Putting together a concise biography for Severn Cullis-Suzuki is something of a daunting task. Not due to a lack of achievements, but rather because the Vancouver-born environmental and social-justice activist has an incredibly long resumé for someone not yet three decades old. There’s so much there, it’s hard to whittle down to size.
At the age of twelve, Cullis-Suzuki attended the Rio Earth Summit and delivered a speech on how environmental degradation hurts the world’s youth. The next year she was named to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global 500 Roll of Honour and published her first book, Tell the World. In 2002 she served on UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special advisory panel to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, co-hosted a TV show, and founded an environmental think tank. More recently she edited the book Notes from Canada’s Young Activists: A Generation Stands Up for Change. She currently lives on Haida Gwaii in British Columbia and sits on the board of directors of the David Suzuki Foundation (yes, they’re related: Severn is David Suzuki’s daughter).
Cullis-Suzuki will be giving a talk at Upper Canada College in Toronto on January 14. She recently spoke with Torontoist about the state of the planet, Canada’s poor performance on the world stage, and what we can do to help protect the environment here at home.
Torontoist: What is your vision for the Earth’s future?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: Currently, we live in a society and in a system where it’s virtually impossible to do the right thing for either ourselves as natural creatures or for the planet. And so I guess a simple vision would be to live in a world where we didn’t have to feel bad about our daily actions.
What would you say is the way to go about that? Can you go over your ideas for getting the planet to that stage?
[Laughs]. Well, that is the question, right? I mean, how do you transform a society where it is impossible to do the right thing to one that is sustainable, to one that makes sense for future generations? I think a certain amount of awareness, absolutely, is totally key, and for a long time now a lot of people in the environmental and social-justice movement have been calling for personal action, right? Personal education and personal action. There’s a lot of things that we can do.
Personally, these problems like global warming, for example, are very overwhelming and [it’s] very easy to intimidate people from even learning about the issues, because they’re just so huge. But a way that I’ve been trying to think about it personally, so that I empower myself, is to think about removing myself from contributing to that problem. So, trying to limit my own energy [consumption], trying to walk more, bike more, take public transit more—which is often very hard for me, because I live in a very small rural community where we don’t have public transit—but just trying to take myself out of contributing to certain problems is a good way to go for me to be thinking about it.
Maybe a better example is when I learnt about the origins and the process that most chocolate goes from being grown—most of it is grown in Africa, a lot of it has to do with child slave labour—[and] then the process [by which] it gets to Canada. I realized that I didn’t want to be part of that process, and I now make different choices about the chocolate that I eat, and therefore I can feel like I may not be able to stop child slavery, but I am not directly contributing to it with my consumer choices. So that kind of way of looking at issues I find helpful as an individual. And we all have to feel empowered that our actions do count, they do make a difference, and our choices do actually have an impact.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Photo by Adrian Wyld/Associated Press.
But on another level, I think—especially these days as we’re really realizing the scale of environmental global problems—we need legislation, we need our governments to help us make the right decision. And so we need to push for elected leaders who have the same values as us, who care about the future of our children, who care about issues like the Kyoto Protocol and global warming, and who help us make the right decisions. Because, apparently, one of the biggest barriers to Canadians acting on issues such as the environment, which apparently they’re very concerned about, is the feeling that nobody else cares. And that’s why—you know, why should I make the effort when my neighbours aren’t going to even try? I’m the one who’s going to lose out, especially economically. So we need our government to help level the playing field, so we all are on side.
And that leads directly to my next question, which is this: how well do you think Canada—and our government—is performing on the environmental issue internationally?
It’s a humiliation. The primary example, in my mind, is what’s happening at the climate talks on the Kyoto process. We just finished the Poznań negotiations in Poland a little while ago. This is all leading up to the Kyoto meetings in Copenhagen, which are this year, and those meetings will determine the timeframe of the Kyoto Protocol and what commitments and what obligations the countries will have. And Canada, as a country that ratified Kyoto in 2002—it became international law in 2005—we’re bound by law to adhere to our targets.
As soon as the Conservatives got in in 2006 they completely threw out every program that the Canadian government had to do with climate change. And they’ve shown complete disregard for [this] internationally, legally binding protocol. When you read the blogs—I’m sure you’ve heard some of the buzz coming back from these international climate debates—it’s humiliating what people are saying about Canadians. Canadian delegates are being actually obstructionist to the rest of the countries actually getting ahead with how they’re going to deal with this massive problem of climate change together.
So while there’s tons of criticisms anyone can make of the actual process—of the targets, of the whole protocol, the Kyoto Protocol—the effort, the importance, of the world coming together on an international treaty about the commons…. I mean, this is the first one. I mean, how can we reject that? How can we obstruct that progress? It’s humiliating. I’m embarrassed when I think about our international work on climate [issues].
One last question. I’m writing for a Toronto-based publication, and obviously Toronto is the biggest city in the country and one of the biggest on the continent. So I’m wondering if you can give a bit of advice specifically to city-dwellers. What is the number one thing urban Canadians can do to help fix their environment or to reduce their impact on the environment?
Photo by Suzanne Long.
Well that’s a very big question. The David Suzuki Foundation has done a certain amount of analysis on exactly that question: where are our efforts best spent? What are ten things that would most affect the state of the world environmentally that we can act on? They’ve come up with something we’ve called the Nature Challenge, and you can go and check it out online. It’s a list of ten things that basically answer your question, where the best places to put our efforts [are].
Personally, I’m a big foodie. I’m married to food. And I’m very passionate about food security and food issues, and they’re very connected to basically every issue you can think of, from social equity internationally to climate change. And I think eating locally, just as a general principle, is an area to start being aware and self-educating on. I think that’s what I would say to city-dwellers. And especially in a place like Toronto, there’s a lot of opportunity—even though that’s such a massive city—there is opportunity to eat locally, more than in some smaller cities or towns where there isn’t the same kind of awareness or there isn’t the same diversity of economies.
So I think eating locally is something to address within your own community—supporting local farmers—but also to address climate change, because transportation of food is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. And then also to address the economic injustices that we face in the world, I think eating locally is a pretty serious area we should all consider.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki will be speaking at Upper Canada College on Wednesday, January 14, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available to the public. More details can be found on the UCC website.