And a Child Shall Berate Them

It’s the first day of fall. (Not necessarily of the Fall of western civilization, but give us time. We’re working on it.) It’s a glorious, bright day where I live. One could be tempted to feel that God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world, as Browning has the child Pippa say in his poem. That’s not such a bad feeling, so long as we can boost ourselves on whatever beauty we can find, but not make it our policy. So long as we don’t think that all is well, or lose ourselves in despair that there’s no way to improve it.

I enjoyed a small blast from the cyberspace past this morning. Most Canadians know of David Suzuki, the scientific populist and environmental crusader, and many know of his daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki. A friend sent me a video, circulating now on YouTube although it’s cyber-ancient, in which a 12-year-old Cullis-Suzuki addresses the assembled delegates at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. (This was the first “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro.) She was already an experienced junior activist by then, and her small group of four – all girls, the men-for-equality flagwaver notes – had raised money to travel from Vancouver to Rio. She speaks forcefully, smartly, and effectively calls to account all the adults in the (developed) world.

Global climate change wasn’t yet on the popular radar, though the scientific consensus was gathering steam relentlessly. It almost seems quaint to hear her speak of the holes in the ozone layer. (Ah, the good old days! This is a problem that we now have the technical ability, and apparently even the institutional will, to solve. Even the Axis of Environmental Excuse-Making, the stubbornly foot-dragging governments of Australia, the U.S. and Canada, are gung ho about saving the ozone layer. After all, none of us has to change anything we do, as the replacement chemicals for CFHCs, those ozone depleters, are already available.) But she’s angry. She tells a story of shock on meeting Rio’s street kids, and relates how one of them longs to be rich “so she can help all the children on the street”. The contrast with her own materially blessed country, Canada, stuns her: “So why are we, who have everything, so greedy?!”

Young Severn was already a fine speechwriter – maybe Mum and Dad helped, sure – and a polished speaker. The rhythms of her repeated “I’m only a child, but I know…” (about sharing, that people everywhere are one human family) are compelling. Her challenging refrain to the adults begins with “You don’t know how to fix…(ozone layers, extinct species, dead rivers) and closes with a heartbreaking, passionate yet simple condemnation. Only recently has her father spoken with the desperate emotional urgency with which Severn Cullis-Suzuki called out the grown-ups in the room and around her world: “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!

The video is grainy, and Severn isn’t 12 anymore, but the message comes through clearly. It’s worth a watch and a listen, even now.

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