By Anam Gill
In 1992, Severn Suzuki, at the age of 12, gave a group of United Nations delegates a fervent and sincere tongue-lashing. Suzuki, on behalf of the Environmental Children’s Organisation (ECO), a group she founded, gave a nearly seven-minute speech, a child’s plea for survival – not just of humans but of all species – demanding governments and all adults to take steps to reverse the damage that was being done to the environment. She finished by telling the quiet conference room packed with delegates and various heads of states: “My father always says, ‘You are what you do, not what you say.’ Well, what you do makes me cry at night.” As she walked from the podium, a rousing ovation ensued. The numerous YouTube videos of her speech have received many millions of hits and been translated in several languages.
At Rio+20, Severn Cullis-Suzuki Revisits Historic ’92 Speech; Fights for Next Generation
from Democracy Now!
Suzuki continued her eco-crusade by speaking and writing about the interconnection between culture and environment, and the need for people to act with the environment in mind. At Yale University, she co-founded the Skyfish Project, an internet-based think tank that encouraged her generation to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.
Today an environmental activist, speaker, television host, author, and a mother of two continues to campaign for Earth.
It was a pleasure meeting Severn, whom I greatly admire, in Rio during the UN Earth Summit in June 2012, and getting to talk to her. It was fascinating to see her hopeful albeit the failed dialogue at the summit. She expressed her disappointment in the lack of leadership in developed countries like Canada and US.
You were only twelve, but it was a moving moment in your famous speech when you said, “If you don’t know how to fix it, please, stop breaking it.” Now, after 20 years later how would you assess the progress up until now?
: On the eve of the Earth Summit 2012, a report came out in the scientific journal Nature that said that we humans are pushing for a potential state shift of our global ecosystem. We are attacking the planet’s systems in so many ways, on so many levels, that we may push it towards a tipping point that could put us in a different climate state that would be irreversible. We are in a desperate situation today, 20 years after Rio ’92.
Listening to you now after so many years you still sound positive about some change. Don’t you think the points you made in your speech then still as valid now as then?
: Of course there are positive examples of change. There are many solutions underway. But they are dwarfed by the challenges. It is eery to watch the speech I gave in Rio in 1992, because everything is still relevant today.
You did mention this time that for change everyone needs to work towards it not only the leaders, I remember you quoted Gandhi “Be the change you want to see in this world”. But there are certain actions which need the support of our leaders, and them being concerned about “greed economy” how long will it take us to pursue them towards green economy?
: We have a crisis in governance. Our highest level leaders on the planet are not leading for the good of humanity, and the life support ecosystems that support us. It was terrible to see the idea of the ‘green economy’ get twisted to support the same old ‘greed economy’. We have a serious problem with the intersection between our governance and corporate power and greed. Governance and leadership is failing.
With the current economy, what do you say to the people that argue reduction in carbon emissions will damage the economy?
: Of course those in power today have benefited from the current economy. They will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo. But with change always comes opportunity. Capitalists are always looking for new markets. Well, we have to develop the new, sustainable markets. It makes me angry that those who are defending their wealth, or their company’s wealth that was built by unsustainable means, are the ones whose voices are loud in the media, and in the ears of politicians.
How would you assess developed countries including U.S and Canada in their efforts towards a sustainable world? In your opinion what is the role of developing world including Pakistan that somehow depends on the developed world in it’s policy making?
: I am ashamed by the lack of leadership in Canadian politicians and US politicians alike. It is appalling. But we are currently in the midst of global flux and change of the economies and power dynamics of the world. The US and the EU will not be the most powerful forever. The emerging economies have opportunity to show real leadership. If they do not, however, and follow the path of the US and Canada, our planet will be in serious trouble. It’s a lot to ask of developing nations to ‘do as we say and not as we do’, but I hope that they can see the folly of our countries.
Combining both your idealistic and realistic sides, how would you like to comment on the outcome document of Rio+20 UN Earth Summit?
: I am very disappointed by the lack of leadership seen in the Declaration. I’m still trying to figure out a positive spin on it.
Listening to Severn after so many years, she still sounded positive about change. According to her there are many solutions underway. But they are dwarfed by the challenges.
It is true that the world’s governments came together in Rio to declare “a pathway for a sustainable century” amid disappointment. More than 190 heads of state and ministers signed off on a plan to promote green economy, improve food insecurity, protect the oceans strengthening sustainable development goals.
Now after two years of the summit and all the talk nothing practical has been achieved so far. The powerful again has supported business before the people and planet.
At this instance the words of some powerful people resonates in my ears.
“Our job now is to create a critical mass. The road ahead is long and hard.” UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon.
Indeed the road is long and hard but we also don’t have much time left with us.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said it’s time to be optimistic. “A more prosperous future is within our reach, a future where all people benefit from sustainable development no matter who they are or where they live.”
Coming from Pakistan where recently two regions namely Thar and Cholistan have been greatly affected by a drought leading to famine, I have little rather no reasons to be optimistic. Those regions are just one example.
The Future We Want document signed two years ago did lack ambition needed to address the challenges including the population rise from 7bn to 9bn by 2050, deteriorating environment and worsening inequality. The biggest UN Summit that gather people from all over the world, spending a huge budget that could have fed people in an impoverished region ended up with little significance.
People like Severn Suzuki did give hope to people for better prospects, I remember asking her off the record what do you think has changed from 1992 till today as the ones who can make a difference in terms of policy making favor private profits. I remember she replied, a lot has changed a young woman from Pakistan and many young men and women around the globe have started to speak up, it gives me hope.
It is true that the strongest initiatives have been made outside the negotiating halls. The weak leadership sitting in the conference halls has convinced many in civil society to rethink their strategies.
The inconvenient youth is passionate to get heard, they are shouting loud enough to be heard, in one voice they say it is enough, we need concrete action plan, stop fooling us every now and then. Hope the voices gets heard before it gets too late.