The environmental child prodigy on how the economy can benefit from green initiatives, why Canada and the U.S. must help lead the way, and the role for tribal peoples in conservation.
In 1992, at the age of twelve, Severn Suzuki gave a group of United Nations delegates a passionate and heartfelt tongue-lashing. At the seminal Rio Earth Summit, where an agreement was met on the Climate Change Convention that led to the Kyoto Protocol, Suzuki, on behalf of the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO), a group she founded, gave a nearly seven-minute speech sternly pleading with the audience to think of the world they were leaving their children. She spoke of her fear of going in the sun because of the holes in the ozone, the chemicals she was breathing, the cancer-filled fish she was catching in her native Vancouver, and the world that would be left to her children. “If you don’t know how to fix it,” she said, “please, stop breaking it.” She finished by telling the library-quiet conference room, “My father always says, ‘You are what you do, not what you say.’ Well, what you do makes me cry at night.” As she walked from the podium, a rousing ovation ensued. The following year, Suzuki received the U.N. Environment Program’s Global 500 Award at a ceremony in Beijing and the numerous YouTube videos of her speech have received many millions of hits and been translated in several languages.
What to do for an encore? Suzuki, the daughter of well known Canadian environmentalist and commentator, David Suzuki, was invited back to speak numerous times by the U.N. and continued her eco-crusade by speaking and writing about the interconnection between culture and environment, and the need for people to act with the environment in mind. At Yale University, she co-founded the Skyfish Project, an internet-based think tank that encouraged her generation to adopt a sustainable lifestyle. Ten years after her Rio speech, Suzuki attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg as a member of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Special Advisory Panel. The trip was the subject of a documentary film that aired on CBC’s long-running series The Nature of Things. She co-hosted a TV series for children, Suzuki’s Nature Quest, and is one of the authors and editors of Notes from Canada’s Young Activists: A Generation Stands Up for Change (Greystone Books, 2007). Just months away from her thirtieth birthday and pregnant with her first child, she recently completed her Masters from the University of Victoria, British Columbia.
Suzuki has slowed her speaking engagements and rarely attends conferences these days partly to avoid burnout, but mostly to concentrate on local environmental issues. The passion seen by millions in young Suzuki’s speech, however, has not waned. Her voice rises—“But we need to win,” she says below—when speaking of her balancing realism and optimism. Even when expressing her frustration with the world’s leadership on environmental issues, there’s a clear optimism, like a mother confident her teenager will grow out of a difficult stage. I spoke to Suzuki, now living on a reserve in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), off the British Columbian Coast, by phone.
—Michael Archer for Guernica
Guernica: Since first coming to world attention at Rio, you’ve started many projects focusing on environmental causes and awareness. Then you went to school to get your Masters. Are you still working on that?
Severn Suzuki: No, I finished. I was studying ethno-ecology. I conducted a scientific review and experiments to investigate what I was learning from others from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. I found the two that are often, kind of, juxtaposed in the modern world, actually very complimentary. I think that in order to find a sustainable path in the twenty-first century, we really have to use some combination of, of course, new technologies and looking at all the tools that we have invented for ourselves and new ways of thinking, but also, we have to reach back and look at all of the strategies for survival that we have used in the past and all of our understanding of sustainability and management of resources in the past, to be able to move forward.
Guernica: Could you give examples of how this could be implemented in a, if you will let me use this word, practical way?
Severn Suzuki: If we look in the world, around the world, where biodiversity hotspots are, they often overlap with areas that are still under traditional domain, areas where you have humans living, but in traditional ways. That overlap is really significant because you see that there actually is coexistence and there actually is an important role for humans to play in preserving biodiversity, in maintaining biodiversity. If that is true, we have to understand and value that information, that knowledge, that traditional perspective when we are moving forward and trying to figure out, desperately, how to preserve biodiversity and slow the extinction rates that are happening today.
Guernica: Mark Dowie wrote a piece for Guernica where he argued that in India, where they were kicking indigenous people out of national parks in the name of the environment, that it was actually doing a lot more harm than good.
Severn Suzuki: Right, well this is the dichotomy of a lot of conservation in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, we, in the modern world, see ourselves as humans and the environment as separate, or wilderness as separate, and we set aside parks. But the image we have of wilderness and environment doesn’t include human habitation. So this is always, or often, a conflict between indigenous peoples living in their traditional lands, or on the land, as they always have and then, all of a sudden, a park being designated, which is a good thing. But also contradicting them actually being there, and so they are kicked off the land. It really speaks to this dichotomy that you have either a pristine unpeopled environment or you trash it and you have a totally, you know, citified, urban space that is dominated by humans with no concern for the harmony of the natural ecosystems that still do play a role in the urban environment. We just don’t think of things that way. And so, yeah, that’s a classic conundrum and there are a lot of contradictions and conflicts, historically, between conservationists and indigenous peoples and we really have to figure out, still, how do we coexist in the environment because we are part of that biodiversity, we are part of nature and that is something that we deny all the time.
Guernica: You’ve talked about the twenty-something generation that you are in, almost out of now, and this feeling that you have inherited problems that are too great to do anything about. Given that, when you say things like, “We have to figure out a way to bring these two things together,” can you give an example of how you could envision that happening in, I don’t know, say New York City or Vancouver, any big city?
Severn Suzuki: There have been human societies that have coexisted, sustainably, with nature. For years, I just thought, well, it’s kind of in human nature to pool your resources, or kind of like any other bacteria that would just eat up all the food that it could as fast as it can. But then when I started learning from people on the West Coast and realizing that, now, in many very rural areas, there actually used to be way higher human populations and the landscape here actually could sustain very high, densely populated, human populations, without destroying the natural resources so that one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years later, when I am walking around, I am still able to dig clams, gather seaweed, and harvest all the foods that they were harvesting then, when there was far more human beings living in that area. So we need to start understanding that there actually are examples. That’s the first step. Then we really have to pay attention to our cities and stop thinking of them as just these concrete jungles where humans live and, “Oh thank goodness there’s a park several hours away because we can always go there if we need our wilderness fix.” There are still ecosystems; we are still part of nature. We have to figure out how to live more sustainably. I am not an expert on green design or urban planning, but it’s those experts that we need to recruit. It’s those experts, that expertise, that we need to develop in ourselves to try to figure out what is the best model. In Havana, Cuba, there are so many urban gardens. They are feeding a huge majority. A majority of their produce actually comes from the very city. That is amazing, that kind of innovation. There is nothing to stop us but our imagination and I think it’s very exciting when it’s already happening in terms of the sustainable community movements.
Guernica: I know you were only twelve, but it was a moving moment in your famous speech when you said, “If you don’t know how to fix it, please, stop breaking it.” Now, approaching thirty, this many years later, you are the adult. How would you assess the progress of your generation, up until now?
I am optimistic, but I am also realistic. We have to own up to the reality that after the Earth Summit, which was supposed to be this turn-around conference, almost all our environmental problems have gotten worse.
Severn Suzuki: A few years ago, I did a project publishing a book with twenty-five young Canadians who were actively changing their communities through the broader political scene in Canada. And it was as much for my sake as for anybody else’s. Our generation has been told a lot, like any young generation, we are “generation boomerang,” so we are coming back to live with our parents. [We are] going backwards a bit. We are very apathetic, very self-centered, not really very engaged. We wanted to counter this because I think, yeah, sure you can focus on those aspects, and every generation does have them. I do think that there is a certain set of interesting conditions that do engender those kinds of characteristics, but also you have tons of individuals who are doing incredible things now because of the tools that we have, with the internet, with communication and simply [having such] access to information. I mean, we take this so for granted and it is unbelievable.
Guernica: The Rio speech, do you think that it would be as spot-on right now or need some tweaking? Are you points still as valid now as then?
Severn Suzuki: Well, what do you think? I mean, to me, that’s the craziest thing about watching it. Besides the few things that I say that date it, like there are five billion people on the planet, everything is the same.
Guernica: Right, so that’s why I am asking. You sound optimistic, but at the same time, you are saying what seems obvious. We’re in the same place.
Severn Suzuki:Yeah, you know, I am optimistic, but I am also realistic. We have to own up to the reality, which is that, frankly, after the Earth Summit, which was supposed to be this turn-around conference, almost all our environmental problems have gotten worse. And, if we had acted then, truly, we would not be facing these huge challenges. We are in a far worse position to address, say, climate change, than we were then. So, yeah, I am optimistic because I still believe in the power of individuals, I am encouraged by all the inspirational people I meet. But we need to, as a society, have a huge wake-up call to the fact that we have not owned up to our responsibility, and I think that what has transpired since the Rio Earth Summit has been huge inter-generational crime. Nobody is talking about that because we can talk about environment and wilderness and conservation or greenhouse gasses in a way that is still separate. It’s still something that doesn’t relate to us as individuals. But what we are really talking about is inter-generational injustice.
Guernica: How would you assess Canada in their efforts, and do you think that in order for Canada to do as much as they can, that the U.S. really needs to pony up on their end?
Severn Suzuki:Well the U.S. and Canada are pretty embarrassing, both of us. Canada likes to feel good because it’s not as big and therefore doesn’t have as big of an impact as the States on the world’s greenhouse gasses or consumption or water usage or energy waste, but >we are neck and neck for a whole host of environmental ills and we are among the worst in the developed world. We need to shed that identity and start taking up the leadership.
Guernica: And do you think if the U.S. makes bigger strides, it will then put the pressure on Canada to do the same?
Severn Suzuki:I think so. It is the reality of our relationship, really. I am hoping that our conservative government, which has done everything it can to dismantle all climate change programs we had on the federal level, before they got to power in 2006, and only really started dealing with climate change because of the public pressure, you know, far in to their governance, will see Obama work on climate change and the green economy, and that will make [Prime Minister] Harper look pretty silly.
Guernica: One of the things that Obama seems to be doing is bringing science back as a foundation for policy. I think the biggest example of that is that he appointed the Nobel Prize-winner Steven Chu at Energy. Do you think that this is, whether it’s here or abroad, one of the things that needs to be done? To have a more scientific foundation when it comes to government decisions on energy?
Severn Suzuki:Oh God, of course. This is a very scary trend that has been happening in North America. It’s the same with our prime minister. When he got to power, he abandoned his scientific adviser, which has always been a very important post that gives advice directly to the prime minister. This is just kind of the basics of how we should be making decisions in the modern world. Of course, you have your other perspectives and different influences in decision making, but you have to bring science into the domain, especially when you are talking about these very huge global challenges that absolutely require scientists to decipher. So, I am so relieved to see this trend in Obama’s administration. Also, the other interesting thing is that finally he has appointed scientists who aren’t shying away from taking some action on what the obvious needs seem to be. There is a sense sometimes, in academia anyways, that science is impartial and that it doesn’t really have opinions, which seems insane to me because if you are asking a scientist for advice, like you would ask a doctor for advice, of course you need their opinion for a course of action to take. So the appointment also of Jane Lubchenco to the head of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is also very encouraging because she has been a very acclaimed academic, as well as advocating for the world to deal with the problems in our oceans, for a long time.
It is essential that our governments are getting together and dealing with climate change, but where actual, real change is going to happen, where you are going to find real solutions, is at the local level.
Guernica: So it’s important to have a scientific foundation in policy making, but you also combine, in your thinking, the traditional beliefs in the natural world. Could you see a place for somebody with that sort of expertise in a government position?
Severn Suzuki:That’s a really good question and there is huge debate about how traditional knowledge fits in our modern governance in our modern societies in general. That is huge. I think we are trying to start, in Canada, at some levels, with incorporating traditional peoples in certain land management plans in different parks and different areas of land. For example, here in B.C., we have a lot of unsettled land, well, not unsettled but… a lot of land in B.C. was never treatied, so there were no treaties ratified with the First Nations who lived here. So, it means that any kind of development or management of resources is very contentious because the First Nations have to be consulted because there were never treaties ratified. So, it’s been really positive because their voices are consulted and at least there is discussion and awareness that there are different perspectives to take into consideration. I live in Haida Guai, and we have a national park reserve which is co-managed between the federal government and the First Nation here, the Haida Nation.
Guernica: Are you planning on attending Copenhagen in December?
Severn Suzuki:[In] the years after Rio, I went to a lot of those types of international conferences. I went to Rio Plus Five. I went to the Kyoto conference in Japan. I went to Rio Plus Ten in Johannesburg. I went to the Cop 11 in Montreal. There are a lot of these conferences going on all the time. It was a really interesting learning experience for me. But after being in so many of these conferences, I thought, What are we doing here? Where is the real tangible change? I am not saying that that dialogue is not important. It is essential that our governments are getting together and dealing with climate change and dealing with global resources, but where actual, real change is going to happen, where you are going to find real solutions, is at the local level. There is no real global problem or global challenge; it’s a sum of all of the local situations. It’s at that level where you can actually have movement. Probably also just to stop me from burning out, I have been turning my attention more toward how can we make things happen on a local level?
Guernica: Combining both your idealistic and realistic sides, what would you hope comes out of Copenhagen?
Severn Suzuki:Wow. Okay. We need to have some pretty serious consensus on goals for target emissions, for the post-Kyoto period. And Canada has done all it can, as a signatory country, legally bound by international law, to adhere to its Kyoto commitment, which it totally is failing on. It’s not even trying. Canada has been acting as an obstructionist, trying to derail these discussions. So, we’ve got to see some leadership from Canada. I really hope that the States comes out in some way in support of the Kyoto Protocol, because all the work and effort that has gone into this is unbelievable. You can criticize the process, you can criticize the targets, you can totally rip it to shreds if you want, but the fundamental importance of this document is that it’s the first time that the international community has gotten together and said, Okay, we have a global common and that is the atmosphere and we have to, as a community, figure out how we are going to manage this and what our commitments are to each other to deal with this thing that has no borders, and that’s pretty huge. So we need Copenhagen to be a success. We need to be talking about it like it’s a success and that has not been happening out of the lead-up meetings. Everybody seems so disappointed by the level of discussion, by the bickering and by the obstructionist acts of Canada. And, of course, the non-signatory countries are problematic, as well. But we need to win.
Guernica: You have mentioned that acting locally seems to be the most effective avenue for change. How do we get Brazil, India, China to join in reducing carbon emissions because, to your point of acting locally, a pound of carbon dioxide in Bangladesh is a pound in Alberta, right?
Severn Suzuki: Yes. How do we get them to get on board? Well, first, we’ve got to go and get on board. The rationale that George Bush gave for not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol—China’s not signing on—is absolutely… it’s just showing such poor leadership. I can’t even believe it. Climate change is a problem that is largely due to the developed world. Industrialized countries have been the ones who have been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and now we< have China and India, with huge populations, that are striving to be like us. Of course, they are a big part of the problem, but that’s the point. We have deemed ourselves the industrialized world. We are the developed world. We’ve assigned these identities and, of course, everyone is trying to be like us. So for us to start saying, “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t have a car per household because it’s gonna ruin the planet, but we can have two cars per household because that’s different,” is absolute hypocrisy. Why would anybody listen to us? So, we’ve got to get them on our side, but we will actually have half a chance at doing that if we actually start leading the way ourselves. We have a lot of cultural capital. We have a lot of cultural influence. We also have to start helping developing countries leap-frog our mistakes. The consequences of the twentieth century’s actions in North America, we’ve got to, for the sake of all of us, for our own self interest, help them bypass that.
Guernica: Do you think our showing the leadership and moving things forward starts at a local level?
Severn Suzuki: Absolutely, I mean local, municipal, national—they are all connected in the global conversation. Of course, acting locally does not mean we do not need support from our governments. We absolutely need to get our governments to support us in facilitating us doing the right decisions. But if we don’t start looking at what kind of responsibility we can take, right now, we are never going to get anywhere.
Guernica: There is a lot of talk in the U.S. right now about the president’s approach to reducing carbon emission through cap and trade. What are your thoughts on cap and trade?
Severn Suzuki: Well, hopefully it would be a cap that actually means something. That would be good scientifically, but also that companies could actually strive for and possibly achieve. There’s a lot of criticism of this kind of trading emissions and how it’s just kind of buying each other off of having to deal with anything. But I like the general idea that pollution has a cost. This is the beginner’s level we are at, and I think the fact that you can see non-polluting as a resource that has a value or that polluting over this cap has actually cost, like a tax, that kind of idea has to warm its way into the current economy. I think as an interim strategy, I think it’s a good idea.
Guernica: With the current economy, what do you say to the people that argue reduction in carbon emissions will damage the economy?
We need to be talking about what kind of existence we are actually striving for as human beings. Someone needs to be having that conversation.
Severn Suzuki: Norway implemented a carbon tax in 1992 and, of course, it was controversial. But very quickly it became totally normalized because it actually boosted their economy. Their country is dependent on fossil fuels, they have off-shore oil and gas but they have to mitigate it, they have to use carbon sequestration to store the carbon dioxide that comes out of the production of fossil fuels and they have diversified their energy market, so they have invested very heavily in renewables. Because of that, they are far more stable financially, economically, and they have very good environmental standards. The writing is on the wall. I don’t really pay too much attention to those people anymore because right now we are rewriting the economy. It’s clear. It’s not this left-wing, radical idea anymore. Some people just want to maintain the status quo because the status quo is making them rich.
Guernica: In one of your bios, it says you believe your “pursuit of traditional and scientific understanding will help [you] promote a culture of diversity, sustainability, and joy.”
Severn Suzuki: Yep.
Guernica: You know, a critic would say, “That sounds very pretty, but what exactly does that mean? What is that in reality?”
Severn Suzuki: All of this stuff we’re talking about is really about quality of life. And it’s with a lot of self interest. I am very selfish in being interested in all of these issues personally, because I just want to have a happy life. I want to have a healthy life, and I do not want to feel guilty for simply being North American. I am sick of that, you know? It’s definitely characteristic of our generation—well, so say all the theorists—that there is a lot of guilt that apathy engenders; it is really about, What do we want the human existence to be about? Here we are. It’s the twenty-first century. We have more technological advancements, more scientific advancements, on every level. We are just powering ahead but we have to slow down and ask ourselves where we are going? What is this all about? Our economy, when it’s doing well, are we actually any happier? There are tons of reports, tons of data out there, that show that while we are far, far wealthier, financially, we are not happier. We need to be talking about what kind of existence we are actually striving for as human beings. Someone needs to be having that conversation.
Guernica: What are your plans for the future? Do you have any government aspirations?
Severn Suzuki: That is a good question. I am involved in a climate change panel, so that’s for the government initiative. I’ve never dismissed the idea of public office as being an avenue for change. I especially believe in municipal leadership. I think we’ve seen a lot of possibilities. In the States, there was the mayor of Seattle who instigated getting cities across the States to sign on to Kyoto, even without the support of the federal government. That is hugely inspiring. So, those kinds of examples, I am always so inspired by because yes, at some level, you can have your individual action and reduce your personal impact, but at some level you have to get involved and try to create broader change. That’s also part of personal engagement—getting involved at that level. So, I haven’t necessarily ruled that out. But, I also feel like there are a lot of ways of being political without necessarily running for office. We will see what happens. I am still going to continue speaking and getting the word out there and trying to be involved in as many projects as I can.
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Photo by Nick Wiebe