Canadian DJ and environmental toxicologist Jayda G speaks to the woman who led the original teenage movement for climate action back in 1992
Many artists have spoken out about environmentalism – from SZA and Pharrell to Paul McCartney – but Canadian producer and DJ Jayda G goes deep into both ecology and electronic music. As a musician, she just released her disco-soaked debut album, Significant Changes, on Ninja Tune – but in the scientific realm, Jayda Guy has obtained a Master’s in Environmental Toxicology and a wealth of experience working with sea animals. Jayda even recently merged her two worlds with a series of environmental science talks in London called the JMG Talks, creating a space for young scientists to discuss their work with her, alongside her own four-week Phonox residency.
When Dazed asked her who in the environmental sphere she’d like to profile for A Future World, she jumped at the chance to speak to Severn Cullis-Suzuki: the environmental activist, host and academic who commanded global ears with a heartfelt speech on the environment at the Earth Summit in 1992 at the age of just 12. Described as “the girl who silenced the world”, the iconic address was an impassioned appeal – viewed by millions – to global heads of state to consider the lives of future generations and take immediate, drastic action to change the course of history and fight climate change.
Daughter of award-winning environmental scientist and activist David Suzuki, it became obvious to Severn as a child that we are actively destroying the ecosystems that sustain human life. She took it upon herself to form a small group with her friends, to educate themselves on what was happening on a global scale. She’s been dedicated to studying and advocating for the planet and the underprotected people on it ever since. If you look around today, you can see her legacy loud and clear: teenagers worldwide are once again acting as agents of change, protesting and demanding action from their governments to secure their future, mirroring the pace set by Severn and her peers all those years ago.
Here in conversation, the pair discuss the lead up to Severn’s career-defining speech, and why young people have always been at the forefront of social movements that matter.
Jayda G: I want to take you back to 1992. Talk to me about how that all happened.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: Well, when you learn about the environment, you immediately realise that the natural world is in crisis. So with friends who were concerned about what they were seeing and hearing in the news, we formed a small group, to figure out what was going on in the world. We were in grade four when we first started…
Jayda G: Okay, so you started the group when you were nine years old? Wow.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: But it was super humble! It was just me and my buddies getting together after school and doing small fundraising projects for local environmental groups that were doing cool things that we believed in. After a few years, we heard about this huge gathering that was going to happen in Rio de Janeiro – heads of state hosting a UN Conference on Environment and Development. And even though this is way back in the 80s and 90s, people were really concerned about the global problems that were hitting our ecosystem and what the 21st century would hold for the future. So everybody was hyping this conference and we thought ‘Wow, there’s gonna be all these adults coming together and discussing our future... Someone’s got to be there to remind them what it’s all about. We should go!’
We had no idea how hard it would be, all the effort of our community that it would take to fundraise and to send five of us to go to Rio. We eventually wriggled through the cracks, and were chaperoned by my father who was well-known and invited to environmental conferences. Whenever he would attend forums, he’d give us ten minutes of his speaking time to spread our message. Eventually, because we were so young, what we had thought would be a barrier was actually the reason people paid attention.
Jayda G: I remember watching (the speech) years and years ago and just thinking it was incredible. It’s such a prestigious audience at that time, were you nervous when you were doing it? Do you remember it?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: I remember so vividly because so much had worked up to that moment, we’d been out there working at the Global Forum where we’d registered as an non-profit and had this little booth, talking to people and refining our message. Learning how to really hone in on why we were there and why it mattered to us to be a part of this.
Jayda G: In so many ways, you were a kind of pioneer of what’s been happening over the last few months. Namely, the Swedish 16-year-old, Greta Thunberg, who started school strikes for climate change that sparked a chain reaction of school kids across the globe. How did you feel when you heard about the thousands of children out there demonstrating for the environment?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: It’s been so exciting to see this movement come into being in such a massive way. A lot of people, a lot of children actually, ask me: what happened after you gave your speech? Did the world leaders do anything? And I’ve had to really think about it, because the summit itself did have some incredibly, by today’s standards, radical outcomes, commitments and declarations from the world to make massive change. And yet, then what happened?
The 90s came, and then the 2000s, and we saw radical corporate interest extremism, we’ve seen the disparity between rich and poor just get bigger, with globalisation and the corporate agenda on the rise ever since. So what did that speech really do?
But I think one of the things I’d like to hope it did was increase youth engagement and profile in the global conversation. Greta is an incredible, charismatic leader and individual but there are honestly so many young people engaged with the cause.
Jayda G: So many! Once you start digging you realise that what we see the media latch onto is really just the tip of the iceberg...
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: Definitely, and the movement aligned with this new era of the social media have built this platform where we are finally – potentially – at a point where youth can create a real tipping point. And that’s what I think is our responsibility across the generations, to push this conversation further so that we don’t wait for another generation to come along. Because frankly, we don’t have another generation to wait.
Jayda G: I totally agree, we don’t have time. For you, is there ever feeling of melancholy or anger at the fact that we are still dealing with the same issues you spoke about at the age of 12?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: My first emotion is always pride for those youth fighting for change today. But my second emotion is definitely a kind of crushing sadness that we didn’t do it! We’ve known about climate change since the 70s, when it would have been comparatively so much easier to impact the massive changes needed desperately today and we didn’t do it then.
We really have to talk tough to all people in positions of power – people who drive cars, people who use fossil fuels, but also the structures that are forcing a lot of us to live this way. Because we shouldn’t have to feel so guilty and complicit in the destruction of the world, but we do. There’s so much money, power and investment in the fossil fuel industry and the infrastructure of our whole liberal economy, and that’s a huge conversation to have as well. But it’s as much about joining the youth on the street as it is about the conversation.
“We have to walk our talk. Reducing our personal impact on the Earth via our ecological footprint, stop driving cars, eat less meat, all these things matter. And we also have to be political” – Severn Cullis-Suzuki
Jayda G: Earlier you spoke to the clarity that children have when they’re speaking. Are there any other qualities you see in the youth that you think can enhance their impact on our future?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: A couple weeks ago, I was listening to a youth panel on CBC: there was someone from London, Vancouver, the US midwest and a child from India. And I was crying. Not only because of this feeling of sadness that these children are having to deal with these issues, but also because I was floored by how articulate they were and how they were responding to these really hard policy questions! Answering with such sophistication and calm about what they’d do if they were in power. It just blew my mind.
And the final question from the interviewer was whether it bothered the young people that they were having to engage with these topics, instead of running outside and playing. And I thought about how throughout history, young people have always been the ones that get sent out to war, fighting for their rights and their nations, defending their people. Today, we think of youth as this extension of childhood that should be free from worry, but historically, young people have always been on the frontlines. In this tradition we’re falling into of humanity having to fight for what’s ours, these children and teenagers are warriors. And that’s how they sounded on the radio.
Jayda G: So how would you advise these kids? What is the pathway to achieving the change they want to see?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: Well, I think it’s pretty incredible watching Greta Thunberg in action. She’s been working for a few years but after her speech in December I think, her notoriety just exploded. And she’s been attacked through the media as a result. But she recognises that it’s only proof that she’s making a difference and her voice is being heard, because she’s perceived as a threat.
The thing that’s amazing about her is how level-headed and focused she is. She’s being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and just continuing to pick up this fire, but she’s still so focused. She’s like ‘Okay, but emissions are still rising! We’re still polluting the Earth. No matter what we’re talking about or what happens to me, this is still happening. And the bottom line is, we have to stop.’ I think that clarity is going to serve her so well in the future.
Jayda G: My last question is: what can the regular person do to help the type of work you’re doing?
Severn Cullis-Suzuki: I think the question of ‘what we can do’ is a lifelong journey, and to me it has a definite ebb and flow. Is it up to the consumer voting with our money? Is it up to the government changing policy? How I explain it right now is that every one of us has to do two things: we have to walk our talk. Reducing our personal impact on the Earth via our ecological footprint, stop driving cars, eat less meat, all these things matter. And we also have to be political. We have to be part of changing the systems and structures that force us all to be destructive and complicit by default.
When I became a mother, I was trying so hard, using reusable diapers, washing them, looking for organic supplies even though it’s much more expensive, and facing so many challenges attempting to do the right thing. I remember thinking ‘Wow, is this really the answer? Are we really going to just saddle, mostly women, to do all this labour in order to ensure a healthy future generation?’ But it goes beyond that, we have to support all the individuals out there to not be complicit in the destruction of their own children’s futures, many of whom don’t have the privilege of making the choices that I do, through policies and existing systems.
That’s why we all have to get political – we all have a voice, contacts, networks, spheres of influence, and we need to use them to figure out how to become expert agents of change.