In that sometimes haphazard and sometimes synchronicitous way in which the Internet sometimes throws up absolute gems, I just came across a speech given by Severin Suzuki to the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At the time, Severin was a mere 12 or 13 years old, but she spoke passionately and with a maturity and wisdom far beyond her years.
The context of the speech, briefly, is the following: In 1990, environmentalist David Suzuki and his family went to live in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil, where they witnessed the devastation of the Kaiapo tribe’s natural habitat. Severin was profoundly disturbed by this and formed a small group called the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO). When she heard of the upcoming 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, they decided to raise enough money for a small group of them to attend and to present their case to the world. And so, amazingly, she did.
Disturbingly, what she says is just as relevant as it was 16 years ago. We still face many of the problems, and nations all around the world are still bickering and politicking instead of implementing solutions.
Hello, I’m Severin Suzuki, speaking for ECO, the Environmental Children’s Organization. We are a group of four twelve and thirteen year-olds from Canada trying to make a difference …
We raised all the money ourselves to come 6,000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways. Coming here today I have no hidden agenda. I’m fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points in the stock market.
I am here to speak for all future generations yet to come. I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard. I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go.
I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the holes in the ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it. I used to go fishing in Vancouver, my hometown, with my dad, until just a few years ago we found the fish full of cancers. And now we hear about animals and plants going extinct every day – vanishing forever.
In my life, I have dreamed of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles, and rain forests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see.
Did you worry about these things when you were my age?
All this is happening before our eyes, and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realize, neither do you!
You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer. You don’t know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back the forests that once grew where there is now a desert.
If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!
Here you may be delegates of your governments, business people, organizers, reporters, or politicians. But really you are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. And all of you are somebody’s child.
I’m only a child, yet I know we are all a part of a family, five billion strong – in fact, 30 million species strong. And borders and governments will never change that. I’m only a child, yet I know we are all in this together and should act as one single world toward one single goal.
In my anger, I am not blind, and in my fear, I am not afraid to tell the world how I feel. In my country, we make so much waste. We buy and throw away, buy and throw away. And yet northern countries will not share with the needy. Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to lose some of our wealth, afraid to let go.
In Canada, we live the privileged life with plenty of food, water, and shelter. We have watches, bicycles, computers, and television sets. Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent time with some children living on the streets. And this is what one child told us:“I wish I was rich. And if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter, love, and affection.”
If this child on the street who has nothing is willing to share, why are we who have everything still so greedy? I can’t stop thinking that these children are my own age, that it makes a tremendous difference where you are born.
I could be one of those children living in the favelas of Rio. I could be a child starving in Somalia, a victim of war in the Middle East, or a beggar in India. 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 how 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, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?
Do not forget why you are attending these conferences, who you are doing this for — we are your children. You are deciding what kind of a world we will grow up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying, “Everything’s going to be all right.” “We’re doing the best we can.” “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 dad 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. Thank you for listening.
In case you’re curious what has happened with Severin since that historic event, you can read more about her here. Her most recent project is the Skyfish Project (started in 2002): “As a part of Kofi Annan’s Special Advisory Panel the Skyfish Project brought the Recognition of Responsibility, a pledge now signed by over 2700 youth, to the United Nations summit in Johannesburg.” She has also hosted television programs and given speeches all around the world at international conferences, motivating young people to speak out and take positive action in the world.