Seizing the Future Today: Tzu Chi’s Ongoing Environmental Youth Initiatives

Seizing the Future Today:
Tzu Chi’s Ongoing Environmental Youth Initiatives

Written by Adriana DiBenedetto

Tzu Chi Young Leaders is a network of compassionate students and young professionals committed to making an impact. Tzu Chi empowers youths with the resources and skills to develop meaningful projects while growing in awareness as responsible global citizens. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi Young Leaders

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To seize the present is to seize the future.

From rugged cliffs and snowy peaks to verdant fields and azure waters far from land, our world is full of precious natural wonders that sustain our lives, and allow the spectacular creatures that inhabit our seas, land, and skies to thrive. And yet, it is clear now that humanity’s extractive patterns are incompatible with the natural world. And the effects are visible worldwide. 

Launched in 2015 and hosted by Human Impact Lab, the Climate Clock provides a measurement against which society can track humanity’s climate change mitigation progress – and demonstrate the speed at which our planet is closing in on the ever-looming 1.5 °C global warming mark. Today, there are a little over six years until the Climate Clock reaches zero. 

According to a United Nations report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), temperatures have already risen to 1.1 °C above pre-industrial levels as a consequence of burning fossil fuels alongside unequal and unsustainable energy and land use. These reverberations can be felt through more frequent, more intense extreme weather events with increasingly devastating effects on ecosystems, infrastructure, and human life. As such, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal reports reveal that on our current path, wildfires are projected to become more frequent and intense, with a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14% by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050, and 50% by 2100. Food and water insecurity are projected to climb, and with this, the disproportionate impacts on people who already face severe and disproportionate rates of food insecurity and exposure to multiple forms of discrimination and disparity. Amidst a confluence of crises, other adverse events, such as pandemics or conflicts, become even more difficult to manage.

Mother Earth is every living thing’s one true home, and there’s perhaps no bigger picture than a liveable future for all on this planet. Just as we will all feel these effects, we will also share in the benefits of healthy air and resilient food systems, and so we must all care.  

No Planet B: How Tzu Chi Responds

The mounting impacts of our triple planetary crisis, which encompass climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, are projected to put millions of species at risk of extinction and alter our very lives. Inaction will only lead to the continued erosion of ecosystems and the destruction of Earth’s finite resources. However, there’s much we can do when we all synchronize our efforts.

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation is officially an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC). The Global Partnership Affairs Department (GPAD) in the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation is also an advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth by the United Youth at the Forefront Nations, and Tzu Chi has created several projects that tackle this head-on.

From programs that lift up food security, disaster relief, education, support for refugees, women’s empowerment, medical outreach, and beyond, Tzu Chi’s missions address climate change in ways that strengthen communities around the nation and across the globe. Tzu Chi’s environmental volunteers also reclaim plastic from our environment to be transformed into eco-friendly household items via DA.AI Technology’s innovative production process, which holds Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certification from the Netherlands’ Peterson Control Union for rigorous quality control. Tzu Chi actively works toward boosting the SDGs in hopes of reaching them as a global community by 2030 and creating a world in which people can not only survive, but thrive, and find the strength to help others in need. 

Youth at the Forefront

Every achievement grows out of the seed of determination.

When envisioning the future you wish to live in, and the world you hope to leave behind for future generations, what emerges in your mind’s eye? 

According to a 2021 NextGen Climate Survey released by Blue Shield of California, more than 83% of Gen Z youths are concerned about the health of our planet. Moreover, in a 2021 survey of 10,000 children and young people aged 16–25 years published by The Lancet, data from youths across ten countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA; 1,000 participants per country), was collected regarding participants’ thoughts and feelings about climate change, and government responses to climate change. Results revealed that 59% of respondents were very or extremely worried, and 84% were at least moderately worried. More than 50% reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty, and over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life. For example, 75% expressed that they believe the future is frightening, and 83% shared that they think people have failed to take care of the planet. Governmental responses also fared poorly, with participants reporting greater feelings of betrayal than reassurance. 

Experiencing situations exacerbated by climate change, such as natural disasters and droughts, paired with an inability to see positive change on a meaningful level, can lead to a pervasive sense of dread, or climate anxiety. For Tzu Chi youth volunteers, this trajectory invites contemplation of the situation, and how to respond. As such, Tzu Chi volunteers of all ages are taking action to address the multi-layered needs of communities amid our changing climate and reverse this course to create a better, more resilient future together.

The 2023 Tzu Chi Youth Innovation Prize Challenge offers a chance for youths to earn funding for innovative solutions, and work toward a more sustainable future for our planet. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi Young Leaders

Tzu Chi Young Leaders know that young people today are the future movers and leaders of the world, and change can start from wherever we are. The 2023 Tzu Chi Youth Innovation Prize Challenge is one example of how they’re empowering climate action, and shifting the narrative toward solutions that can support mental health and community well-being. These youth-proposed ideas and innovations tackle climate change and promote low-carbon, sustainable lifestyle alternatives. Through events like these, youths brainstorm innovative solutions with a clear representation of their ecological benefit and blueprint for implementation.  

Phase one of this rigorous project focuses on ideating and developing proposals while implementing virtual networking sessions and resources. During the process, mentors are also ready to facilitate teaming up and help improve a proposal’s impact and feasibility. At the end of this phase, all or selected teams are invited to present their project proposals for a chance to receive up to $5,000 in seed funding to actualize their sustainable innovations. Some of the winning submissions from phase one this year encompass proposals for green jobs, creative ways of waste reduction, and addressing unsustainable trends in the textile industry.  

Phase two of the prize challenge focuses on the implementation of phase one’s winning proposals. Teams utilize their seed funding to turn their ideas into reality and are invited to present their progress, achievements, and impact in late Summer or early Fall 2023. Finally, one winning team will be selected for a chance to win a scholarship and additional funding.

Compassion and Innovation Go Hand-In-Hand

The importance of saving space for non-human life is critical for our global community to pursue an equitable, just, and stable future. And, Tzu Chi youths know that local acts often have resonant themes in the international space. In fact, Tzu Chi youths have even attended UN affairs, such as the United Nations Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. 

Alongside challenges for sustainable innovation, Tzu Chi youths organize coast-to-coast for meaningful volunteer opportunities locally, such as nature cleanups, tree planting events, and friendly cooking competitions while promoting the health and environmental benefits of a vegetarian diet. Last year, in 2022, Tzu Chi Annual Community Weekend activities across the country inspired 19 chapters to organize 16 events, with New York’s region holding a joint event with four different chapters. Altogether, Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (TCCA) members logged a total of over 600 service hours as they worked in their respective communities.

This year, on April 8, 2023, Tzu Chi USA kicked off its youth environmental initiatives with its first-ever Earth Day Carnival in San Dimas, California, offering a 100% vegetarian farmer’s market featuring organic and locally grown foods, eco-conscious arts and crafts, games, cooking demonstrations, and hands-on workshops on composting and urban farming. The event was a wonderful way to share both the importance and joy of environmental protection, becoming stewards for our planet, and raising awareness for the choices we face now.

The t-shirts worn by Tzu Chi youths display a core message of Tzu Chi Young Leaders’ service missions: To “Unite & Serve Together.” Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi Young Leaders

This year’s Annual Community Weekend also saw young volunteers in Irvine, California, collaborate with the Second Harvest Food Bank. Tzu Chi’s young leaders set out wearing their signature “Unite & Serve Together” t-shirts to harvest broccolini and cabbages in support of their local communities during Easter weekend. Together, they harvested over 2,500 pounds of cabbages to be delivered to community shelters for people experiencing homelessness and local food pantries.

When I volunteer I feel good inside. And I feel like I accomplished something. So, helping other people also helps me to become a better person.

Youths also conducted community cleanup events at Mt. Rubidoux Trail in Riverside, California, the green space along Muddy River in Boston, Massachusetts, and cleared invasive plant species in Atlanta, Georgia. They held vegetarian cooking classes in Texas and Ohio, helped a community garden in Texas flourish, and also volunteered with the Central Texas Food Bank.

On April 8, nine TCCA members and two counselors from the University of California, Davis, participated in the Annual Community Weekend by cleaning up the River Park along the American River in Sacramento, California.

Earlier in the day, a jogger walked by and said thank you for cleaning up the trash. It’s nice to know that people appreciate the work that we do. Two other women asked what we were doing. I told them about Tzu Chi and how we adopted this mile of the American River Bike Trail, and how we would come to clean up a couple of times a year. They were very grateful.

The American River Parkway Foundation in Sacramento County has invited local residents and groups to adopt parks along the river to keep the river and its surroundings clean. This initiative promotes collaborative efforts for environmental protection and discourages pollutants from entering the water. Tzu Chi adopted the ninth mile of the river’s north bank, and is committed to quarterly cleanups such as this one.

Seizing the Future, Seizing Today

As a global community, we have a clear goal that requires ambitious acts of compassion and equity. Care and understanding are important ingredients in mobilizing engagement and transformation, and raising awareness for the actions and solutions that are available, accessible, and ready to deploy.

The youth voice in decision-making processes in response to the triple planetary crisis is more important than ever, and their message is clear: we cannot continue to live unsustainably and must scale up game-changing solutions. This includes doing more to ensure that youth, as key stakeholders of the future, are engaged so that no one gets left behind. We must truly care about the collective.

Bringing solutions to the table can be achieved by ensuring accessibility, so more people have the opportunity to become informed and can connect and engage with the issues at hand. With this, Tzu Chi and its environmental initiatives uplift diverse youth perspectives on the frontlines of creating change within their communities, and ushering in solutions for key climate, biodiversity, and pollution challenges. 

Wherever we restore environmental health, we restore balance to our planet and our future. Let’s do it!

Tzu Chi Collegiate Association members from the University of California, Davis, participate in 2023’s Annual Tzu Chi Weekend by hosting a river cleanup of part of the American River that Tzu Chi Sacramento adopted. Photo/Courtesy of TCCA at UC Davis

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