Greta – The Original
In 1992, Severn Cullis-Suzuki was a brave child prophet leading the worldwide environmental movement. At the tender age of twelve, she delivered a globally televised speech from the United Nations. World leaders promised, then, to mend their wicked, wasteful ways. In an exclusive interview with DIE WELTWOCHE, Cullis-Suzuki — now a 39-year-old Canadian scientist — reveals what it was like to be “The Original Greta.”
Severn Cullis-Suzuki is a hard woman to find. It’s taken over a month to land an interview with “The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes.”
As a young girl, she was ubiquitous. She had the world in thrall to her environmental pronouncements. These days, the adult biologist prefers the microscope to the camera. But Cullis-Suzuki relents and agrees to discuss the phenomenon that is Greta Thunberg.
“It always comes in waves,” she tells me. “Thirty years ago, it was exactly the same” — global alarm followed by general complacency. But maybe, this time with Greta, it will be different.
Mrs Cullis-Suzuki, you spoke at the United Nations climate summit in 1992. How did you feel? You were only twelve years old.
(Laughs.) I was well prepared. I practiced for a long time. I knew exactly what I was doing and why I was there.
Why? What was your motivation?
I grew up very privileged. I spent a lot of time in nature. I could travel and was in the Amazon rainforest when I was eight years old. On my way there, I saw street children of the same age in Brazil. Our lives were radically different. That opened my eyes. Suddenly, I saw the pollution. Everywhere was plastic. My parents had already committed themselves against it.
Did you support your parents on their way to becoming an environmental activist?
Sure. They always included children in the conversation. They were very political. They always had interesting guests at the dining table and talked about world affairs. But in the end, it was my mother. She said that I shouldn't be depressed. There has always been good and bad in the world. To be part of the good, I had to do something. So, she encouraged me to clean up the beach with friends — just start somewhere.
Had you been pushed to speak at the summit?
No. The speech was just me. When I told my father that I wanted to go to Rio, he said. “You are crazy. It will be like a zoo. 30,000 people will be there.” He, as an environmental activist, he didn't even go.
You have two children. Will they follow in your footsteps?
They will certainly make their contribution. Not as activists or speakers. Both are very shy, and I want them to pursue their own abilities and interests.
Have you ever met Greta so far?
No, but I hope I will meet her soon. I sent her a letter. I mainly told her that I am proud of her, and she is not alone. Billions of people are with her, including older generations. My father met her last week and told me that she had received the letter.
You were twelve when you spoke in Rio. Greta is 16 years old, now. Why are there two children, you and Greta, who initiated the global climate debate?
That shows the extremely important voice of youth. We, Greta and I, were real and spoke from the bottom of our heart. Those who see this remember their own children, and we all love our children. We then feel responsible to leave the Earth in better conditions than it was given to us – or at least the same.
As a twelve-year-old, how could you handle the pressure?
It wasn't like Greta. At that time, there was no social media. I was thrilled, travelled, gave speeches and interviews. I was passionate about it.
Didn't you ever feel manipulated?
I was always myself. There were requests to advertise products. But I didn't want that. I think children are, anyway, less manipulative compared to adults. They don't need money. They don't understand that. I find it funny that people believe that children are manipulated. Look at the politicians. They are manipulated. They get all the money.
In your speech, just like Greta, you accused politicians. What have you achieved by blaming politicians?
My main concern was accountability. People should go inside themselves and see if their actions really reflect their words. I wanted us to think about human values. I think we let our children down. Even myself, I am guilty as well. My generation has not succeeded in making the world economy more sustainable. We are naturally guilty because we are all a part of this system that destroys our children’s future.
That is what you have said at countless conferences. These events seem to be useless.
That's why I didn't go to all of them. There was a phase when I attended too many conferences. I said to myself, “What are we doing here?” Thus, I had to stop.
What do you think of Justin Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister? He is one of many politicians who kneel before Greta, all of a sudden. Is he a hypocrite?
Yes, absolutely. That’s ridiculous. At the moment, politics is purely a popularity competition. Everyone says to Greta, “Yes, ma'am.” But nobody wants to make unpopular decisions.
On the climate strikes, statistics in Switzerland show that, compared to older generations, young people travel by plane the most.
We all need a complete social transformation. All of us.
But that is a contradiction. Wouldn't the young strikers have to erase their own failure?
"What should we do?" is the question. Today, everything revolves around consumption. Our society is driven to constantly consume better and more expensive things. We have to change that. All of us! We are all addicted to this society that is destroying the future of our planet.
How is that supposed to work if not even the activists adapt their misconduct?
All those who work for change act sustainably! But we also need lawyers for state sanctions and political changes on a grand scale. Our legal framework no longer fits with our modern society.
It seems like within the climate striker movement it is a lot about peer pressure. Right?
Group pressure is part of the teenage years and being human.
Young people follow the movement because they have to, but still take the plane flying on holidays?
Do you believe that those who go to church every Sunday never sin during the week? People are inconsistent and imperfect. But what if peer pressure helps the Earth? Is that really bad? For a long time, we have glorified human childhood. Retrospective, however, it was mostly the youth who have initiated revolutions.
Which revolution would you compare the "Fridays for Future" movement with?
I wish it was like the Civil Rights movement, or like the revolutions in the 60s and 70s, or the revolutions against the Vietnam War.
The Climate Youth relies on science which points out the man-made climate change. How do you react to scientists who criticize this theory?
First, these scientists are in the minority. There are thousands of scientists, over 17,000, who fight the climate change. About five hundred reject it. Scientists are not perfect, there is always a debate. But what we have is a broad consensus. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “If nine out of ten doctors tell you that you have cancer and only one is against it, what would you do?”
Switzerland is a model country in terms of sustainability. Our CO2 emissions are very low. Can you understand anyone who is critical of Greta's alarmism?
Yes, totally. It’s the same in Canada. We feel good. We are a happy country. We don't experience the bad monsoons.We don't have typhoons. We don't have hurricanes that flood our homes. In Canada, we have some fires like we have never had before. That is alarming. Our wealth is our buffer. To us, everything seems very apocalyptic. But talk to people from the Philippines, Japan, or India. It is different there.
What was your ideal climate scenario?
We have to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. We also need to save the forest that stores CO2 and look at vast transportation shifts. This is a mass-retraining. But it comes along with huge economic opportunities.
Are you optimistic?
I believe in humanity. We are capable of incredible things and will find a way out. We are sensitive and love future generations. I think that's what Greta is asking us to do — to tap into our love of our planet.