Severn Suzuki: From Scathing U.N. Speaker to Hopeful Grassroots Activist

Severn Suzuki thought she could change the world with strong words. In 1992 the 12-year-old daughter of Canadian environmental activist, David Suzuki, spoke at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. In a stern and earnest speech Severn spoke, on behalf of the world's children, about the state the adults were leaving the world in.


This was a time in her fledgling career when Severn thought that reprimands were the way to bring about behavior change. Wasn’t that how the adults expected improved behavior from her?

She grew up to be an outspoken environmental activist. In 2002, she wrote a piece for Time magazine, expressing her disappointment over the world’s response to her speech in Rio.

I spoke for six minutes and received a standing ovation. Some of the delegates even cried. I thought that maybe I had reached some of them, that my 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. …

… 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. … 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 change.

In 2003, by which time she had changed her surname to Cullis-Suzuki, Severn told The Collage Foundation that she was starting to understand how this change might happen in the absence of environmental leadership by the world’s powers.
We've seen positive activism happening in the last ten years at the grassroots level, in small communities. It's about the individuals that make up the statistics about consumption and pollution, as well as the people who feel the negative impact, who are actually going to be the change.

It is (a) powerful (revelation), because you realize that each individual really does count. And the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that each person is a role model to all the people around us. Not only the children, but everybody. That's how cultures evolve and things become cool -- the influence of a few individuals that catches on.

As she matured Severn took advantage of the high profile she inherited through her father to spread the word about individual empowerment. In 2007 she spoke with Mark Leiren-Young from The Tyee about the sorts of things people need to do to take responsibility for their lifestyle.
At this point of saturation of environmental information, I think we know what we have to do. … It’s like you want to lose weight and you’re looking for the magic silver bullet or this fad diet or some pill that you can pop, and yet deep down you know that if you don’t eat junk and if you exercise that that’s really the only way that you’re going to be healthy. I feel like it’s the same way with the environment. It’s about habits and that’s why it’s so difficult.

I had a little bit of an epiphany when I watched Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and it wasn’t necessarily because of the content -- I thought the movie was great. But right at the end, when you’re all fired up and you’re going to stand up and join the army to fight climate change, these little suggestions come onto the screen when the credits are rolling and they’re so small. They’re like, “Change a light bulb,” “Car pool,” “Ride your bike,” “Calculate your emissions,” “Buy carbon credits.” They’re all these little, little things. I was standing by my seat and I thought, “Come on, I want to know what the solution is. I want to know where to sign up, where to join.” I was really disappointed. I thought, “Come on Al Gore, you can do better than this.”

And then it suddenly dawned on me: No, those are the solutions; that is how we change the world. That is how we are currently dealing with climate change because it was all our little decisions that we didn’t even think about that have created this giant global problem. It’s going to be a distinct shifting of those little, little habits that is going to actually bring us down to some kind of moderate level of greenhouse gas emissions. And [they’re] not glamorous and [they’re] not sexy but I think that they’re getting more commonplace and we know what they are. They’re things like, “Reuse your waste and reduce your energy consumption,” and there [are] tons of places you can find out how to do that.

Severn’s honesty and openness about her own environmental journey serves as a role model for others. As she has matured, she has been happy to tell people what she’s learned, and how it has changed her perceptions. She has emulated the shift in consciousness that we all need to experience in order to make each of those tiny, moment-by-moment decisions that, when added together, equate to the massive change the world needs to see.

In 2007, along with Kris Federickson, Ahmed Kayssi, Cynthia Mackenzie with Daniel Aldana Cohen, Severn put together a book called “Notes From Canada’s Young Activists: A Generation Stands up for Change.” This book is a collection of stories from 25 young activists about why they stand up for change and what motivates them. In this way, Severn hopes to motivate other concerned citizens. She spoke about this to The Tyee.

There are … so many amazing things happening right now. One of the big … goals that we had with this book … is showing the opportunity in this time.

I’ve met a couple of people lately who have a very interesting attitude. They [said], “How lucky are we? How exciting is this time? How lucky are we to be alive when the forces of good and evil are just so clear, when we’re undergoing such a massive time of shift and when our actions really, really matter, for good or for bad?”

This is a really unique period in history and it’s a time when an individual can have more impact than ever before in our human history because of the Internet, because of communication, because of how easily we can travel. … We really have to realize how empowered we can be, how much we actually matter.

You can look at it in a negative light and say, “Wow, my ecological footprint is 11 times that of a Bengali in India,” or you can look at it and say, “Because my actions really matter and my footprint is big, I can make that footprint do something positive for the world.” [That’s] the attitude that I choose to take because it’s far more exciting; it’s far more sustainable for me, emotionally; and I want to be part of a beautiful movement. I don’t want to be part of a doom and gloom depressing kind of movement.

Severn’s voice reveals the enthusiasm other people need to have for the environment and the commitment we need to make to its health. She is positive and pragmatic, a down-to-earth young woman speaking from the heart and from experience.

Severn continues to be active about raising awareness of the environment, but rather than boldly trying to shame people into seeing sense, she has learned that slow, quiet solutions may be more realistic. The University of Alberta reports that Severn, one of the speakers in its “Revolutionary Speaker Series,” is currently pursuing a master’s degree in ethnoecology, a discipline “… which draws on perspectives from the natural world, traditional beliefs, science, social trends and the politics of interests on Canada's West Coast.” As part of her studies, Severn is analyzing how some communities have successfully survived for thousands of years by using their natural resources sustainably. She looks to ancient traditions as models for those in Western society making shortsighted decisions that will deplete the Earth for future generations.

Still urging the grown-ups to act more responsibly, Severn is part of the group of Generation Y grassroots activists who wait in the wings while the people who created the current environmental mess talk in greenwash terms about how to sustain economic growth. Will her generation be the one that actually walks the walk and talks the talk? And can the Earth wait that long?

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  • Posted on May 18, 2008. Listed in:

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