In 1992, 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki took to the stage at the Rio Earth Summit as a representative of ECO (Environmental Children’s Organisation), an organisation she had founded aged nine.
She appealed to delegates and world leaders to consider future generations in their decision making, put an end to environmental destruction and think about social justice justice, saying “if you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it,” adding “do not forget who you are attending these conferences for: your own children – you are deciding what kind of a world we are growing up in.” She challenged them to make their actions reflect their words.
Her short speech received one of the three standing ovations at the summit.
Severn went on to study evolutionary biology, and she remains an active member of the environmental justice movement. She now lives with her husband and two children in British Columbia.
In anticipation of the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development, held from 20th-22nd June, Kristie Robinson spoke with Severn to find out what she had to say 20 years after that famous speech.
How did your presence at the 1992 Earth Summit come about?
We had registered as an NGO at the global forum so we had a booth where all the NGOs were exchanging info. But we were just five little kids in a sea of people, and people would come to our booth and we started giving five-minute addresses. My father is a well-known environmentalist and he gave us some of his time to spread our message. On the final day we were packing our bags when we found out someone had dropped out and we were offered their spot to talk to the plenary session.
How did you feel about the overwhelming response you received?
I don’t really know what we were hoping for, but it really gave us the sense we had achieved what we had set out to. To get one of the three standing ovations at the Summit… and I’ve never had negative feedback on what I said, and that’s amazing.
Do you still stand by your words?
The words are as resonant today as they were then. If anything they are more powerful, because we are still on the same path and now more than ever it is fundamental we make changes.
But you know it’s hard to keep the public’s attention on these issues. We had a good moment in 2004 after a few climate issues got the public’s attention and then Katrina brought weather-related disasters right onto the agenda. But then we had the economic crash and that attention was taken away. I thought with the crash we were not connecting the dots – that fundamentally the same system that has caused so much economic loss is also responsible for the environmental problems we are facing.
We need a paradigm shift. We are desperate for that. Trying to live sustainably in the current Western system is impossible. How is it that in 2012 with all the technological progress we have seen, we created a society where it is impossible to live without doing damage? We need a change where it is not all tilted in favour of corporate rule, and this is not extreme thinking.
What do you think of the term ‘green economy’?
You can’t really say ‘green economy’ – it doesn’t work within the current parameters of the term economy. Humans have always had economies, but we need one that makes sense for the systems that have kept us healthy for the past 200,000 years. Since the Second World War we have focussed on this system that only revolves around economic growth – endless growth, endless markets. It’s just crazy. We need to value things that give us health and pleasure and quality of life – to look at a new system of values rather than simply GDP, one that takes into account natural capital. And we need our governments to help level the playing field so we as individuals can do the right thing. In the current system it’s impossible.
During the speech you spoke a lot about the fact that you were a child and speaking for the children of the world. Has having your own children changed things for you?
It’s changed my perspective – I feel the same passion I always felt as a righteous child growing up, but now I do understand why people were so affected by what I said. The love that a parent has for a child is unparalleled. I am a scientist – I like studying rational solutions, but I think that there is huge hope for saving the world based on the fact that parents love their children. And we have not made that connection between our children and what we are doing to them. Since the beginning of time we have looked to the future and looked down the generations, but now with the rise of globalisation and consumerism cause and effect is broken – we don’t see that what we are doing is directly affecting the health and opportunities for future generations. We need to leverage the love parents have for their children and put that vision back together.
I know people who are choosing not to have children as they don’t want to bring them into a world of climate change.
I think that is one of the saddest things I have ever heard. I think that having children connects you to what is truly at stake – it means you can’t not get involved and fight for what’s right. Having kids connects us to a responsibility to hand things over to the next generation.
And I do have hope that things can be fixed. My mother is a powerful feminist and environmentalist, and she says that from the beginning of time people have been trying to overcome societal break ups and issues that have been hugely destructive to their cultures.
But the issue we are facing today is of an unprecedented scale…
This is a bigger challenge: we are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. The last one wiped out the dinosaurs, but it was much slower. We now have one that is directly caused by human actions, and is happening faster. This is a massive global and geological event – one that has never happened before.
What do you say to those who still question climate change?
I have stopped responding to sceptics as those people don’t want to listen. And really, we are done with that debate – it’s real and it’s happening. Now we have to deal with adaptation. Millions of people are now feeling the effects of climate change – it’s on the news, the weather is on the news much more than it was before!
But the connection is never made on air – the connection between the extreme weather and climate change.
Yes, the problem is the mainstream media not talking about it. And that is a huge disservice. They are trying to put a balanced perspective on things that are just not balanced anymore; to show both sides of the story, to keep the public confused. Where in this case you don’t need to show both perspectives – the vast majority of scientists are in agreement, and you will never get all scientists to agree on anything! And when you look into who and what is behind those who are sceptics, you generally find big oil.
The media has to step up and take responsibility for its actions and stop acting like there is still a debate – the debate is over. And by airing the views of big oil, they are really aiding criminal activity: the same PR people who were involved in big tobacco saying there was no link between smoking and cancer who are now working with big oil and the organisations involved in the denial propaganda.
So what should we do as individuals?
We have to do two things. Firstly, reduce our own ecological footprints. And secondly, use our voices. Get educated, get involved. Rise up – be more than you are already. It’s asking a lot of people, but in times of social strife, times of war, individuals have to decide what their contribution will be. We are talking about the long-term survival of the human race, and we have already given up a lot of our options for our future.