‘I had singular focus’: 30 years on from Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s Earth Summit speech

Fidel Castro was there, along with George Bush, John Major and 100 other heads of state, billionaires and rock stars. But the biggest star of the 1992 Earth Summit was a young girl who delivered what would be known as the speech that “silenced the world”.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki was just 12 years old, and had set up a children’s environment group in Vancouver with her nine-year-old sister Sarika and friends Vanessa Suttie, Morgan Geisler and Michelle Quigg. When they heard about the Rio meeting they pestered family and friends to raise the money to fly south, accompanied by her father, David Suzuki, one of Canada’s leading geneticists. The group hired a small booth at a side event and set about ambushing anyone and everyone (I met them and was knocked out by their enthusiasm and intensity).

And then they were told at the last minute that if they got to the main conference hall 10 miles away in half an hour they could have a short slot to address the world’s governments. “We jumped in a taxi”, recalls Severn, the de facto leader of the group, 30 years on. “I had a singular focus. I just wanted to talk to them and tell them what was at stake.”

If she was nervous when she got on the stage at the vast Rio Centro hall, it did not show. “I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard,” she started off, barely referring to notes.

Film shows the diplomats squirming in the face of her anger and rhetoric. “I’m not blind, and in my fear I’m not afraid of telling the world how I feel. In my country we make so much waste, we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, buy and throw away. I am only a child, yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on finding environmental answers, ending poverty and in finding treaties, what a wonderful place this Earth would be.”

Severn Cullis-Suzuki – named after the British river that her mother’s family had lived close to – roasted her audience. She had been given five minutes to speak but took more. “You teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us to not 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?” she continued.

The 542-word speech, jammed together in the taxi with her friends, was hailed as “six minutes that silenced the world”, and she was called the “voice of a generation”. Al Gore called it the best speech of the summit, and today it has been watched millions of times and is cited as exemplary essay-writing.

It changed her life. For a while she was a celebrity youth activist – travelling the world for Earth justice and demanding action on climate change, forests and pollution – and a kid with an academic bent.

She sees the parallels between herself and Greta Thunberg. The two met in 2019, when the Swedish campaigner came to Vancouver for a climate march. “It was a very intense meeting. There was lots of violence around her. A man tried to attack her. She is an incredible, charismatic leader; what is amazing about her is how level-headed and focused she is. I saw the young me in her. We had so much in common. Now we are bound together by history. Greta has an extra intensity because of the lack of [global] action.”

Cullis-Suzuki focused on Indigenous culture, studying biology and anthropology. In 2008 she married into the Haida nation on Haida Gwaii, a group of more than 200 islands about 70 miles off the Pacific coast of Canada, and she lived on a reserve there with her children where she immersed herself in the Indigenous culture and language. Now she is finishing a PhD on the Haida language.

“My family has always worked with Indigenous peoples. Dad, who was a third-generation Japanese, came into contact with Kayapo leaders in Brazil. He had travelled there. In the end, Paiakan [who had led protests against the destruction of the Amazon] came to live with us.”

So many environmental battles have been led by Indigenous peoples, she says. “They are so important now because they know how to survive. They have been through the six great extinctions. We are just waking up to the genius of how they have lived with the land for tens of thousands of years. It gives us profound hope. That knowledge has been a real help for me.

“People say the world did nothing after Rio but in fact many agreements came out of it. It built the architecture of global environmental diplomacy. Since then we have seen the rise of immense corporate power, with companies now big enough to be in the G7 but freed from any democratic oversight. Their influence is now immense.

“Now I worry about my children. Eco-anxiety has reached the mainstream and youth is coming to terms with what is their future. We are still living the good life. It’s clear to all of us. Children are attuned to injustice and hypocrisy. We are living at the expense of their future. There is a profound dissonance.”

Last year smoke from Canadian wildfires reached Haida Gwaii, and Cullis-Suzuki moved to Vancouver where she now runs the large climate and conservation foundation that her father set up. “Covid has shown us we can react to a global emergency like climate. We can see what an appropriate response is. For Covid they invested billions of money. Now we know it is possible. We have all the solutions.”

Thirty years on, she says she would not change a word of her speech. “I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. It came from a girl. The voice of youth can be so profound. It hits you hard.”

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