How can rebels influence the climate debate? According to RSM student Werner Schouten you need to be constructive as well as critical. Like many young people, Werner Schouten is passionate about the environment. But unlike those who are content to criticise from the sidelines, he is an active force for positive change on global warming. The RSM student Global Business and Sustainability (2021) aims to ensure future generations can still live on a habitable planet. Describing himself as a ‘constructive rebel’, he is taking his message on sustainability directly to the Dutch people through the media as well as reaching out to policymakers and business leaders.
Spreading the news about sustainable entrepreneurship
While completing his Masters’ thesis (on the ‘Institutional Architecture of an Impact Economy’), the 23-year-old interviews innovative entrepreneurs for the weekly programme Frontrunners on the Netherlands’ all-news radio station BNR Nieuwsradio.
“I think it's important to tell new stories about what we see as progress in society. That is why we highlight 'frontrunners' in the field of sustainability, such as construction company Ballast Nedam, which is working on 'future-proof living environments', and the ethical chocolate-maker Tony’s Chocolonely with its plea for a sugar tax. These entrepreneurs prove that many perceived barriers in the field of sustainability and business are imaginary, because they are already breaking them.”
“With a bold approach, you really can take on the world. Communicating with stakeholders, while being a bit rebellious, means a lot is possible.”
Leading thousands of young climate activists
In 2019, Werner came to national prominence during his leadership of the Dutch Young Climate Movement. He was invited to the Prime Minister’s residence, the Catshuis, to share his vision for a green economic recovery with Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Climate Minister Eric Wiebes. The Movement, linking more than 50 youth organisations, went on to achieve first place in the Trouw newspaper’s Sustainable 100 ranking of sustainable doers and thinkers in 2020.
“No-one will come to you to say, ‘would you like to voice your concerns?’ You have to take care of that yourself,” he says. “We had to make sure that the first youth party ever, representing more than 100 thousand young people, was involved in high level politics in the Catshuis. As President of the Movement, I found it a real education. Seeing for myself how much influence companies and lobbies have in policymaking really blew my mind.”
Inspiring business leaders
Working directly with companies at the heart of moving towards net zero, Werner is now a member of the societal advisory council of the Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry and supports multinationals such as DOW, DSM and Shell to transition away from fossil fuels.
He has also co-founded Commission 2100, a network of 21 current directors and 21 early career professionals. Together, they are building an economy in which innovation, talent and entrepreneurship can contribute to both financial capital and prosperity for current and future generations.
“Politicians often make beautiful promises when it comes to generational justice. But, when the billions are being distributed, they hardly test what their plans actually do to the general prosperity of these generations."
Justice across the generations
Werner is a passionate advocate for the concept of inter- and intra-generational justice: “Inter-generational means that we consider future generations just as much as current generations in policymaking. Intra-generational justice means that we regard people growing up in places like Africa or South America to be just as important as their counterparts in Western Europe.”
In his view, policymakers are still too concerned with narrow short-term measures: “Politicians often make beautiful promises when it comes to generational justice. But, when the billions are being distributed, they hardly test what their plans actually do to the general prosperity of these generations. Whether it’s the building of Lelystad Airport or the widening of the highway, they just say, ‘That's a problem for another day, we're not going to think about it now,’.”
Beyond climate change
While cutting carbon emissions is essential, Werner believes more factors must be considered. He argues the well-being of communities is often at odds with the need for financial prosperity in business models, although at least equally as important:
“How green is a residential area? How clean is the air? To what extent is a community integrated, not only now, but in 2050, 2100 and beyond? My struggle is to get those unheard voices reflected in our figures. Because right now we are stealing the future, selling it in the present and calling it Gross National Product.”
Roots of activism
Werner’s interests in activism date from his days as a student of Advanced Technology at the University of Twente. During a summer school in South Korea, he saw at first-hand how inequality is being created by climate change and environmental pollution:
“Summers in Seoul are extremely hot. When the wind comes from the wrong direction, smog and greenhouse gases blow in from heavy industries in China and spread over the city like a blanket.
“Residents would urge me to wear a mask to protect myself. But while I walked to university every day with my mask on, I saw a lot of people who never wore a mask. While I could shelter in well-ventilated buildings for most of the day, they were living in the streets. Why did I earn this lucky, privileged position? Because I happened to be born in a rich country.”
A voice in the wilderness
Despite his record as a socially involved connector, global citizen and entrepreneur, Werner sometimes fears he’s a voice crying in the wilderness: “Even some sustainability professionals view the current situation differently, and I find myself increasingly trying to find allies and forge coalitions so that our shared ideas about how the economy should work continue to spread. I hope my efforts will ultimately result in a livable planet for all generations, until the year 2100 and beyond.
“Optimism alone doesn’t count, instead we need courage and guts to prevent our planet from warming up any further, with disastrous consequences.”