Sustaining a Positive Vision
of the Future
It is my great honour to open today's conference…
The workshops that I've read about are very exciting and I think
we will learn a lot.
Today we are here to discuss sustainability. What does this word
An official definition from the World Commission of Environment
and Development defines sustainability "as meeting the needs
of the present without compromising the ability of future generations
to meet their own needs."
You might already think that the way we live is NOT sustainable.
You are here because you are worried about the environment.
Human beings are using up our resources as if they were in indefinite
supply, meanwhile dumping our wastes into the environment as if
they will disappear, all the while our population is rising, and
some of us, (North Americans) are consuming more and more.
When I hear about all the problems on TV and the news, I find its
easy to get overwhelmed by the statistics and facts and damage that
we are doing to the natural world.
It can be very depressing. Some kids get depressed about it and
feel like it's hopeless to do anything.
But today I want to tell you about how this environmental challenge
has made my life so much more interesting. And how I know that striving
towards sustainability is so worth it. I also am going to show a
few slides of a trip I did this summer, and show some of the great
biodiversity that is out there for us to explore.
PART I: STORY
I'm going to tell you about what I know: my own experiences.
Half my childhood was spent in BC: I went camping, hiking, exploring
For the other half, I lived in Toronto: and even though this is
a huge city, our family would seek out field trips-we'd go to Leslie
St. Spit or to nearby countryside every weekend.
-my sister and I made a museum of gathered things… great stuff for
So the outdoors of BC and Toronto was always a fun place for me.
Then I heard about an outside world that existed.
When I was eight years old, and my little sister Sarika was five,
my parents became deeply involved in a fight in South America to
stop the building of a series of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon,
These dams would flood out hundreds of native villages and thousands
of animals and birds. A big meeting of indigenous people took place
and met with the Hydroelectric company… and in the end, the coalition
of tribes won -- the World Bank withdrew its funding, and the dams
have never been built.
I remember hearing about it all, while my mum and dad were in Brazil,
and thinking how exciting it all was. The victory led to death threats
of one of the leaders, a Kayapo man. Because he knew my family in
Canada he decided to bring his wife and three children to our home
in Canada until thingcalmed down! Imagine, a stone-age family from
the Lower Amazon rainforest coming to the city of Vancouver! They
stayed with us for six weeks. In that time, my mom, dad, sister
and I traveled all over British Columbia with them, while setting
up meetings of strategy and cultural exchange between the Amazonian
Chief and his aboriginal counterparts in the longhouses and smokehouses
of British Columbia. We became great friends with them, as we introduced
them to snow, the ocean and their favorites: the whales at the aquarium.
The next summer, the family invited us to their tiny village deep
in the Xingu valley of the lower Amazon. And this was such an intense
trip! So remote that it took us almost four days to get there… and
finally we flew in a tiny plane for an hour over nothing but rainforest
and landed on the narrow dirt airstrip of the Kayapo village. I'll
never forget looking out of the plane and seeing many naked, painted
bodies coming to greet us. It was like we were on another planet.
My sister and I found our friends again, and quickly made friends
with the rest of the Kayapo kids, (it didn't matter that we didn't
speak each other's language). The Kayapo showed us so much. How
to catch electric eels. How to spear Tukunare fish with arrows.
They showed us where the turtles hide their eggs in the sand. They
took us on walks through the forest, and cut us fresh papaya for
lunch. We swam in the river where people on the banks were catching
little piranhas. We lived like Kayapo, like people have lived for
thousands of years.
That time in Aukre imprinted itself on my mind forever. It was in
Aukre that I fell in love with the Brazilian forest and decided
to study biology.
But our family did not truly belong to that world, and all too soon
to leave. A little plane landed on the tiny earthen airstrip and
took us away, back over the forest and towards the city of Redencao.
But towards its edges, the forest was on fire! I looked down at
the forest, and saw the smoke billowing from many large fires below.
Soon the air was so thick with smoke that we could stare straight
at the sun. It crept into the plane.
That flight changed my life. I could not believe that the incredible
world that I had just found out existed, was being burned. I didn't
know of the economics or reasons behind it - I just disagreed.
I came back to gr. 5, in Vancouver, and told my friends about the
amazing place that I had seen. And then I told them that this amazing
world was being burned. They had heard that there were problems
with our 'environment' and we decided that we should learn about
what was going on. So, we started a little club, calling ourselves
ECO (the Environmental Children's Organization). We began talking
to anyone who could tell us something about the environment, and
then we made up little projects:
-We did local beach clean ups.
-We went to a benefit for the Penan people of Sarawak and in the
fundraise to buy a water filter for their village, because logging
was polluting their streams.
-With the help of a local youth organization, we published a series
for other kids with the information that we learned.
ECO was a lot of fun - we were really just hanging out, and doing
fun stuff (mum would give us cookies at the meetings) and constantly
learning new, very interesting things. We learned about the holes
in the ozone, about the air pollution that is creating climate change
in our atmosphere. We learned that there are many forests that are
being destroyed, not just the Amazon. These are scary things. But
in doing our little projects together we felt good that we were
trying to change the outcome of these threats.
When we were about 11 years old, I heard rumors about a great meeting
that was to be the largest gathering of political officials and
heads of state. It was going to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
in 1992. The U.N. hoped that this meeting would set the tone of
the rest of the 20th Century, and pave the way for more sustainable
living into the 21st. I realized that while we (the children!) would
be the ones to benefit, or suffer from the decisions, there would
be no young people represented at the meeting. My friends and I
decided that ECO should go to Brazil to represent the children!
When they heard this they told me I was crazy, that there would
be 30 000 people, and that it was "going to be a zoo."
But I'm pretty stubborn, so my friends and I kept talking to people
about this idea, and suddenly people were making donations to our
cause! My mum, realizing I didn't really know what to do with the
money, and that maybe this idea might possibly have some potential,
began to help us. We continued our bake sales, book sales, makingour
own jewelry to sell. A youth activist from the EYA helped us out-showed
us how to hold a fundraiser: how to rent out a space (before we'd
raised the money for it), how to poster for an event. Our parents
coached us on our speeches, how to make our arguments concise. From
the support of our community, we raised enough money to send five
of us to Rio! Even Raffi (the children's singer who lives in Vancouver
too) became a big supporter and even accompanied us to Rio.
My parents were right, Rio was a zoo. The city was crazy - RioCentro
was full of military, and in the city there was so much going on.
We set up a booth at the Non Governmental Organization Global Forum,
speaking to anyone who would listen. We gave little speeches wherever
we got the chance. We gave interviews to whoever would ask us questions.
Finally, on the last day we were supposed to be in Rio, at the last
minute we got our big break - Mr. Grant, head of UNICEF, convinced
the head of the conference, Maurice Strong, that children should
be on the plenary, and we were invited to speak. I remember crazily
scribbling notes as we careened through the city in a taxi towards
the political conference of the Earth Summit. My four friends and
I tried to compile everything we wanted to say to the world leaders
into one speech. We ran through the security and into the session.
We didn't have time to get intimidated by the dignified delegates
who sat in the great hall. I had six minutes to give my speech…
I told them I was only 12. I told them what was important to me.
I told them that I love forests and ocean, but that I need clean
air and water to be healthy. I told them that I was scared for my
future. I told them that before their duties to their economic advisors
or to their bureaucratic policies, their first duties were as parents,
as grandparents. I asked them to remember who their decisions would
affect: their children.
At the end people were standing and crying. The response was enormous,
politicians, delegates, even the doorman tearfully thanked us for
reminding what was really important. The speech was rebroadcast
throughout the summit building and throughout the United Nations.
Who could believe that we accomplished just what we had said we
wanted to do.
All that from seeing the Amazon burning; something I felt so strongly
about. It gave me strength; it gave me the nerve to go out and start
a little organization and try to do something. And that drive to
do something has made my life rich - because of it I've met many
people who are brave and inspiring.
And looking back perhaps this is a good example of using our knowledge
of destruction to fuel action to counter it. We can't let the bad
news get the better of us, and make us feel like our efforts are
useless. We have to use the feeling of injustice-- and harness it
to motivate us in speaking for our future.
And what has happened in the last nine years?
When I got back to Canada after Rio, things had changed. I got all
kinds of invitations to speak all over the world. It was amazing
that after fighting so hard to get a platform, my friends and I
were being invited to conferences as youth representatives!
Since then I have given many speeches. I have worked hard since
Rio, traveling all over speaking to adults about maintaining the
environment and world resources for future generations, and to young
people to encourage them to speak out too. I also was invited to
return to Rio in 1997 for the UN's Rio +5: a conference to look
back on the effects of Rio '92- but this time I didn't have to struggle
to be heard, I was on the Earth Charter Commision along with Maurice
Strong, Presidents Gorbachev, Lubbers (Netherlands) Toure (Mali)
and many others. Recently I hosted a children's science and Nature
series in Canada called NatureQuest with a strong conservationist
I am telling this story because it has proved to me what ECO had
been saying over and over - that you really can be effective; you
really can make your voice heard.
I had had no idea what my love of nature would lead to.
…from these experiences I find myself a biology student at university.
As I have been studying, learning about chemistry, and biological
systems and evolution and ecology, I am finding that the science
is complementing what I know about the natural world; it has only
heightened my appreciation for nature:
-basics of the water cycle
…and the science also enforces my belief that we need to try to
regain the incredible balance that we have begun to upset:
-climate change perhaps may be the best example of massive imbalance.
-air pollution: 16 000 Canadians die of air polluted related diseases
-extinction rates of animals and plants is very high
Maybe you're here because you think that people are not doing our
best to ensure a beautiful future for tomorrow. Maybe there is a
specific environmental issue that you are worried about. Maybe you
resent the pollution that clouds over Toronto. Maybe you have athsma.
Maybe you want to be able to visit the Amazon jungle.
I have often thought of going back to Aukre. But in the twelve years
that have passed since my first visit, I have learned of the existence
of things like economics, capitalism, globalization and the extinction
of indigenous cultures. These are frightening things to think about,
and I worried that maybe the pressure on a tribe that survives on
the rainforest might have become too great.
So I was scared of going back to the same village that I loved when
I was 9.
This summer I got the chance. At school I found a fellowship that
would finance a senior project and applied for an internship at
an Amazonian research station.
I'd learned that nine years ago a research station was founded by
a professor from U of T, just upriver from the village of Aukre,
the same village that I visited, 12 years ago.
I got the fellowship and this summer I traveled back to the Kayapo
I was nervous.
But when my plane touched down on the little red-earth airstrip
and a crowd of painted people ran to meet us, I knew that these
were still the people who thrived in the rainforest.
I want to show you some slides to help my words.
PART III: slideshow
PART IV: what can we DO?
When I think about what we as young people can do the first thing
I think is that we have to LEARN FROM NATURE. Get outside! Go camping!
Go for a walk in a park!
The first reason is that Nature is an expert in sustainability.
If you look at any ecosystem, and begin to dissect it, you realize
that the whole thing works in harmony, that the elements in the
system act and react to maintainsustainability. I think that to
find sustainability, we have to look to natural systems already
The second reason to get out into nature is because of this:
80% of Canadians now live in cities… it is more and more possible
to completely avoid nature! It is SO important that we maintain
a sense of what nature is and how we relate to the environment.
[Why is it important?
What do we eat that wasn't once alive?
How do we breathe? Drink? Nature keeps us alive!]
How will we strive for what we don't know?? If not, how will we
fight for what we don't love? We can't become people who are completely
disconnected from the natural systems that keep us alive, because
we won't even know what we are losing.
We have to get out into nature.
Get out into nature as much as possible so that you can know WHY
you believe in finding a more sustainable way of life.
Perhaps that is why you are here-- because you had an experience
camping or hiking or fishing. Maybe you visit a cabin in Algonquin
park. Maybe you have seen the monarch butterflies of Leslie Street
Spit. This connection is very powerful.
This is also a great way to sustain a positive vision of the future-to
see the strength and beauty of diversity and evolution.
Maybe you aren't a nature lover. Maybe you're not really into camping,
or playing with bugs and plants. But that should be your CHOICE.
Everyone should at least have the option of seeing and experiencing
the diversity out there; the comfort of knowing that biodiversity
and colour of the world exists. This is a right which we must demand,
as young people, as people who are just finding our interests and
want to choose our own futures.
So, get out into nature.
The way that humans are living today is unsustainable in many ways.
There are things that just don't make sense: how are people starving
in other countries while in North America people have to drive to
the gym to work out so they don't get fat?
I am excited that some of the workshops today will talk about consumerism
and some of the unsustainable aspects of buying stuff.
North Americans have too much stuff. And it is strange, because
this desire and need to own stuff is a stress. Watch for it in the
next few years, as you join the work force and have to start working
in order to get stuff. We have to work hard to maintain our stuff,
to buy stuff… then we have to make space to keep the stuff. Apparently
the fastest growing business in North America is for storage space!
And this is really striking me right now, because after spending
time in the Amazon this summer I realize that to live a full and
happy life, you don't need much STUFF.
The first time I went in to a Kayapo house I couldn't believe they
were so poor. They live in wooden houses with dirt floors, inside
they have some pots and maybe a propane stove, a hammock or chair,
and a clothesline withsome clothes on them. (the one thing they
did have were soccer trophies…J) But then as I stayed with them,
I realized that they didn't have stuff because they didn't NEED
anything else. And they could have had more stuff-I saw that they
could make just about anything from the forest- backpacks, mats,
slings for babies. But they don't need it.
Here in North America, stuff stresses us out. We have to shop to
keep up with other people's stuff.
This is so ironic, because the imbalance in the world is crazy.
And I think that it will increasingly lead to violence, as is only
too evident from the terrorist action in New York in September.
The Haves vs. the Have-Nots.
We are the generation that has to start tipping back the scales.
People in Canada and the US are scared of this-they are afraid of
giving up their comfort. But we don't have to give up comfort, I
say that our lives will be better if we own less. We will be more
free, we won't have to work so much! and will have more brain space
to think about the deeper things in life that will make us happy.
I have just started renting my own apartment, am learning about
having my own space and life… and I am making a commitment to myself
not to own a lot of stuff.
I want to be light and free to go where I want in the world, I don't
want to be tied down to a pile of matter, and also to the weight
of knowing that I own a lot of junk where there are people that
own hardly anything in the world. (mention BIKE TRIP?)
I'm not going to own a lot of STUFF.
Own a travel mug.
Carry it around with you where you go.
We can't ignore the basics. It amazes me just how much disposables
are used. Even at formal events! It is absolutely needless waste.
And as you go on in school or in work and start drinking more coffee
(it'll happen) you'll realize that each person pumps out an inordinate
amount of this needless garbage every day. And it's because of habit.
No one wants to make a lot of waste, but people are just in the
habit of throwing stuff out.
We have to break the habit!
It's easy and it's absolutely necessary that we do the little things.
So, own a travel mug.
Since ECO and Rio 92 I have been to many conferences. I think that
action will not come from the top down… Not politicians, not the
We have to make the change ourselves. WE have to become the experts
It is a big and exciting challenge…
We here have our whole adult lives ahead of us.
We will become experts in our own fields, in science, environmentalism,
social activism, in art, business, family, carpentry, whatever you
choose. If we stick to what we believe, if we can be good in our
field and continue to maintain our values and make steps towards
sustainability, then we will be very powerful.
Change will happen, in other parts of the world the environment
is a priority. There are many good examples in Europe…
Today is going to be a great day. I'm very excited for the workshops,
and over the next few hours just open your minds to new info, to
each other, and to ways that you can be effective.
It is an exciting challenge. It may seem daunting sometimes, the
news and science is telling us we are in a critical situation. But
my experience learning about the environment has given me the most
interesting opportunities I have had! I have met wonderful, inspirational
people-from Gorbachev of Russia to Jane Goodall of the chimpanzees
to Craig Kielberger of Save the Children. What started as a small
seed GREW: the idea of ECO in gr. 5 led to working all over the
world, with the UN and to speaking to you, here today. Who knows
where your interest and resolve can take you.
Yes, working towards sustainability is the big challenge.
But it is an awesome thing to know that you stand for something
and that you will make a difference in the world.