|Suzuki: The next generation||11.07.08|
Severn Cullis-Suzuki displays wisdom beyond her years
Emma Gilchrist, Calgary Herald
Severn Cullis-Suzuki has always been good at making people cry. In 1992, she burst into the international spotlight with a speech that brought delegates to tears at the UN Earth Summit. She was 12 years old.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki has always been good at making people cry. In 1992, she burst into the international spotlight with a speech that brought delegates to tears at the UN Earth Summit.
She was 12 years old. She was also the daughter of famed Canadian geneticist and environmentalist David Suzuki and activist Tara Cullis.
Along with three friends, Cullis-Suzuki had formed an environmental club and raised enough money to make the trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The video of that speech, which has recently experienced a resurgence on YouTube, leaves you sure of at least one thing: This was one impassioned 12-year-old.
And it still had the power to leave students (and me) bleary eyed when Cullis-Suzuki showed it before speaking at the Alberta College of Art&Design last week.
She's toned it down a little since she was 12, but her message is much the same.
"One of the most powerful human forces is parents' love for their children: this is your children's world," she said in an interview after her speech.
Back in 1992, she urged delegates to protect the environment for her generation -- for their own children. "If you don't know how to fix it, please stop breaking it," she pleaded.
At the U.N. Earth Summit, 1992, age 12.
Now Cullis-Suzuki, 28, has more than a cute face and a famous dad to back her up. She has a master's in ethnobotany(the study of the relationships between people and plants) from the University of Victoria and a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Yale to boot.
In the past 16 years, she has spoken around the world about environmental issues, urging listeners to act with the future in mind. Aside from that, she's edited a book, co-hosted a TV series and sits on the board of directors of the David Suzuki Foundation. Oh, and she got married this fall and now calls the Haida Gwaii (a. k. a. Queen Charlotte Islands) home.
During her stop in Calgary on a leg of the Students for Sustainability ( studentsforsustainability.ca) cross-country tour, Cullis-Suzuki reflected on how dire the environmental situation has become since that summit in 1992.
"We are currently undergoing the sixth mass extinction we've ever seen. The last was 65 million years ago. We're undermining our own support systems," she said.
On a positive note, about three years ago, the world started paying attention to environmental problems again.
"The weather is what has really hit it home," Cullis-Suzuki said, noting the immense cost of hurricane Katrina.
Crisis Equals Opportunity
The environmental movement's momentum was palpable and now"in the midst of all this greenery, crisis hits Wall Street . . . and suddenly the economy has become the main topic of conversation," she said.
But what may be a crisis in many ways, serves a purpose in others.
"Light has been shone on the faults in our economy. The economic system has evolved in a way that has resulted in the exploitation of its own citizens," she said.
And this means now is a great opportunity to create a better economic system -- one with a more realistic measure of progress than GDP, she adds.
"There's a chance to revise our destructive economy," she said, referring to Sustainability Within a Generation, a report by the David Suzuki Foundation that outlines how to transition to a sustainable economy. It includes creating a Genuine Wealth Index that measures the state of the nation's natural, social, human, manufactured and financial capital.
In this new world order, experts on sustainability are needed in every field, Cullis-Suzuki said. And she urged students to become those experts, whether as artists, economists, ecologists or engineers.
"To make a difference you've got to follow your heart,"she said.
Lessons From The Cullis-Suzuki Household
After her speech, when asked about the impact of her dad, she insisted she actually picked up a lot of direction from her mom.
"She's an amazing activist and feminist. She started the David Suzuki Foundation. . . . They are an amazing team and they have fun together," she said.
Their passion rubbed off on Cullis-Suzuki, who recalled such peculiar childhood experiences as having South American tribal people living in the family's basement.
She said her family taught her that if you recognize something is wrong, you have to speak up about it. "I believed you could change the course of history."
And your kids need to believe that, too, she said. Her 1992 speech goes to show what happens when a community supports it's youth.
"Kids have ideas all the time, but if parents and communities don't support their crazy ideas . . . well, here we are 16 years later still talking about it."
By cultivating a vision of a beautiful, joyful (and sustainable) world, Cullis-Suzuki believes people will want to jump into the sustainability movement.
And if you don't?
"If you think you're not connected to the environment, start to think about food. And health. You might not care about the planet, future generations, but hopefully you care about your health," she said.