The Green Sheikh Speaks About Plastic Pollution, Youth Leadership and Behavior Change

By Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Ali Al Nuaimi
As told to Brittany Shoot

I knew that before I was born, my family struggled in a challenging desert environment with fewer resources than today, and during my childhood between late ‘60s and ‘70s, I was not spoiled. I lived in moderation under my parents’ guidance. My father told me, “If you want to be happy, don’t wait for me to give you wealth. You may change to reduce your desires!”

I chose the muddy way to learn and sharpen my skills through many challenges early in my career. Though my military experience and my work in oil and gas fields and petrochemical industries in remote areas, I gained experience and appreciation of the many countries to which I traveled, where I learned the truth about living well with little.

Another major impact on my sustainable lifestyle choices is the religious belief to live in moderation and without excess. God says in the Qur’an "….and eat and drink but do not be wasteful: God does not like wasteful people." I believe strongly that each one of us is responsible for our actions, either socially or environmentally. In the noble Qur’an, Allah says, “And did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, the Earth would indeed be full of mischief.” My faith is a driving force behind my beliefs in sustainability and collective ownership because nature is Allah’s creation and a sacred space. He tells us this planet is a trust, and we are its stewards, which is a role we must fulfill with commitment.

It is important to understand that I was pollution creator, and then converted to become a pollution preventer. I believe that you cannot appreciate wealth until you experience poverty, and same as to enjoy living in Heaven, you need to visit Hell. As a result of my many experiences, I made personal changes was to think wisely about the balance between human beings and the natural resources.

By the age of 24, I was quite conscious about environmental impact, and I had transformed my life to become an environmental protector after witnessing environmental destruction both locally and globally. Then, I continue my environmental stewardship through more education and more actions through participation on NGOs and government. One unique aspect of my journey to spread my green message was that I concentrated on a grassroots approach.

I like to break down barriers and reach out to the younger generation to raise awareness of environmental and sustainability issues and encourage a general sense of environmental stewardship. I put my studies and influence to practical use, joining many environmental groups, speaking at numerous universities and events, and engaging with local regional and international media to promote dozens of environmental causes. The role of youth in promoting leadership is not just empowering their communities but also using their talent and innovation to solve their local and global challenges, environmental concerns, and enhance cross-cultural interactions.

As an example, water and energy are major concerns in the United Arab Emirates and the region. Many symbolic movements were created to call everyone to take action against climate change, and groups measured by how much we saved -- in one hour or one day or during our whole lives -- and it is measured by how many people are calling for action. This includes sustainability camps, workshops and discussion on building ideas and action plans from grassroots campaigns and bottom-top influence, which mobilizes sustainability movement by a common call for action. I believe those movements tapped into young people’s potential, focusing on youth who have the time, enthusiasm and energy to effect positive change if given the platform to plan, organize and lead.

Youth are most ambitious people in society and currently represent more than 60% of the region’s population; the average age in the Middle East is only 23 years old, five years younger than the rest of the world, and fourteen years younger than in the United States. It is crucial that this region attests to the high number of active, engaged young people and works toward developing jobs and creating opportunities for the youth. Their energy and vitality must be channeled into productive and capacity-building processes that can benefit the region. As one of the member of ruling family in the UAE and through my active role in few local and international NGOs focused on sustainability, it is crucial that I inspire and empower our youth to engage in sustainable leadership and to be role models. I encourage them to take responsibility and actions through embracing behavior change and building strong belief systems.

We face many challenges in our daily life with overuse of materials and high consumption rates, and those things have a negative impact on human beings, animals and the environments. One major concern is plastic pollution. Plastic creates toxic pollution at every stage of its existence: manufacture, use and disposal. Every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists, including the small amount that has been incinerated and has become toxin particulate matter.

Plastic pollution has become a major issue in the UAE and globally. We believe that by first building a relationship with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, we can then synergize our awareness and expertise around the issues related to plastic pollution and spread creative solution-oriented messages through public campaigns to young champions in the region. Another main focus right now is to have Plastic Free Campuses across the UAE, and with collaboration between select schools in the program. We’re also working on a sustainable entrepreneurship initiative to empower less fortunate women by teaching them to create useful products from plastic waste. We are excited about the next chapter in our advocacy work, and I’m thrilled to be a catalyst in such an inspiring global movement.

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