Solution-oriented teenagers and experts in sustainability and biodiversity were brought together for a symposium in the beautiful mountains of Villars Sur Ollon, Switzerland to spark inspiration, inform on the latest science about climate change and find true solutions to the environmental crisis. If you have experienced the wonders of the canton of Vaud, you will agree there is no better place to be inspired to protect our environment. 

Incredible energy and hope

What struck me the most upon arrival to this symposium, which welcomed 34 schools and more than 30 nationalities, was the extent to which the experts and the young people were connecting and how much time was spent outside the conferences and workshops debating best practices and innovative ideas. Incredible energy and hope were present at the breakfast table where one could hear conversations about best leadership practices, about how to encourage change within one’s organisation or how philanthropy has a role to play in systems change.  

Throughout the three days, I was particularly inspired by French environmentalist and academic Julia Marton-Lefèvre’s conversation about leadership; by the Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research Johan Rockström’s innovative ideas on fixing the planet through food; by Jaideep Bansal’s Green Innovation in the Himalayas and by Lee Howell, executive Director of the Villars Institute who introduced the concept of Systems Thinking.  

The road to the Villars Institute

Why was I at this symposium? The Earth Prize (not to be confused with the Earthshot Prize) is an international environmental sustainability competition in which teenagers from all walks of life must find the best solution to accelerate positive change towards environmental sustainability. This competition was organised by the Earth Foundation based in Switzerland and young change-makers from the Earth Prize were, as a result, invited to the Villars Institute Symposium in June 2022. Three students from Eton College became finalists of the first edition of the Earth Prize competition last April but given our students were all sitting exams at this time, as Master-in-Charge of the Earth Prize I was the only one able to represent Eton College at the innovative Villars Institute.  

This non-profit foundation, established in 2022 to ‘accelerate the transition to a net zero economy and restore the health of the planet for all its inhabitants’ (Villars Institute, 2022), is incredibly inventive in its wish to enable a true intergenerational collaboration following a clear ethos: Inform, Inquire, Inspire and Initiate.  

The solutions of the 21st century cannot become the biggest challenges of the next

When considering climate change, everything is deeply interconnected and the changes we experience will impact all areas of our lives. One must break that silo mentality hindering systems thinking to ensure we find plausible solutions that do not create additional problems. The solutions of the 21st century cannot become the biggest challenges of the next.  

Eton College understands this and tries to involve all areas of the school in our sustainability strategy. Through our Boys’ Environment committee feeding into the College Environment committee, the intergenerational guest list of the environment summit and through Planet Mark’s workshops attended by boys and members of staff from all areas of the school, we wish to provide unity and efficiency in our actions. Planet Mark is the sustainability certification body helping us to reduce our carbon footprint and work towards net-zero as part of the new school strategy. We wish for boys to be part of the audits and the road mapping process to ensure they can see the carbon-saving work they might have inspired. We wish to best-equip our students and the rest of our community with the skills required to lead successful environmental projects. 

I have been to many conferences and symposiums about sustainability over the last 10 years, but never have I been part of an event which truly considered the voice, energy and talent of our young people. Today, they are asking for change by demonstrating in the streets; they deserve a habitable planet to live on, yet they should not be taking on the responsibility to ‘solve the unthinkable’ (Earth Prize, 2022) alone. Instead, they should be fully part of the process and working jointly with experienced professionals. I can only hope Etonians will be able to join next year’s symposium as Fellows of the Villars Institute.