Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Painting the world green

Felix Finkbeiner, a child with a global plan

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Felix with participants

What motivates you the most and what saddens you about your initiative?

What motivates me most is the fact that I am convinced that it is very easy to make the world a better place, and it is possible to change today's world into a sustainable order. The main global challenges we are facing are the climate and poverty crises, in which 30,000 humans, mainly children, are dying of starvation every single day. This is so in an incredibly rich world where there is enough food and resources to feed everybody. No one has to starve.

Our biggest obstacles are the ignorance and complacency of some adults. One friend explained to me how some adults think using a monkey example. If you let a monkey choose whether it wants one banana now or six bananas later, the monkey will always choose one banana now. And since some adults seem to act like these monkeys, we are facing huge problems.

Therefore, we need global rules -- rules on how to deal with the environment and global rules for social justice. We already have global rules for the economy as a result of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). And we have environmental ideas thanks to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and social suggestions thanks to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). We just have to make the UNEP and the ILO as strong as the WTO, or we have to combine these three into one in order to make the world look very different, economically, socially and environmentally, in short sustainable.

But to do so, we have to understand ourselves as global citizens and not as national citizens. By tree planting we act as a global family. We are planting trees all over the world and in 193 countries. Wangari Maathai started the movement in Kenya and we, children, are continuing her work worldwide. 12.6 million trees planted in six years are a first step, and a billion trees are our goal. Imagine if we reached that goal by 2020 -- we would have proved to everybody that it is possible to change the world if we all work together as global citizens. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, healthy and sick, we can all plant together.

Is Egypt on your list of countries to visit?

I have never visited Egypt, but I have learned a lot about its long tradition and culture. I think we, young people, won't be able to travel as much as our parents did, as travelling by air produces lots of carbon dioxide. My grandparents didn't travel by air, just the generation of my parents. My grandparents are happy people, and I think the young generation will be happy as well without much travelling.

On 31 January 2011, the seventh day of the Egyptian revolution, I gave a presentation in a school in New York. As I finished, Theo, an 11-year-old boy, stood up and said, "Felix we will make it, the Egyptians will make it too." I didn't mention Egypt, nor thought about the revolution. But that boy inspired me, and two days later when I spoke at the General Assembly I said, "one mosquito can't do anything against a rhino, but a thousand mosquitoes together can make a rhino change its direction." You can find trees planted in Egypt at under Egypt.

What is it like to be the youngest world ambassador for the environment? What are the challenges?

There are many others and much younger people than me. Already 20 years ago in 1992, Severn Suzuki, a 14-year-old girl from Canada, spoke at the plenary of the UN Sustainability Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Her video on YouTube got 20 million clicks in 20 years. Today, we can reach 20 million people in two days on social media, so it is much easier to spread the word today. I have met so many children and young people around the world that I know that I do not do anything special.

What is your personal dream? What do you want to do when you grow up?

My dream is that our generation will learn to act as global citizens. Either we all live in peace, or nobody does. I started at nine and I am 15 years old now. In six years I learned that it probably will be a lifelong task. I do not know what I will study and what I will do in the future, but I know that I will always be politically active. Probably not in a political party, but somehow on a global political scale.

When you met Fardosa, what was the first thing that came into your mind?

I knew that one billion citizens of the globe have to live on less than US$1 a day and half the world's population is living on less than $2 a day. Half of the world's population is living under similar conditions to those of Fardosa. But these are only numbers, and I was absolutely shocked when I saw how Fardosa and her friends are living. Spending time with them, I was impressed by how strong she has to be, what obstacles she faces, and how she has made her way out of the slum by being disciplined.

I also learned that planting trees connects our lives. Fardosa was planting trees in Korogocho, the third-biggest slum in Nairobi, like thousands of other children around the world. This made me feel better. We have a common language and a common goal.

You never met Roman, but how did you feel about him after the film?

I have never met him personally, but Roman is doing something wonderful. He lost his father as a result of violence, and he is working against violence. I admire what he is doing, and I fully understand that he has to concentrate on his work and not dissipate his energies.

How was your life before your presentation about the climate and what changed in your life afterwards?

I was nine when I shared my ideas with my classmates about what we could do to save the polar bear. Later, I learned that it is not only about the polar bear, but it is also about us humans. We have to save our own lives. At 10, I joined a UNEP-Children conference, and I met 700 other children of my age coming from 100 countries. I shared my vision with them, and I was elected a member of the children's board of the UNEP.

I go to school every day, and I only miss 20 school days a year because of my work. Every second weekend I give a presentation; the other weekend is for friends. So I think I live a normal life of a politically active child, like many others in the world. We know that the future is too important to let only adults be responsible for it. We have to shape our future by ourselves.

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