While society tends to value the opinions of older people, preferring their wisdom and experience over the naivety of a young person, the untapped potential of young people is found in their ability to propose fearlessly innovative ideas. The intention of supporting young people as catalysts for peace is therefore worthy, because they possess unprecedented potential to alter the course of history. This ability stems from their power to imagine a better existence while recognizing their responsibility to build it. One global peace leader and nuclear non-proliferation advocate, Daisaku Ikeda, has spoken about the power of young people. He says, “regardless of the times, there lies unchanging in the depths of the young human soul an earnestness that responds to earnestness, a seriousness that reacts to seriousness; this is the true character and prerogative of youth.” Adults often tell young people that the future is in their hands, but young people are rarely given the avenues to craft that future. This is why the question of engaging young people in non-proliferation efforts is paramount. The question of how Canada can engage to further increase and empower youth participation in the non-proliferation efforts must consider who already is engaged, who isn’t, and what is preventing them from engaging.
In a political ethics class, my professor asked us whether people in our generation are concerned about the threat of nuclear war. The answers varied: some criticized recently increased accumulation of weapons of mass destruction as a means of deterrence (a prominent perspective taught in international relations), stating that these weapons pose too pervasive of a threat to justify their existence. Others said that there are more imminent issues such as the impossibility of buying a home, paying off student debt or finding good employment that hinder young people from thinking about global threats like nuclear war, because they are too focused on improving their immediate situation. This discussion encapsulates the current state of engagement amongst young people as it relates to nuclear non-proliferation. While there are some youth-led civic organizations across the country engaged in non-proliferation advocacy, oftentimes the people participating in those spaces are doing so because they have the capacity and support to be engaged. The question of inspiring further engagement must consider the reasons why some young people are not engaged.
In 2016, the Prime Minister of Canada created a Youth Council to develop the first ever youth policy in Canada. The findings from this policy-development process specifically related to youth engagement and empowerment highlight common challenges of engaging young people in policy development. The lack of meaningful and accessible opportunities for youth participation in decision-making and a lack of awareness about existing opportunities were prominent themes found throughout the consultations. Therefore, an obvious solution might be to create more meaningful opportunities and improve their promotion so that young people are better able to participate. However, this solution is overly simplistic. It is a proposal that may attract a few more engaged idealists and/or counterculturalists but it does not expand the sphere of engagement to the lone wolves, the bro’s and brittany’s or the most disconnected people. If we truly want to advance on this issue, solutions that promote inclusive growth– i.e., the meaningful participation of everyone– will be required. Ultimately, the importance of expanding the circle of engagement lies at the heart of nuclear non-proliferation efforts. When nuclear devastation hits, everyone will be impacted. In her essay “The End of Imagination,” Arundhati Roy speaks to this reality: she says, “the only good thing about nuclear war is that it is the single most egalitarian idea that man has ever had. On the day of reckoning, you will not be asked to present your credentials. The devastation will be undiscriminating.”4 Therefore, the opportunity to take part in prevention efforts should be extended to everyone.
There are two concrete ways for Canada to further increase and empower youth participation in non-proliferation efforts. The first solution is for the Government of Canada and provincial governments to put forward innovative public policy solutions that tackle the challenges that hinder young people from engaging in civic-related activities, namely improving the affordability and access to opportunities for engagement. The second is to strengthen human rights and global citizenship education in public schools in order to inspire a broader cohort of young people to get involved in preventing the spread and threat of nuclear weapons. For example, one way of concretely broadening the engagement sphere is by providing young people who are currently out of the engagement sphere with more opportunities to participate in civic-engagement related activities after school instead of working jobs aimed at saving for postsecondary school or helping their financially-strained families. Similarly, providing investment grants and up-front aid to make postsecondary school more affordable for students might help more young people transition from lone wolves to engaged idealists. By equalizing the opportunities available for engagement, Canada can further increase and empower youth participation in non-proliferation efforts.
The greatest social equalizer we have in Canadian society is public education. The surest way to inspire engagement amongst Canadians is to improve human rights and global citizenship education in schools. Utilizing school classrooms to inform and inspire the next generation to give attention to issues threatening our collective existence, such as nuclear war, is a concrete way to further empower and increase youth participation in non-proliferation efforts. John Dewey, a prominent educational philosopher has expressed that “the aim of education is to develop character in both self and others that can contribute to the mutual welfare of the individual and the world.”5 The prompting and encouragement to think about these issues in the classroom, especially at a young age, can impart a life-long desire to bring forth bold new ideas that lead to large-scale transformation, such as total disarmament. The central goal of humanistic education is to create a learning environment that inspires one to use their wisdom and knowledge for greater value creation. The best way to equip our world with the thinking necessary to achieve a peaceful future is thus to educate the future leaders of said world.
Expanding the sphere of youth engagement in nuclear non-proliferation advocacy will require a system-level approach to change. In order to broaden engagement, opportunities must be made available to those young people for whom engaging is either presently difficult or not an immediate concern. Once the opportunities are made more available, the next crucial step is to listen to and enact the changes that young people push for, namely a move away from accumulating weapons and a move towards a greater focus on building a peaceful and prosperous future– one completely free from the threat of nuclear war.
Banner image by United States Department of Defense, courtesy of Wikipedia.