Dispatch from Rio+20: Next Election or Next Generation?

Text of my news feature published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 22 June 2012

Severn Cullis-Suzuki addressing Earth Summit in Rio, June 1992

Next Election or Next Generation?
By Nalaka Gunawardene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Twenty years ago, a passionate young girl addressed – and challenged – the world leaders gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

They called it the speech that stopped the world for six minutes. All the platitudes and rhetoric of heads of state are long forgotten, but this speech endures. It has been viewed million of times online.

Her speech was uncluttered and sincere. “I am only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realize neither do you…If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!”

Her name was Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and she was 12 years old. The young Canadian environmental activist closed a Plenary Session with her powerful speech that received a standing ovation.

Raised in Vancouver and Toronto, Severn is the daughter of writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis and environmental activist turned TV personality David Suzuki. When she was 9, she started the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO), a small group of children committed to learning and teaching other kids about environmental issues.

They did various local projects and in 1992, raised enough money to go to the Rio Earth Summit. Their wanted to remind the world leaders that the future of all children – indeed, all future generations – were going to be impacted by decisions made at the Summit.

Listen to the memorable speech at the Earth Summit by Severn Cullis-Suzuki:

Two decades on, another young girl from the Asia Pacific earned her chance to address Rio+20, the follow up to the original Summit, this time with the theme ‘The Future We Want’

As it opened on the morning of 20 June 2012, Brittany Trilford, a 17-year-old school girl from New Zealand, spoke truth to power.

Brittany Trilford at Rio+20 conference on 20 June 2012

Addressing over 130 heads of state from around the world, assembled in Rio Centro conference centre, she said: “Please ask yourselves why you are here. Are you here to save face? Or are you here to save us?”

Brittany won an international competition to earn her five minutes of fame. The ‘Date with History Contest’ was a global online search for a person under 30 to represent youth and future generations at Rio+20.

Organised by the Global Campaign for Climate Action, Climate Nexus and the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), contest participants were asked to upload a 2 to 3 minute short video speech about the future they wanted.

After entries closed in early May 2012, online voting was allowed for 22 finalists – which included at least 3 from each region of the world. The final winner was chosen by an international panel that included environmentalists, UN officials and celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Brittany Trilford addresses world leaders at the UN Earth Summit

Brittany is a final year student attending school in Wellington, New Zealand. In her winning entry, she wished for more innovation and imagination.

“One solution would be to change our education system to embrace creativity and innovation. To tackle our problems there are definitely out there. Our leaders have to listen, be open-minded and persistent enough to give these ideas a chance,” she said.

As she ended the speech: “I want a future where education encourages innovative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship. I want a future where we run with natural processes and not against them. I want a future where leaders will stop talking and start acting. I want a future where leaders lead.”

Her video was filmed at home with basic camera equipment. As she explained, “I entered to show solidarity with youth around the world, demanding that our leaders remember we are all their children and they owe us a fighting chance at a future we want to inherit.”

In a poignant media event hours before the Summit opened, the star of 1992 Severn Cullis-Suzuki joined the winner of 2012, Brittany Trilford.

Severn is now a writer and activist on culture and environmental issues, as well as the mother of two young boys.

“I have grown up a lot these 20 years but those six minutes of speaking to the UN two decades ago remains the most powerful thing I have ever done in my life to affect people,” she said wistfully.

Shortly after arriving in Rio – her first time since 1992 – Severn addressed a group of young delegates working with Green Cross International, the global environmental group created by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Severn’s message today remains the same, but now she also thinks about the future of her own children. She returned to Rio on their behalf to appeal for solutions to issues like global climate change which she called an “inter-generational crime”.

The world’s children have spoken loud and clear, twice over. But will they be heard by the world’s governments – preoccupied with multiple crises and more concerned about staying on in office.

Will the next generation prevail over the next election?

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