“If you don’t know how to fix it (the planet), please stop breaking it!” In 1992, at the very first Rio Earth Summit, Severn Suzuki gave an uncompromising speech to the world leaders gathered in Rio. She was twelve years old, and she had travelled all the way from Canada with a group of children – the Environmental Children’s Organisation – to tell themthat they “must change their ways”. In a serious and heartfelt tone, for 7 minutes she put a room full of adults face to face with their own contradictions: “At school, you teach us to behave in the world. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?” The confident young girl forcefully warns:
I am fighting for my future. (…) I am here to speak for all generations to come. (…) In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rainforests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see.
A concern that the activist and mother that she has become still carries with her: what about the future? In a world that has yet to resolve some of the major issues that her twelve-year-old self worried about – such as world inequalities, waste and over-consumption habits in the Western world, loss of biodiversity, holes in the ozone layer, etc. – how can there still be hope that things will ever change?
Harness the connection we have with our children
In the interview she gave to us, the adult Severn has lost nothing of her lucidity: “we have not yet transformed into a sustainable society”, she says, acknowledging that the power now lays in different hands: “one of the major changes over the past twenty years is the balance of power in corporations. (…) Today, the world’s largest transnational corporations have more revenue than many developed countries.” This gives them heavy responsibilities that they will have to shoulder in the future. “We have to talk about governance.” But, in an almost exact reflection of what she said to the world leaders back in 1992, Severn reminds us that we are not only members of governments, NGOs or corporations. We are, first and foremost, individuals, “members of humanity”. As a kid, she told her audience:
You may be delegates of your governments, business people, organisers, reporters or politicians – but really you are mothers and fathers, brothers and sister, aunts and uncles – and all of you are somebody’s child.
She also urged: “we are all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal”. Which is still Severn’s main message: we are all part of the world, each of us can drive change, provided that we reconnect with our future in its simplest expression: the generations to come. This is the reply that the mother she has become makes to the child she was, and who harshly accused the world leaders: “You are deciding what kind of world we will grow up in”. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying “everything’s going to be alright”, “we’re doing the best we can’ and ‘it’s not the end of the world”. But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My father always says: “You are what you do, not what you say.” Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us. I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words.” With almost perfect symmetry, the environmental activist concludes her 2012 interview by saying that “if we can translate that connection that we have with our children to what we do, we will change the world.” Hope, still.
Here is a video of her speech from 1992 in Rio:
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