The Girl Who Silenced the World

At the Plenary Session during The Earth Summit in Rio Centro, Brazil in 1992, a young girl, then aged just twelve years addressed the conference. The essence of the message she delivered was something her dad had taught her when she was younger i.e. that “You are what you do, not what you say.” Severn Suzuki, who became known as the girl who silenced the world for 6 minutes, spoke knowledgeably and passionately about the effect that humankind is having on the planet.

“At school, even in kindergarten,” she said “you teach us to behave in the world. 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

She then goes on to ask, “Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?”

This powerful speech reconnects me with some of my thoughts back when I was a youngster, growing up and wondering why we could not just ‘give peace a chance.’ Perhaps that might be described as the message of my generation. The money that was just being squandered on the arms race, it seemed to us, could be used to solve many of the problems that our society faced.

But then, we all did finally grow up and we began to realise that things are not that simple. Of course, the money could be better spent elsewhere, yes we do all want to live peacefully and naturally we do all care about the environment, but we also need to deal with dark forces that constantly seek to destabilise things. We do want to deal with world hunger and the problems of world debt and a multitude of inequalities that prevail in the world, but these are not simple matters, we came to believe.

It takes a child to tell us that we may not know how to solve these problems, but we could certainly stop adding to them.

“I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realise, neither do you!”

  • You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer
  • You don’t know how to bring salmon back up a dead stream
  • You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct
  • You can’t bring back forests that once grew where there is now desert

She then delivers the central part of her heart-felt message, “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!”

That young girl who spoke to the conference on behalf of ECO is now 31 years old and has taken her place in the adult world. As such, just like the rest of us, she gets her chance to do what she can to change things. The people who ran the governments of the day, when she made her speech, have all moved on and been replaced by younger people who all get their chance too.

All of the people involved in trying to solve these problems have now changed. But, if history has taught us anything, it is that some things never seem to change. We are still breaking the planet, we are still fighting and squabbling when we should be listening to each other, with respect, trying to address these perennial and desperately important issues. We teach children “to work things out”, but so far, there is so much we have still not managed to work out.

We may not have managed to succeed where previous generations failed, that’s true, but we must never abandon hope and we must never cease to strive for a better future for our children. It takes a child to stand up and ask us those simple questions that remind us that we must never lose sight of some simple and basic truths. Whatever it takes, we must remain committed to tackling the big problems in life; problems that are so big that they take a concerted effort over a period spanning many generations in order to see any real progress.

When Severn Suzuki stood up and asked the world those simple questions, she was also speaking for many of us. That’s why this message is so powerful because fundamentally some of us also believe that the answers to some of these complex problems are quite simple if we have the will to follow through with action. As she put it, “you are what you do, not what you say.”

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