Ten years ago, at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Severn Cullis-Suzuki got the chance to make the speech of her life.
On the last day of that event, officially titled the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, Severn was suddenly told that she would be given six minutes to address the closing plenary session. “I remember crazily scribbling notes as we careened through the city in a taxi toward the Earth Summit,” she recalls.
“Four friends and I tried to compile everything we wanted to say to the world leaders into one speech. We ran through security and into the session. We didn’t have time to get intimidated by the dignified delegates who were sitting in the great hall.”
When she finished her speech, the applause was thunderous. Hundreds of delegates from around the globe rose to their feet, many of them in tears.
On that day, June 9, 1992, Severn was 12 years old, and was attending the summit with “activist” young friends from an environmental-study group they’d formed when she was 9 — along with a couple of their parents. Yet in those six minutes, she had captured the essence of environmental concerns worldwide — and torn down the rhetorical facade that veils the hypocrisy of so many international gatherings.
“Coming here today, I have no hidden agenda,” she told the Rio delegates. “I am fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come. . . . I’m only a child, yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this Earth would be.
” . . . At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us to behave in the world. 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 — and not to be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?”
Ten years on, Severn now has a decade of speaking, writing and TV work under her belt. She has served as a commissioner on the U.N.’s Earth Charter Commission with Mikhail Gorbachev, and as a member of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s advisory panel for this summer’s second Earth Summit in Johannesburg. In addition to her globetrotting, Severn played varsity basketball throughout high school, and last spring graduated from Yale with a degree in biology.
Last month I had a chance to meet Severn in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, as she wrapped up a two-week blitz of Japan, backed by an interesting array of sponsors, including Sloth Club Japan, Yamada Bee Farm, Windfarm Coffee Co. and Patagonia. She and her partner, photographer Jeff Topham, were clearly tired, but spoke with genuine enthusiasm for their work.
Severn, a fourth-generation Canadian of Japanese descent, is named after the River Severn in England. “My mother was born very close to that river, and she says that when I was born I looked so Japanese she wanted me to remember my English roots,” Severn explains.
Her mother is Tara Cullis, a well-known Canadian environmentalist, as is her father, David Suzuki, a scientist and host of “The Nature of Things” on CBC TV. Both hold doctorates.
Asked about the high points of her visit, Severn’s fatigue evaporates. “I loved Kumamoto Prefecture, it’s beautiful there,” she says. “We spent time in some old farmhouses on an organic tea farm near Minamata, and Minamata itself was an incredible place to visit to learn about the history of the city.”
The contrasts, too, were eye-opening for her. “On the one hand we were in Hakodate [Hokkaido] learning about alternative-energy projects, specifically wind turbines. So it is obvious that Japan has the capacity to develop really innovative alternatives to harmful environmental practices. Yet at the same time, the most shocking thing for me has been the concrete rivers. I’ve never seen anything like that before — it’s just amazing to me!”
Severn is also shocked by the Japanese acceptance of material excess in the name of convenience. “The amount of packaging is absolutely phenomenal, and this country has the highest number of vending machines, one machine for every 22 people,” she exclaims. “The energy required for all of these vending machines is equal to the energy of an entire nuclear power plant!
“But it is mostly the little things,” Severn adds, “like the disposable chopsticks — 55 million a day. That’s a lot of wood and a lot of bleach and a lot of paper to wrap them.”
Asked who has inspired her over the years, she is quick to reply: “My parents were great role models. They took me and my sister camping and hiking; it was easy to fall in love with the natural world because they showed us such a beautiful environment. But they are also very strong people who taught me that you always have to stand up for what you believe.”
Native Canadian peoples have also helped form her thinking, she says. “Several [indigenous] individuals have taught me very simple, powerful lessons about where our food comes from and about the forces that keep human beings alive — lessons which remind me that none of what I am saying is new, it’s all been said before. All this talk today about connections, community, environment and spirituality — these are the pillars of indigenous cultures worldwide,” she explains.
Community on the Web
Eager to raise awareness of this interconnectedness, last spring Severn and several friends established Skyfish, a Web-based community forum for sharing ideas (at www.skyfishproject.org ). “I know that I am kind of representing the younger generation, so I needed a sounding board to ask what young people think, to test out my ideas,” she says.
The first Skyfish project is called Recognition of Responsibility. “It’s basically a list of ways to try to live more responsibly, a set of principles, and [people] sign it and make a commitment of personal responsibility. We have a database and the Sloth Club is responsible for it in Japan.”
At every opportunity while she was here, Severn was encouraging young people to take two steps toward becoming more aware of the natural world: “One, get out into nature, get out into the parks and revive the tradition of nature worship, and remember why nature is important. Two, start asking questions about food, because food is where your environment becomes part of your body. Whether you care about the natural world or not, you can’t deny that you are part of it,” she stresses.
“I encourage people, especially kids, to follow what they’re interested in. Just getting more involved, that has led to the most amazing things in my life.”
Severn would also love to see Japanese groups publicize the sad state of the nation’s environment. But maybe the most important lesson that residents of Japan can learn from Severn is that each individual’s efforts do matter. If a 12-year-old can have a global impact, then surely each one of us can make a difference at home, at school or in our community.