by Bill Becker
It was 20 years ago this month that Severn Suzuki, then 12, gave the speech of her life. As she stood on the podium at the first Earth Summit, facing dignitaries from 178 nations, Severn’s 6-minute statement also became the speech of her generation.
The topic was sustainable development. The place was Rio de Janeiro, where heads of state, delegates and negotiators from 178 nations assembled to consider how humankind and the rest of the natural world could co-exist, to the everlasting benefit of both.
Ten years later, Severn recalled the experience and assessed the world’s progress in a column for TIME magazine:
“I am only a child,” I told them. “Yet I know that if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this would be. In school you teach us not to 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? You grownups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, to make your actions reflect your words.”
I spoke for six minutes and received a standing ovation. Some of the delegates even cried. I thought that maybe I had reached some of them, that my speech might actually spur action. Now, a decade from Rio, after I’ve sat through many more conferences, I’m not sure what has been accomplished. My confidence in the people in power and in the power of an individual’s voice to reach them has been deeply shaken.
This month is the 20-year anniversary of the Earth Summit. On June 20, international negotiators and heads of state will meet again in Rio to assess progress and discuss new commitments. The theme of Rio+20, as the conference is unofficially called, is “The Future We Want” – an invocation, perhaps, of Buckminster Fuller’s admonition that “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”
Severn’s name today is Severn Cullis-Suzuki. She is married and has her own child. If she were invited back to the podium at Rio+20, what would she say? We asked her. Green Cross International taped her answer for The Future We Want project.
Among many other points, she repeats what she told negotiators in 1992: Achieve intergenerational justice by making your actions reflect your words.
There have been many more words than actions these past 20 years. The Earth Summit produced Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Statement of Forest Principles, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. New institutions were created, including the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development and the High-Level Advisory Board on Sustainable Development.
Yet in a report released last week, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded that the world “continues to speed down an unsustainable path despite over 500 internationally agreed goals and objectives to support the sustainable management of the environment and improve human wellbeing.” Significant progress has been made on only four of the 90 most important commitments to sustainability, UNEP reported.
At Rio+20, about 130 heads of state and government, along with more than 50,000 leaders in business, cities and non-government groups, are expected. Among them will be thousands of young people, the Severns of today. I expect that many of them are full of hope, while others are frustrated that they are being handed a world in which security, peace, genuine prosperity, social justice and sustainability remain aspirations rather than realities.In anticipation of the official conference June 20-22, young people have been sending the UN their ideas through organizations such as Peace Child International and initiatives such as Rio+Twenties and Road to Rio+20. Organized under the framework of the Road to Rio+20 initiative last year, young people developed recommendations at regional meetings in Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China, Estonia, Singapore, Nepal, Ghana, Slovenia, South Korea, Argentina and Qatar. (See them here and here.)
and Youth Blast already are underway in Rio. The UN has identified a Major Group for Children and Youth to be the official voice for young people and adults under age 30. And in an exhibit The Future We Want project is staging where the delegates meet, young people will showcase solutions and visions from more than 50 countries.
Secretary General Ban ki-Moon not only encourages their aspirations; he shares them. In fact, he seems to have staked his reputation and legacy on them, making sustainable development his No. 1 priority and “The Future We Want” a theme of his upcoming years at the UN. As he said at a news conference on June 6:
We aspire to nothing less than a global movement for generational change. We need world leaders to make the issues on the table at Rio+20 their own personal priority. Nothing else will do…I expect concrete outputs from Rio — outcomes that will improve the lives of real people around the world…Sustainable development is an idea whose time has come. It is the future we want.
Unconstrained by diplomacy, I would put it this way: If we insist on ruining the planet, we can no longer call ourselves the most intelligence species. We have the tools, but we’re not using them. We know what to do, but we’re not doing it. We all bear some responsibility for that, and we all should be part of the solution.
As for our leaders, they need to do more than weep at the words of our children. They need to turn words into action. Really soon.
With his partner Jonathan Arnold, Bill Becker is co-director of The Future We Want, a private-sector project running in parallel with the United Nations lead-up to Rio+20.