World acclaimed green activist Greta Thunberg has established herself as the planet’s spokeswoman on climate change at just 16 years of age. But long before social media, another youngster was scolding UN leaders on the world stage almost 30 years before.
Thunberg came to prominence organising school walkouts in her native Sweden to protest against climate change. Her environmental crusade has been unavoidable, culminating last month in a headline grabbing angry and passionate speech before the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit, in which she blasted politicians for stealing her “dreams” and her “childhood” with “empty words” while humanity stares down “a mass extinction”.
Thunberg’s grim pronouncements have earned her savage criticism, and glowing praise. New York magazine called her “the Joan of Arc of climate change”, while The Guardian ranked her speech alongside President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for its historical significance.
Then again, they said the same about Japanese-Canadian Severn Suzuki in 1992. Long before Thunberg shamed global lawmakers by saying “we probably don’t even have a future any more,” and people tore each other to shreds attacking and defending her, 12-year-old Cullis-Suzuki became known as the "The girl who silenced the world for five minutes” when she delivered a similar sermon before the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
The tone of Suzuki’s speech is strikingly similar to Thunberg’s. She commneted passionately: “We’ve come...to tell you adults that you must change your ways,” she opened, just like Thunberg told the assembled adults “we will not let you get away with this.”
Just as Thunberg scolded the UN summit with the powerful words “we are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money and fairytales of eternal economic growth”, Suzuki lambasted leaders that “losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market”.
Underpinning the message of both girls was a nihilistic fatalism. “I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the hole in our ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it”, Suzuki said 27 years ago. Striking schoolchildren in 2019 carry banners reading: “You’ll die of old age, I’ll die of climate change.”
The environmental problems addressed by Suzuki reflect the world of the early 1990s, when deforestation, the destruction of the earth’s ozone layer, and the extinction of wildlife and vegetation were the ecological concerns. Yet humanity has been fairly successful at resolving those problems in the years that have passed by. Thanks to a landmark chemicals ban, ozone depletion has slowed dramatically, and forest cover worldwide has increased by an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined.
Suzuki herself went on to found an environmental think tank and work for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Special Advisory Panel in the early 2000s.
Will Thunberg get the last laugh? She retooled American president Donald Trump’s mockery of her in Twitter clashes between the two of them.
So what does the future have in store for Thunberg? Well that depends on how you look at Suzuki’s example. On the one hand, none of Suzuki's worst fears came to pass. On the other hand, world governments still have ecological problems to contend with, and are being lectured by inspirational children in the West about them.
Assuming the world as we know it still exists three decades from now – as Thunberg says it won’t unless we slash carbon emissions to absolute zero in 10 years or so – then the teenage activist will likely look back on a long UN and voluntary sector career that kicked off with one famous speech.
By then, another concerned child will likely have emerged - hopefully from the Global South this time - to deliver a powerful warning about acid rain in the Martian colonies we will have created by then.
Suzuki was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her mother is writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis. Her father, geneticist and environmental activist David Suzuki, a third-generation Japanese Canadian.
While attending junior school, at age nine, she founded the Environmental Children's Organization, a group of children dedicated to learning and teaching other youngsters about environmental issues. In 1992, at age 12, Suzuki raised money with members of ECO to attend the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Along with group members Michelle Quigg, Vanessa Suttie, and Morgan Geisler, Cullis-Suzuki presented environmental issues from a youth perspective at the summit, where she was applauded for a speech to the delegates. The video has since become a viral hit, popularly known as "The Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes".
In 1993, she was honoured in the United Nations Environment Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honour. In 1993, Doubleday published her book Tell the World, a 32-page book of environmental steps for families.
Suzuki graduated from Yale University in 2002 with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. After Yale, Cullis-Suzuki spent two years traveling. Cullis-Suzuki co-hosted Suzuki's Nature Quest, a children's television series that aired on the Discovery Kids in 2002.
In early 2002, she helped launch an Internet-based think tank called The Skyfish Project. As a member of Kofi Annan's Special Advisory Panel, she and members of the Skyfish Project brought their first project, a pledge called the "Recognition of Responsibility", to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002. The Skyfish Project disbanded in 2004 as Cullis-Suzuki turned her focus back to school. She enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Victoria to study ethnobotany under Nancy Turner, finishing in 2007.
Suzuki is the main character in the documentary film Severn, the Voice of Our Children, directed by Jean-Paul Jaud and released in France in November 2010.