Children comprise twenty per cent of the population, but are one hundred percent of our future. From my work involving 55,000 students and teachers across Australia I also know that young people have so much to offer right now when it comes to solving environmental issues.
However, I wonder what our children must be thinking and feeling as adults squabble and bicker. Children in the classroom displaying the same behaviour as we've been subjected to by our senior politicians over the last weeks, if not months or even years in Question Time, would be standing in the naughty corner and enlisted in programs to make them play nice.
When I spent time with the United Nations in New York a study was released announcing 'One in five children already has a psychological disorder and by 2020 mental illness will be one of the top five causes of death or disability in the young'. This is backed with stats of 1 in 4 Australians suffering depression during their life time, kids as young as five being diagnosed with clinical depression, 25% of people in our jails mentally ill and surveys rating mental illness as one of the top causes of missed worked days for the Australian workforce. And yet against all this, my experience of kids engaged in environment work tells such a different story.
12 years and over 2600 workshops with kids teaching kids on energy, water, waste, biodiversity and climate change has resulted in 100's of on-ground projects with communities across Australia coming together around an issue that unites us all – the environment. However, while the kids remain optimistic and active, the complex negotiations going on globally, the pronouncements by the uninformed, the many different levels of understanding and vested interests in the status quo make me less so.
I can't help asking, at a time when the country's attention has been so focused on leadership, 'Who can lead us?' There are 7 billion people in the world today, of that, 1 billion own 80% of wealth; 2 billion people have no access to clean water, there is a massive and growing gap between rich and poor and we are all facing an uncertain climate future. In spite of this house sizes in Australia have doubled in the last thirty years and we're consuming more resources and energy than ever before. Let's not lose sight of the fact that it doesn't matter how well we do in education or business, without a sustainable and healthy environment we are all diminished.
The thing that saddens me most is that we have so many of the answers. We have ordinary homes that use 90% less water and power than the average home, we have modern irrigation techniques that allow enough for agriculture and the environment, we have some of the best scientists and technologies in the world, we have cars that can run on green electricity - my hometown of Mildura sees the sun as a huge industry for them in the future.
It sounds a bit clichéd, but I am deeply proud to be an Australian. To see our farmers battling Coal Seam Gas companies for the right to keep providing our food, to see the big end of town's response to asking them to pay for the privilege of digging up the rocks that belong to every Australian, and on top of all this go through the last week or so of our political leaders intently focused on arguing among themselves leaves many of us asking where is the grand vision and leadership our kids deserve?
The world obviously needs more leaders that have a social conscience and an innate sense of responsibility for the future of life on this planet. Leaders that are selfless and beyond the machinations of party politics who lead for the long term. Education and schools offer a very powerful opportunity to reinstate positive sustainability and community values and can be the catalyst for environmental and social understanding and action in our communities, but they can't do it alone.
It was the coming together of the National Farmers Federation through Rick Farley and the Australian Conservation Foundation through Philip Toyne all those years ago that gave rise to our hugely successful Landcare movement. Back then they were two seemingly unlikely partners, but these men encouraged their constituents to put aside their differences for the greater good and long-term prosperity of our country. Ultimately whether we are teachers, bankers, miners, nurses or even politicians we must all seek a sustainable future -we all need fresh water to drink, clean air to breathe and food to sustain us.
If we want leadership then we must provide students with the necessary social, academic, emotional and practical skills to cope in our increasingly complex society, but we must also embody the values we wish to see. Above all every student needs the motivation to learn and the capacity to take that learning through to action. Hope and a belief in a bright and compelling future is a very big part in keeping young people motivated to want to do more, to learn more.
They deserve leadership that is about action and inspiration. I've seen the kids that come out of environmental work of many kinds – they are resilient, optimistic, have a sense of future, are capable public speakers and can communicate ideas in many different forms. If the only outcome is that these young people can cope with the ups and downs of life then that is an amazing gift.
So perhaps we should ask our son, daughter, niece, nephew or grandchild what they think of the current vision for Australia? What they think of the people taking care of their future? And when our kids tell us they are worried, I challenge politicians and business leaders to put differences aside, to shelve selfish personal ambition and work hard for a brighter future for our great nation and our kids.