By Laura Stovel
Twenty-three years ago a 12-year-old girl from Vancouver stood before senior officials at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and gave an impassioned speech about the future of the world’s children. She spoke of species going extinct, waters becoming unfishable, air becoming polluted and people in privileged, Western countries refusing to share our wealth with people in need around the world.
“All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions,” she said at the time. “I’m just a child and I know that I don’t have all the solutions but I want you to realize, neither do you. You don’t know how to fix the holes in the ozone layer. You don’t know how to bring the salmon up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct… If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.”
Sadly, the issues that Severn Cullis-Suzuki spoke about in 1992 are as relevant today as they were then. Cullis-Suzuki will be speaking at the Performing Arts Centre on Sunday, September 20, at 2 pm as part of the Axis Mundi Festival. You can hear her famous speech on the Axis Mundi website.
Cullis-Suzuki, the daughter of the famous BC environmentalist and television personality David Suzuki, is still a passionate advocate for the environment, intergenerational justice, and biological and human diversity. And she still has that sense of urgency and purpose.
“What are we for?” she asked. “What are we doing in our lifetime? What is going to be our legacy? When we frame it like that it’s a totally different conversation. And actually we have so many answers to this question that people in Revelstoke already know. It’s things like fostering community, fostering more of a connection with food. We have the power of transition at our fingertips.”
“How are we going to figure out a better relationship with energy?” she asked. “The answers are going to be different in every location. We have to move towards a more localized way of problem solving,” with the support of municipal and provincial governments that can help provide the infrastructure.
In Haida Gwaii, where Cullis-Suzuki lives on a reservation with her husband and two young sons, residents rely heavily on diesel generators for their energy needs. “Yet here we are almost completely in opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal from Enbridge,” she said.
“We’re trying to figure out what this means. We do not want to contribute to the problem – and we are. We don’t want to put the rest of the world at higher risk by further developing the pipelines from the oil sands. We don’t want to risk our islands to oil tanker disasters.”
“What are we going to do about it? Well, we have a lot of wind in our part of the world. We have a lot of tidal energy. And now we’re trying to figure out what kind of infrastructure we need. How do we develop a budget for that? How do we work with other First Nations in British Columbia? There are more and more examples of small-scale alternative energies. There’s a reservation in northern Vancouver Island that has a wind farm. Nobody knows about these things.”
“So we need localized solutions and we also need to talk with other communities and see what’s possible. The answers are limitless. We just have to commit and realize that this can’t go on. We have to get off this energy paradigm.”
Working with provincial and municipal governments means that “we have to get political,” Suzuki said. She is on the board of the Suzuki Foundation, founded by her father and mother, Tara Cullis, in 1990. The Foundation is currently promoting the Blue Dot Campaign that encourages municipalities to commit to “citizens’ right to a healthy environment.”
Respecting and nurturing multiple ways of thinking is key to finding energy and climate change solutions. Yet Western societies have disregarded the very cultures and languages that might provide answers. “We in the Western culture have built this reductionist world and system that I have been trained in, this way of breaking the world apart and having different categories and silos. In reality the world doesn’t work like that.”
“It’s brought us down a lot of problematic paths,” leading to such things as putting “tons and tons of garbage in the very air that we breathe. We pollute so much that we’re actually changing the atmosphere. We compartmentalize these things so fundamentally that we don’t see the whole,” she said.
“I really think that as the world has globalized, as we develop this kind of monolithic global consumption culture, we have lost a lot of the reality checks of our own indigenous cultures. Ultimately all of us came from indigenous cultures that used to be connected to the land in one way or another.”
Most indigenous cultures have a more holistic way of seeing themselves in relation to nature. “It’s very interesting that indigenous groups around the world” often don’t have words “for nature or for environment. Part of the reason is that, in their indigenous worldview, environment and nature are so much a part of them. There’s not really any separation between themselves and the natural world,” she said.
These worldviews are expressed through language. Cullis-Suzuki is currently learning the Skidegate Haida language with her family and she works with elders at the Skidegate Haida Emersion Program to preserve and revitalize the language. She is also a founding director of the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society. And she introduces the television show Samaqan: Water Stories which examines the sacred relationships between indigenous people and water.
For Cullis-Suzuki, we need to respect and preserve the many languages and cultures of the world. She sites ethnobotanist Wade David’s concept of the ethnosphere: “the human component to planet earth. It is the sum of our cultures, our dances, our songs, our languages, our world beliefs, our traditions – all the practices that essentially make us human and give us identity.”
“And this beautiful ethnosphere, the thing that makes us unique and that really makes us human,” has been shrinking since the time of contact in North America, especially in the last few decades, she said. We are currently “losing a language every two weeks. And by 2100, linguists think we’ll lose over half the existing languages of today, which is around 7,000 documented languages.”
“What does that mean? Think about the unbelievable amount of human history and depth of understanding that will be lost. At a time when we’re undergoing the sixth mass extinction on the planet, it’s very profound. We’re scrambling around trying to figure out solutions to climate change, to mass migrations, to drought, to all these new global problems that humans have never dealt with before and at the same time we’re limiting our ways of thinking. It’s absolute lunacy. The ways that people in different kinds of languages and different cultures think, it’s really kind of magic because it offers a whole different reality for dealing with the current issues.”
For anyone with an interest in the environment and climate change and what we can do to have a positive impact on the world facing future generations, Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s talk, Coming Back to Earth: Charting a Course Through the Transition, is one you shouldn’t miss.