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System Change from Outside and Within

In our articles series leading up to Stockholm+50, we cover youth activists with clear demands on world leaders to solve the ecological crisis. The “stubborn optimist” Maija Kuivalainen from Finland wants to change the root cause of the crisis - the rotten economic system. According to her, today’s swear words such as degrowth have to become the norm.

Vicenza, situated between Venice and Verona, was one of the cities affected by the storm and heavy rainfalls back in 2018 when Italy declared a state of emergency. It was deemed the second most costly natural disaster in Europe that year, after the terrible droughts.

Turists in Venice floods in 2018 only 70 kms from Vicenza.

Having grown up in Pieksamäki, a little rural town in mid-Finland, she had not been naturally surrounded by a context where global challenges oftentimes were discussed and taken action upon. There were no organisations or movements working with environmental and climate change issues.

The storm served as a wake up call for Maija. She realised that she had to learn more about climate change and decided to start studying a mixed bachelor’s and master’s in environmental policy and law at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu. As she got more into the subject, she engaged herself into civil society.

Maija Kuivalainen was an au pair in Italy in 2018.

One thing led to another. As her contact network grew larger, she connected with like-minded youth like youth climate of Finland 2020-2021 Emma Sairanen who recommended her to participate in the online Mock COP26 youth conference in 2020. This conference was to compile a common youth statement - a Mock COP Treaty - aimed at world leaders leading up to the Glasgow climate Summit the year after. With this, a new world had opened itself to Maija. This world offered meaningful participation in international decision-making processes in conjunction with national advocacy aimed at ministers and other leaders of society.

Politics is not always the most common pathway for engaged youth to make a difference. According to Nordic research, the young generation holds less of a sense of party affiliation than its older counterparts. Few young people believe that politics is right for them.

"I had this image that it is just about talking without making things happen. Politicians just talk and sometimes they just fight."

However, Maija’s views changed when her friend came up to her with a suggestion to enter politics. Albeit suspicious at first, she gradually felt people believed in her and backed her up. So why not?

"We need everyone on board to put pressure on the system to change. If our leading politicians cannot make the decisions, let's do it ourselves."

Maija frequents politicians with her messages. Here with the Finnish MEP:s Alviina Alametsä and Silvia Modig on the left hand side and Sirpa Pietikäinen on the right hand side.

Maija decided to run for the municipal elections in 2021 and her campaign was successful; she got a seat in the Joensuu city council. Since then she is doing the change from within.

This did not mean that Maija gave up her outside-in activism. She was not willing to close all the newly opened doors. As a matter of fact, one more would open itself up as the Finnish Youth Council Allianssi appointed her the Finnish youth climate delegate 2021-2022. As such, she attended the COP26 in Glasgow.

Maija with the previous Finnish Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Krista Mikkonen in Glasgow 2021.

Having worked with these issues for a while now, Maija has understood that we cannot just continue working with different environmental topics one and one. There is a need for a more integrated approach, addressing the root causes of climate change: the view that nature is always up for grabs.

"Climate change is not only about emissions, it is all about how we consume our natural resources. In Finland, we deplete our resources far too early each year, we have our Overshoot day already in March."

In a market capitalism, the demand on nature’s resources comes from our consumption patterns. If we are to reduce our ecological footprint, as Maija argues, we must reduce our consumption. That, however, clashes with the current economic model, which strives to increase GDP year after year; the pursuit of an endless economic growth in order to maintain jobs and social welfare is still one of the ultimate goals of senior power-holders, more so in the midst of financial crises.

"When I attended an EU conference in March, the governor of the Bank of France did not even want to utter the word degrowth. He said capitalism and economic growth can fix these issues. He is not the only person in power who has this perspective. That is a problem. They do not want to change. They want their benefits with capitalism as they are afraid of not going to earn money any more."

Relative change in main global economic and environmental indicators from 1970 to 2018 reported in the European Environment Bureau report “Growth without economic growth”.

According to Maija, we have to stop considering degrowth a swear word and define other goals for success other than increased GDP.

During recent years, the discussion on alternative economic models which fit within the planetary boundaries have made their entry into the “finer” rooms. One milestone would be Kate Rayworth’s book on Donought Economics, which quickly became a best-seller after its launch in 2017. Really, it sparked a global discussion on the need of finding new ways to finance the social welfare system only through sustainable practices.

"We can still be wealthy but we need to start with the environmental foundation and build an economic system on top of that. Not the other way around. First things first."

At the EU Youth Forum in March 2022, Maija debated on behalf of climate budgeting to all EU cities. Her homecity Joensuu started climate budgeting this year.

Maija is obviously one of those who take all opportunities to demand structural change and advocate for better systemic decisions in all areas of society. The next opportunity coming up is the Stockholm+50 meeting. As a Finnish climate youth delegate, Maija will be one amongst other Nordic youth delegates who meet the Nordic climate ministers on the 1st of June in Stockholm. There, she will also set up a new Nordic youth network around climate issues, along the lines of the Nordic Youth Biodiversity Network. Maija has no time to lose.

Although Maija is in doubt that the Stockholm+50 meeting will produce grand commitments, she says it is important to meet, connect, build momentum and then go home with tools to do better. It could even function as a platform for new bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries.

"I believe in us. We can really reach a common safe and secure future when we collaborate. But we need to be stubborn optimists and start working now. We do not have any time to wait."

Who cannot say it is heartwarming to see young people like Maija fighting for a better future with such stubborn optimism, whilst world leaders are constantly failing to dismantle our common grand existential threat? The endurance, the resources and the energy it requires to educate oneself, equip oneself with tools and a mindset to make a difference and to use those tools in action is, simply put, admirable. Maija is such a movement-creator, capacity-builder and visionary who is already now changing the system, both from outside and from within. Young people like Maija keep the utopia alive that humankind needs the most.

Article and interview were written by:

Simon Holmström

Nordic Council Delegate to Stockholm+50

Connect with Maija on:

Insta: Maija_Ann

Twitter: Maija_Ann

Read the previous article on Jonas Kittelsen here.

The call for participants to the ReGeneration Week 2022 has opened! Register today to secure your place and connect with current and future change-makers in the Nordic and Baltic Sea Region.


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