Severn Cullis-Suzuki was only 12 years old when the Rio Earth Summit took place. Nevertheless, she and 3 school friends from Vancouver raised the money to go. There she gave a speech that made a huge impression on delegates. Since then she has attended many UN conferences and, now 22, she was invited to join Kofi Annan’s World Summit advisory panel in Johannesburg.
At the Rio Earth Summit, 10 years ago, she addressed the delegates: “I am only a child,” she told them. “Yet I know that if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this would be. In school you teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? You grownups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, to make your actions reflect your words.”
She spoke for six minutes and received a standing ovation. Some of the delegates even cried. She thought that she had actually reached some of them, that her speech might actually spur action. “Now, a decade from Rio, after I’ve sat through many more conferences, I’m not sure what has been accomplished. My confidence in the people in power and in the power of an individual’s voice to reach them has been deeply shaken.
“Today I’m no longer a child, but I’m worried about what kind of environment my children will grow up in. In Johannesburg the delegates will discuss the adoption and implementation of documents by governments. Yes, important stuff. But they did that at Rio. What this meeting must really be about is responsibility ónot only government responsibility but personal responsibility. We are not cleaning up our own mess. We are not facing up to the price of our lifestyles. In Canada we know we are wiping out the salmon of the West Coast, just as we wiped out cod from the East Coast, but we continue overfishing.
We keep driving our SUVs in the city, even though we are starting to feel the effects of climate change ó a direct result of burning too much fossil fuel.
“Real environmental change depends on us. We can’t wait for our leaders. We have to focus on what our own responsibilities are and how we can make the change happen.
“Before graduating from college last spring I worked with the Yale Student Environmental Coalition to draft a pledge for young people to sign. Called the Recognition of Responsibility, the pledge is a commitment from our generation to be accountable and a challenge to our elders to help us achieve this goal and to lead by example. It includes a list of ways to live more sustainably ósimple but fundamental things like reducing household garbage, consuming less, not relying on cars so much, eating locally grown food, carrying a reusable cup and, most important, getting out into nature.
Three friends and I will take the Recognition of Responsibility to Johannesburg, where we will meet with South African students and then present the pledge to the World Summit as a demonstration of personal commitment.
“But in the 10 years since Rio, I have learned that addressing our leaders is not enough. As Gandhi said many years ago, “We must become the change we want to see.’ I know change is possible, because I am changing, still figuring out what I think. I am still deciding how to live my life. The challenges are great, but if we accept individual responsibility and make sustainable choices, we will rise to the challenges, and we will become part of the positive tide of changes.”
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