Severn Collis Suzuki: “The world needs to hear from children” | Earth Summit: 50 years later

Environmental activist and daughter of Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki now heads the foundation that her father established in 1990. From her early childhood, she had a deep passion for environmental protection. She somewhat resembles the Greta Thunberg of her age.

On the eve of the upcoming Earth Summit, Stockholm+50, a meeting where ministers, delegates and civil society representatives will take the pulse of the planet, we spoke to Severn Collis Suzuki to ask him what he envisioned for the state of the world when he gave his speech in 1992 and how his vision has evolved since then.

The Earth Summit is a ten-year meeting that has been held since 1972. It discusses the state of the planet at different levels. We often talk about biodiversity degradation, desertification, pollution and climate change. Usually, a declaration is signed at the end of these meetings.

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Why in 1992, when you were only 12 years old, did you want to go to the top of Rio and what was your mood at that time?

I went to the top of the earth because I was afraid. I heard what scientists and adults were saying about the environment and the threats to the world. A world I deeply cared about.

My friends Michelle Cage, Vanessa Suti, and Morgan Gelser and I formed a group and registered as a nonprofit for Earth Summit. We organized activities to fund our trip.

Once we got there, we worked tirelessly every day. The goal was to talk to as many people as possible. You know, there are thousands of people in the corridors of these big meetings and everyone is in a hurry. We talked to anyone who wanted to listen. And we realized that though we were young, people were so interested in what we had to say, that, little by little, they were calling us to their events.

And how did you end up giving a speech at the UN General Assembly?

On the last day of the conference, the speaker who was scheduled to speak to the plenary was unable to deliver his speech. Meanwhile, we’ve found James B. Grant, Executive Director of UNICEF. He just heard about us and just learned from Maurice Strong (a Canadian diplomat who played an important role during this summit, particularly in the adoption of Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration and the Framework Conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity) that there were vacancies in the overall timeline. We soon received a phone call offering to speak to delegates at the UN plenary.

How did you feel after receiving this call?

I didn’t have time to feel upset or stressed. I remember being very focused on what I had to do. That is why we have come to Rio: let us be heard; To deliver a very important message to negotiators around the world. I knew what I was going to do. It’s been two weeks since I’ve been trying, in the corridors of the summit, to convince adults that they should think about future generations in making their decisions.

I am fighting for my future. Losing your prospects is not the same as losing an election or losing a few points in the stock market. »

Quote from Excerpt from Severn Collis Suzuki’s speech at the Rio Summit in 1992

What is your mood now, 30 years later?

The same feelings still drive me, but my expectations for the future are different. Partly because I am a mother now and I am fighting for my children.

I’m just a kid, and yet I know that we are all part of a big strong family of 5 billion people; In fact, 30 million species. And borders and governments will never change that. »

Quote from Excerpt from Severn Collis Suzuki’s speech at the Rio Summit in 1992

Can you change anything in the speech you gave?

I will not change anything in this letter. Spoken by a child, a child who is well aware that her future is at stake. You know, I think only kids can express themselves to leaders in this initial and direct way because they are the main influencers of what’s to come. The world needs to hear from children.

When you were my age, did you have to worry about your surroundings? It all happens in front of your eyes and yet you act as if you had all the time in the world and all the solutions. I’m just a kid and yet I know we haven’t had these solutions all this time. »

Quote from Excerpt from Severn Collis Suzuki’s speech at the Rio Summit in 1992

Has the world changed since the first Earth Summit 50 years ago?

Oh yeah, the world has changed. In my opinion, the biggest change is the superiority of the big companies. The rise of big corporations has been meteoric since 1972. Wealth is consolidated to the point that the power of the state is influenced by companies whose profits are often greater than the GDP of some countries. As a result, the power of the state was significantly eroded. Unfortunately, the aim of these big corporations is to maximize profit and not the welfare of the citizens.

We don’t need to go back 50 years. Look at the declarations signed 30 years ago, in 1992, they were more ambitious and above all legally binding. We won’t see that today.

My dad always says, “You are what you do, not what you say.” Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You adults say you love us. But I challenge you, make your actions reflect your words. »

Quote from Excerpt from Severn Collis Suzuki’s speech at the Rio Summit in 1992

So, you think part of the problem now is that we’re going through a global governance crisis?

I say we have to be realistic. Thirty years ago, in Rio, we identified problems well and had many solutions at hand and yet we did very little. We already knew that climate change would pose serious challenges to humanity. I think most politicians want to do the right thing and want to change things, but the system in which they rule is broken in some way.

We are unable to make good decisions for the benefit of our children. When Stephen Gilbolt became Secretary of the Environment, I had a lot of hope that things would change. I know he’s doing his best, but if he, a former environmental expert, approves an oil extraction project in 2022, the system of governance is seriously compromised.

This week we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Stockholm. There will be discussions about the future and health of the planet. Do you think these meetings are still relevant?

I like to chat, I like to meet people and I like to travel, but I don’t think you should sink your head in the sand. The results are simply unsatisfactory. Think again if you think these meetings will save the world.

What do you want to happen at the next Earth Summit?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen what an appropriate emergency response looks like. Governments are able to act if they really want to. We have also seen that by will, political parties can work together when it is urgent. They are able to listen to what the scientists have to say. So we can still get there if we put all our effort into it. Why would it be different with the climate crisis? I would like leaders around the world to bring the same energies to confront this existential crisis that is the climate crisis.

In your opinion, does the concept of sustainable development still exist?

I don’t think we’ve really found a way to achieve sustainable development. Before going ahead with this or another concept, the developed countries really need to consume less. How can we ask developing countries that try to live to a minimum and want the same quality of life that we do to consume less? It’s almost racist and mostly unfair. Developed countries must lead by example. The first thing is to consume less.

Greta Thunberg will participate in Vancouver 2019 alongside Severn Collis Suzuki in a march to combat climate change.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Melissa Renwick

How do you think we will change things?

I don’t have an answer to this big question. But I think young people have a lot of strength. I am reassured to see that they have moved in recent years. We need more Greta Thunberg.

If your child wanted to go to the top of the earth to try and listen, would you encourage him?

Absolutely and without hesitation.

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