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“I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive. And we need women in this work.”

“I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive. And we need women in this work.”

People

“out there” is us Severn Cullis-Suzuki

by Frances Rooney | November 28, 2006

In 1982, 13-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki spoke to thousands of delegates at the United Nations Earth Summit:

I have no hidden agenda. I have come to fight for my future.

She spoke about starving children and animals, pollution and global warming, the danger our planet is in, and the mess kids her age will inherit from the people who are now adults. Her speech stunned the delegates and brought world leaders to their feet, with tears in their eyes. Her amazing speech was broadcast all over the world.

How did she get there, and where does a person go after an experience like that?

Severn started with parents who have always respected her and listened to her. From the time she was very young, her parents and grandparents – all of them environmentalists – took her to the waterfront near her Vancouver home to see the life there, and to share with her their love and respect for all life.

Yes, I’ve travelled and had education and opportunity, but respect and listening to me, taking me seriously from the time I was very little, that's the gift they’ve given me.

Her own environmental activism began in kindergarten. She sold lemonade and books to support people working to prevent the destruction of some of the oldest trees in the world – and, with them, the First Nations sacred space in the Stein Valley of British Columbia.

When she was ten, her family lived for a time with the Kyopo people in the Amazon Rainforest. As she was flying home, Severn saw the logging that is eating the forest and poisoning the water supply. This time, she and her friends in Vancouver started the Environmental Children’s Organization.

When she heard that there was going to be a UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Severn had to go. She and her friends applied, were accepted, and then had to raise enough money to take eight people - Severn, her friends, and four adults – to Rio.

The lemonade recipe came in handy once again. They held bake sales, had a fundraiser, and received support from individuals. In all, they raised $26,000.

When she was back home, Severn went to many more big conferences. She studied, shared her passion for our planet and the life on it with audiences around the world, hosted a children’s TV show on Discovery Network, and founded other organizations, including the Skyfish Project, an Internet forum for thought and action.

She also watched for the impact of the Earth Summit to reveal itself through world environmental projects. It never came. “I thought speaking to world leaders would make a difference,” she said.

It’s been 14 years since Rio. The 90s were a terrible decade for the environment. I came to realize that real change doesn’t happen from the top. Politicians respond to what comes to them, they don’t start things.

It’s individuals who can make a difference. North Americans use ten times the resources that people in China do. That gives us a lot of power, each and every one of us. We need a groundswell, a big shift in understanding, and it's happening. Write your MP, phone your MP.

And at the same time, don’t buy things in huge amounts of plastic packaging. Recycle. Reuse. Consume less. We’ve heard it all. And it works. Drive a more fuel-efficient car. Ride a bike. Walk. The shift is happening.

Severn is completing a master’s degree in ethnobotany. She is studying eel grass, the “grassy meadows of the sea,” which grows in all the world's oceans. The young of 80% of marine species spend time in the safety and nourishment it provides.

All over the world, eel grass is declining.

One of many scientists looking for ways to preserve these nurseries for the ocean’s young, Severn is working with west coast First Nations peoples to rediscover how they traditionally used and managed eel grass.

“Climate change is the biggest single issue, it encompasses all the others,” she says.

We have to keep active on environmental issues. You know, I don't even want to call them “environmental.” The “environment” is outside us, it’s Out There. This whole thing is not Out There, it’s a matter of issues of human health, of quality of life, of the very nature of human life.

Being involved has made my life so rich. I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive. And we need women in this work. Women have a perspective that leads to a more viable world, a world that is a sustainable place to live, that will be here for future generations.

This is Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s message: take measures now so that today’s children will have a world to live in; take part in sustaining the health of our planet and every living thing on it.

additional resources for this story
  • Tell the World: A Young Environmentalist Speaks Out, by SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI, Doubleday, New York and Toronto | 1993
  • Phone conversation | November 20, 2006
  • Action Canada Fellows’ Public Policy Projects 2004/2005 (Generation)

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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