental activist Melati Wijsen

"It is a lot of responsibility - if you would have told my 12-year-old self that it would be at this level of intensity, opportunity and possibility, I wouldn't have believed you," says 19-year-old environmental activist Melati Wijsen of her environmental campaign work.

"But it has just become this massive movement and a lot of a young people really look up to us."

Ms Wijsen is not your average teenager. At the age of 12, she and her 10-year-old sister Isabel decided something had to be done about the plastic waste clogging up the oceans around the Indonesian island of Bali where they live.

So they launched a grassroots campaign on the island named Bye Bye Plastic Bags, which - after years of hard work - resulted in the local government banning single-use plastic bags, straws and styrofoam in 2019.

Melati has spent the last year telling her story, and in the process joined a growing crop of young environmental activists making headlines around the world - the best known of whom is the 17-year-old climate campaigner Greta Thunberg.

'Ignorant' politicians

Reflecting the current vogue for youth activism, Melati, Greta and several others have been invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this year - a conference not exactly lauded for its environmental record.

The media has highlighted the fact that the biggest name taking part in the elite business conference this year will be US President Donald Trump - a man who has dismissed the threat of global warming and attacked attempts to ban single-use plastics as a liberal conspiracy.

"Unfortunately, some politicians are ignorant and refuse to look face-to-face at the issues," Ms Wijsen tells the BBC.

"For those trying to make changes, we see that the intentions are in the right place but the change is not happening fast enough."

When I meet Melati at Davos it's clear that her work as an activist is all-consuming. She has travelled for 26 hours from Indonesia to be in Davos and will be having 10 meetings a day at the conference.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Melati Wijsen has been campaigning to tackle plastic waste

Back at home things are similarly full on. She has postponed university to work on Bye Bye Plastic Bag full time, and the NGO is now active in 29 countries. She also recently launched a second charity - called Youthtopia - aimed at inspiring other young change-makers to pursue their goals.

Does she have time to do normal 19-year-old things like hang out with friends or party? "This really is now everything to me but I've realised it is also important to take care of yourself. I am still learning about balance," Melati says.

Her Indonesian father and Dutch mother - both of whom have a background as entrepreneurs - are very supportive, she says, which helps. Her mother has even given up her job to join Melati's campaign group and her boyfriend - the activist film-maker Gary Bencheghib - has accompanied her to Davos this year.

It is this combination of vulnerability and steeliness that enables teen activists like Ms Wijsen and Ms Thunberg to grab our attention in a way that most adult campaigners cannot.

"People know kids are not politicians and they trust them," explains Kaveh Madani, an environmental activist and professor at the Department of Political Science at Yale University.

"They mean what they say, so they affect your emotions and you listen. You might not care about the length of your shower or your electric bill, but when your kids come back from school and talk about climate change, even if you don't care about climate change you won't tell them to shut up."

The Iranian professor says the work of people like Ms Wijsen represents the best of grassroots mobilisation. He also likes the fact that she has raised awareness in the developing world.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has inspired many young campaigners

But he warns there is a caveat to seeing youngsters active at this scale. "I would be concerned if we misuse or hide behind children when we have a political agenda. We've already seen adults attack Greta and come up with conspiracy theories."

His big concern is that people in positions of power could "give them too much responsibility or put words in their mouth", and the child or the movements themselves could be harmed.

Will this happen to the youth activists taking part in the World Economic Forum this year? Every year major emitters of greenhouse gases or producers of plastics attend the glitzy conference. And while many are have pledged to reform, almost none have said they will do so as fast as campaigners say is necessary.

Ms Wijsen understands why people think working with the "Davos crowd" is a risk, but she sees things differently.

"We need to get rid of this sense of divide because we need to collaborate on all levels, we need to understand both sides of the story."

She says all of us - businesses and world leaders included - face a simple choice: change or risk creating an uninhabitable planet. She adds that young change-makers are more ready for the right than some might suggest.

"Davos has been going for 50 years, but in 50 years' time what is this conference going to mean? This is a pivotal moment where we get to decide, and the fact that for the very first time young people are getting invited shows there is a shift and it's a global shift."