"I’m here to speak for all the generations to come". At age 12, Severn Cullis-Suzuki stood determined before UN officials at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, urging them to take their responsibility. "Do not forget why you are attending these conferences, who you are doing this for (…).You are deciding what kind of world we are growing up in. Are we even on the list of priorities? (…) I challenge you, please, make your acts reflect your words."
Years later, her speech has been watched several million times on Youtube:
Twenty years after Rio 92, the daughter of the famous environmental activist, David Suzuki, is still trying to raise both leaders’ and people’s awareness on the necessity to protect the planet, from summit to summit. She started to fight for the protection of the environment at 9, when she founded the Environment Children’s organization, made up of children and for which she was the spokesperson in Rio.
In a few weeks, she will speak for WE CANada, a coalition of young people from the Canadian Earth Summit initiative, in order to prove, once more, that young people can challenge past generations' decisions.
Youphil.com: You became famous at 12, when you gave this speech before the UN. What does this event mean to you today?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: It marked the beginning of my international work on environmental issues. After I gave that speech, I began to get invitations to speak all over the world. My teenagehood was like a double life: I was both a kid and someone who was travelling to Japan, Beijing or New York. It was definitely a turning point in my life.
Youphil.com: Where does your commitment come from? Obviously, your parents’ activism helped…
S.C-S: They influenced me, showing me how to stand up for what you believe and how exciting it is participate in trying to change the world. Of course, they never pressured me to get involved, but what they were doing was so exciting.
I was also lucky to spend a lot of time in nature with my family and friends. As long as children spend time outside, we will always have advocates for an Earth in balance.
Youphil.com: Jean-Paul Jaud even made a documentary film, "Severn, the voice of our children", about you in 2010. How do you feel about this whole Suzuki mania?
S.C-S: I don’t know if it’s a mania, but I was amazed that Jean-Paul Jaud and his whole crew came up to me twice to film with me. I didn’t realise I was the main theme of the film.
I have done a lot of things for twenty years, but the speech I gave when I was twelve is the most significant one. I think it shows how much we need to hear from youth. Young people can play a real role in the movement towards a sustainable and just society.
Youphil.com: What has changed since 1992? Are people more concerned about climate change?
S.C-S: Of course, we have made some improvements towards sustainability but we haven’t turned the tide. Climate issues were on the horizon in 1992, but now the effect of climate change is really clear and all works on environmental issues are going to take it into account. So, it is an issue that has been growing in awareness in the last twenty years.
But in 1992, there was a kind of "environmental phase". Everybody was concerned about these issues. Today, people feel less concerned. The summit lasted two weeks in 1992. In 2012, it is only going to last three days. These issues are not on the agenda anymore.
Youphil.com: Do you think they disappeared from the agenda because of the economic crisis?
S.C-S: That is part of it, for sure. But we are really missing the point. We are failing to see that the environment and the economy are fundamentally connected. We are fooling ourselves to think that we can sustain economic growth at the same rate as in past decades. We are still caught up in a paradigm that says that we can’t do anything unless we see a major profit.
When banks are in crisis, there is immediately a huge bail-out. We have to go back to the basics: if we don’t have clean air, clean water and clear soil, we won’t be able to survive.
Youphil.com: What do you fight for today?
S.C-S: We are currently fighting the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal that will go from Alberta to the west coast, not far from where I live. The risks for oil spills are huge. The federal government is trying to push it through and limit the participation of citizens who want their voices heard. We really need to have a national discussion on energy in Canada.
Youphil.com: Do you think the government will finally make efforts for environment issues?
S.C-S: [She pauses] We have to challenge the Canadian government on many fronts such as democracy and justice and not only on environmental issues. I’m very pessimistic on this current conservative government. The media has been much influenced by the government as well. WE CANada wanted me to participate. Their passion and their optimism are the reason why I am going to Rio. We have a policy proposal that we want to take to our government.
Youphil.com: What will be your role at the summit?
S.C-S: I will be one of the spokespeople for WE CANada. But my main function will be to speak as a concerned citizen. I am going to bring one of my sons who is four months old. I won’t be at the negotiating tables.
Youphil.com: What do you expect from this summit?
At the very least, I hope for a new commitment: the millenium goals will run out in a few years, and I want them to be replaced with very strong millenium sustainibility goals.
Youphil.com: What would be your top measure?
S.C-S: WE CANada, has three policy recommandations, specifically for Canada. We need a fair trade and a different indicator that would reflect progress, human health and quality of life and replace the GDP. We also need to find a way to give value to the economic benefits that we gain from the eco-system, like the rain-forest. It would help preserve the planet. It’s a cliché, but the Amazon is the lung of the planet and we have to protect it. We will also focus on the green economy.
Youphil.com: Do you agree with the idea of creating a World Environment Organisation (WEO)?
S.C-S: I would rather see pillars of sustainibility within each organisation instead of having separate entities for different things. But we do need a WEO and it would be great to have an Environmental Court as well. It could challenge companies and countries who commit environmental crimes, especially generational crimes. Climate change is an example of it, because it was caused by current and past generations and it is effective forever.
Youphil.com: The Environmental Court would replace NGO’s and whistleblowers?
S.C-S: I believe so. I know that the International Red Cross is talking about this. I think it will be discussed and that there will be a Criminal Court of The Hague on behalf of environmental crimes.
Youphil.com: Are you optimistic for the coming generations?
S.C-S: [She hesitates] I’m not pessimistic but I think the coming generations have massive challenges ahead. I would love to see the young generation rise up to challenge adults to truly make their actions reflect their words. We are talking about 50% of the world population who is under the age of 30.
Today, the status quo promotes short-term gains over long-term ones. This is absolute insanity. I don’t think that the world is going to explode tomorrow, but if we don't change our ways, we are going to cause major pain.
Youphil.com: Do you believe in the power of civil society to reverse the tide?
S.C-S: Totally. I think we need a revolution, and of course, it will come from the people. The economic crisis in 2008 and Occupy Wall Street last year indicate that we are getting closer to a revolution. Apparently, we only need 7% of citizens to cause a societal shift.
Youphil.com: What do you tell your children to make them aware of environmental issues?
S.C-S: My oldest is two. When I go outside on the beach, I make sure I always pick up at least one piece of garbage so that he knows it’s garbage and that we all have to do our part.