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 the so-called speech that “silenced the world.”
Severn Cullis-Suzuki was just 12 years old and had started a children’s environmental 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, family and friends rushed them to find money to fly south, accompanied by their father, David Suzuki, one of Canada’s leading geneticists. The group rented a small booth at a side event and set out to mug everyone (I met them and was blown away 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 be given a brief seat to address the world governments. “We hopped in a cab,” Severn, the group’s de facto leader, recalled 30 years later. “I had a unique focus. I just wanted to talk to them and tell them what’s at stake.”
If she was nervous when she took the stage in the Rio Centro’s huge hall, it didn’t 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 began, without referring to any notes.
The film shows the diplomats squirming at their anger and rhetoric. “I’m not blind, and in my fear I’m not afraid to tell the world how I feel. In my country we make so much garbage, we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, buy and throw away. I’m still a kid, but I know if all the money spent on war was spent on finding ecological answers, ending poverty and making treaties, what a wonderful place this earth would be.”
Severn Cullis-Suzuki – named after the British river where her mother’s family had lived nearby – toasted her audience. She’d been given five minutes to talk, but needed more. “They teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to sort things out, to respect others, to clean up our messes, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not to be greedy. Then why are you going out and… doing the things you forbid us to do?” She continued.
The 542-word speech she crammed into a cab with her friends was hailed as “the six minutes that silenced the world” and she was dubbed the “voice of a generation”. Al Gore called it the best speech of the summit, and today it has been viewed millions of times and is considered exemplary essay writing.
It changed her life. For a time she was a prominent youth activist – traveling the world for justice on earth and calling for action on climate change, forests and pollution – and a child with an academic bent.
She sees the parallels between herself and Greta Thunberg. The two met in 2019 when the Swedish activist came to Vancouver for a climate march. “It was a very intense meeting. There was a lot of violence around them. A man tried to attack her. She is an incredible, charismatic leader; The amazing thing about her is how level headed and focused she is. I saw the young me in her. We had so much in common. Now the story connects us. Greta has an extra intensity because of the lack of [global] Action.”
Cullis-Suzuki focused on indigenous culture and studied 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 Canada’s Pacific coast, and lived with her children on a reservation where she immersed herself in indigenous culture and language. Now she is doing her doctorate on the Haida language.
“My family has always worked with indigenous peoples. Dad, a third-generation Japanese, came into contact with Kayapo leaders in Brazil. He had traveled there. In the end, Paiakan [who had led protests against the destruction of the Amazon] came to live with us.”
So many environmental struggles have been fought by indigenous peoples, she says. “They are so important now because they know how to survive. You have experienced the six major extinctions. We are just awakening to the genius of how they have lived with the land for tens of thousands of years. It gives us deep hope. This knowledge was a real help for me.
“People say that the world did nothing after Rio, but in fact a lot of 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 large enough to be in the G7 but stripped of all democratic scrutiny. Her influence is now immense.
“Now I worry about my children. Eco-anxiety has reached the mainstream and youth are grappling with their future. We’re still living the good life. It’s clear to all of us. Children are attuned to injustice and hypocrisy. We live at the expense of their future. There is a deep 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 her father started. “Covid has shown us that we can respond to a global emergency like climate. We can see what an appropriate response is. For Covid they have invested billions of money. Now we know it’s possible. We have all the solutions.”
Thirty years later, she says, she wouldn’t change a word of her speech. “I could not. I would not. It came from a girl. The voice of youth can be so profound. It hits you hard.”