This International Youth Day, Sangam Paudel, Forum’s first Sustainable Futures Fellow, shares his personal reflections on his past year working in the sustainability sector and what it could mean for youth hoping to make a positive difference through their work.

In 2021, fresh out of university as an environmental studies major at Yale-NUS College, I was lucky to be offered the role of Sustainable Futures Fellow at Forum for the Future. The role promised an opportunity to apply knowledge from my liberal arts education and nurture skills in system change approaches and futures to tackle complex sustainability challenges.

Yet, I didn’t always like the word “sustainability”. I felt its meaning had shifted considerably since I memorised the definition in sixth grade: from the landmark Brundtland Report of 1987, 'sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ By the time I entered college in 2017, sustainability had a corporate ring to it, and it inspired images of sitting in offices staring at computers, far away from the environmental impacts and action visible on the ground. 

To me, growing up in Nepal with a deep love for nature and connection to land, working in an environmental sector meant being outside, and I wanted to spend as little screen time as possible in a digital world. College and world events questioned this resolve. The climate crisis was becoming more urgent; as youth and grassroot movements like Fridays for Future sprung up across the world, the urgency that the climate crisis always required was finally getting its much-needed airtime. At school, I also began to learn more about the social, political and economic actors and systems that contributed to the climate crisis.

Thankfully, it has been a year of incredible learning at Forum. The systemic lens that Forum takes on its projects and the just and regenerative approach that it champions has helped narrow the disconnect that I was worried I would feel between work done in the office and action on the ground. At Forum, I have been involved in projects that cover a wide range of systems, ranging from energy and finance, to consumer goods and e-commerce.

Facing climate anxiety head on

However, the year has not been without its challenges. As much as there is genuine excitement in working in a field that I truly care about, it has also been difficult to disconnect from work. Gen Z workers are found to have higher levels of eco-anxiety than preceding generations; for myself, whose daily work focuses precisely on the bad news others try to block out, I have found it hard finding moments of calm and peace that would allow me to recharge.

I have been trying to work through this challenge by going back to my roots and touching on the deepest passions that connect me to my work. What inspired me to even think about working in an environmental sector, or sustainability more broadly, was the joy that I found in being outdoors, learning about the connections between nature and people, and in the feeling of belonging to the land. So, I have made conscious efforts to reconnect with these values — going out in the forest more or connecting with others who share a similar fascination for wildlife. 

In his element: as part of Sangam’s undergraduate programme in environmental studies, he conducted fieldwork in Singapore’s mangrove forests.

The people I work with at Forum also motivate me. It is truly wonderful to see thoughtful and deep thinkers expressing kindness, humility and empathy. I have found solace in conversing and listening to my teammates; witnessing their expressions of hope, anxiety, scepticism, positivity and at times humour to the challenging work we take on and to other world events has kept me grounded.

I am cognizant that the climate anxiety felt by many young people like myself will not be solved merely by seeking activities that rejuvenate us, or by building rapport with like-minded peers. As long as institutions and systems around us fall short in combating the climate crisis, i.e. the root causes of our anxiety, there is only so much that individuals like us can do.

The world is incredibly complex and its interconnectedness implies that the impact of actions and interventions are rarely ever limited to the narrow domain in which they are often applied. My past year with Forum has shown me that sustainability initiatives can — and should — acknowledge and work with these complexities. And as we think about contributing to a regenerative world, we should also continue to look inwards and remain in touch with what rejuvenates us.

Sangam Paudel is Forum for the Future’s first Sustainable Futures Fellow, working on the delivery of sustainability projects and support of Forum’s Futures practice. Read his insights at The Futures Centre.

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