Six minutes to save the earth
In 1992, 12-year-old Canadian Severn Cullis-Suzuki spoke at the Earth Summit in Rio. With eloquence and passion, she appealed to world leaders not as politicians but as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, reminding them they were there not to protect Earth for the sake of economics or politics, but for those we love. Severn moved her audience to tears and shot to fame as an icon of the environmental movement. Now known as "The Girl Who Silenced the World for 6 Minutes”, the video clip of the speech is still making rounds on YouTube, continuing to inspire youth all over the world – many of whom don’t realize it’s two decades old.
Severn has since written a book, launched a think tank, hosted a television show, and earned a degree in ethnobotany. Now a 32-year-old mother, living in Haida Gwaii – an archipelago on the west coast of Canada – Severn is preparing to attend Rio+20 as part of WE CANada, an initiative to bring the diversity of Canadian voices to the attention of its government and to Rio+20. TUNZA spoke to her about life after Rio, what’s changed since 1992, and what she hopes for from Rio+20.
How do you view the speech from the perspective of an adult?
Since that speech, I’ve spent my life traveling the world speaking as a young person who is concerned for the environment. Yet it’s been so long, the event almost feels separate from myself, and I’ve often wondered why was it was so meaningful then, and still resonant now. We didn’t know it was being taped: the UN later sent us the video, which we distributed on request, year after year. Now, with YouTube, it’s getting a second wave of attention. I think it’s still so popular because it speaks to the need for – and the power of – the voice of youth. Adults need to be reminded of the consequences of their actions, even though they have multiple interests and ulterior motives. Young people see things for what they are and call their elders on their actions. Youth don’t know what isn’t possible.
When my eco-group went to Rio, there was no process for engaging young people. We were asked, especially by my parents, “Are you crazy?” Eventually, we got support from other organizations. Getting to speak was a fluke: we’d signed up as an NGO, and were only invited to a plenary session when someone else dropped out. So I didn’t have to be diplomatic. We wanted to be the conscience of the decision makers, and remind them who they really were: not just politicians but parents and grandparents.
Does the fact that people still find your speech so relevant and inspiring mean nothing has changed?
There have certainly been big changes in social awareness, but it can be hard to measure their immediate impacts. But certainly some things have changed. In 1992 we were worried about the ozone layer, but because of the Montreal Protocol, it’s not as big a concern now. Thanks to the UN’s work bringing nations together to govern the commons, we now have systems and processes in place for environmental protection where there were none before – where would we be without these? The UN doesn’t have a great PR system, so the average person doesn’t recognize the progress it has facilitated. But we do need to strengthen the systems and institutions we already have. The conversation about governance that will take place at Rio+20 couldn’t be more timely.
It’s also worth noting that youth – who represent more than half the world’s population – are now included in the process.
Do you think we should rethink at how we present environmental messages to people?
The media loves negativity. A more constructive approach would be careful mix of empowering messages – this is where we’re going, what we’ve accomplished – so people see that change is possible, especially at the grassroots level.
The best way to use hard facts as a motivator is to partner scary information with options for action – “What can we do? Let’s find a way to fix it.” The young, particularly, can handle bad news if there’s an avenue for change.
The world’s population has grown by nearly two billion since your speech. What are your views on population growth?
It’s certainly taking a toll on the planet. But population is really about consumption – looking, for example, at ecological footprints to see the rates at which various countries use up resources. Great care has to be taken in the way we frame the conversation, because it can be used to blame, and as an excuse for inaction. The developed world can say, “we don’t have a population problem, so why should we address environmental problems when other people are overpopulating the world?”
But consumption patterns need to change at the cultural, infrastructural level. In North America, for example, you have to go to great lengths not to be destructive. The way everything – transport systems, food systems – is set up is inherently unsustainable. So people feel helpless, a huge reason for inertia.
What do you hope for your own children?
I hope my son is able to fish as his ancestors have. His father is Haida – First Nations people who have lived on this island for 10,000 years. I want to teach my son that we are responsible for maintaining this island for the next 10,000 years.
Do you think that being raised within First Nations culture will give your children a clearer framework for stewardship than those who are not?
I do. I’ve been spending time here on Haida Gwaii my whole life, and it’s affected me profoundly. My parents taught me to stand up for what I believe in, but what I really learned about the environment I absorbed from spending time here with elders. We still can go out and gather crabs and catch halibut because people have harvested sustainably here for thousands of years.
Tradition holds this in good stead, but we all used to be locals. When we move and sever the connection to the place our ancestors stewarded for centuries, we lose the knowledge of how to live harmoniously with that place. People who stay put are more likely to think: “my children are going to have to live here, so I had better behave appropriately,” a principle that helps take responsibility wherever you happen to live.
What do you hope for from Rio+20?
I’ve attended many world summits, and they’re essential. We hope world leaders will come up with answers and put revolutionary new policies in place, and it’s important to make our voices heard. But we can’t wait for change to come from above. It’s practical engagement at the community, municipal levels that produces concrete results.
So what can young people do?
First follow your passion. What are you interested in? What are you good at? Society now needs everyone in every field to become sustainable. People think to make a difference they must become an “environmentalist”. I disagree. Become whatever you’re interested in first and then bring sustainability to it.
It’s also important to experience and know the environment around you. Visit your dump. Visit your reservoir or water treatment plants. Go to the sites of local environmental conflicts and learn what the issues are. You’ll feel invested and become an authority, giving you confidence to speak out. There’s nothing more powerful than youth speaking the truth.
The opinions expressed in these articles are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of UNEP