Photography by Jessica Venturi Image by: Photography by Jessica Venturi
Encouraging compassion for the environment
When he became a father, David took his own kids camping and fishing. By then, they lived in Toronto, and his daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki, now 35, recalls looking for fossils near the city, turning over concrete blocks to unearth sow bugs near their house and seeking out snails and centipedes in the yard. "My parents encouraged that fascination," says Severn.
It became a passion that grew with her: The first time David saw his daughter out with a bunch of kids, they were pulling a wagon through the neighbourhood with a sign that read, "Save the animals." Later, when Severn was just 11, she asked her dad about going to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. "I had no intention of going," recalls David. "I'm not a big fan of these giant international meetings; a lot of talk goes on, but not a lot comes out of it. So I said, ‘Look, it's going to be polluted, it's going to be crowded. Who's going to listen to kids?' " But with her own passion for the environment already sparked, Severn went to Rio and astounded world leaders at the United Nations conference when she proclaimed, "I am fighting for my future," in a speech that has since gone viral on YouTube.
Both David and Severn attribute her enthusiasm for the environment to early role models. In addition to David, there was her maternal grandfather, who started the Point Grey Natural Foreshore and Waterfowl Sanctuary Protective Society in Vancouver; her paternal grandparents, who survived internment during the Second World War and raised David with a strong sense of civic responsibility; and, perhaps most importantly, her mother, Tara Cullis, who started a greening committee at Severn's school and encouraged her daughter to put her passion into action by starting an environmental club.
Passing along tradition
Today, carrying on the family tradition, Severn is a role model to her own kids, Ganhlaans, 6, and Tiisan, 3, and helps them experience nature the way she did where they live in Haida Gwaii, B.C. "I can see the discovery, the wonder, the compassion they're developing by digging for worms and looking at slugs," she says, explaining that exploring nature and running around outdoors seem to make them happier, calmer and healthier.
Her children go fishing and admire the beauty of the animals, but they're also beginning to see the destruction around them. "There was a news report of a steelhead trout that was found with all this plastic in his belly," says Severn, noting that these are the discussions she dreads the most with her boys. "The real birds-and-the-bees conversation is about why they're disappearing. I'm preparing for that; I'm trying to figure out how I can empower them. I'm not going to tell them everything's going to be OK, but I'm going to tell them that's why we pick up a bit of plastic every time we go to the beach: so we can do our part."
When Severn speaks, she has that same conviction and sense of urgency she had in Rio all those years ago, but it's her children's future she's fighting for, not her own. It's not hard to pass on a love for the environment; yet, when faced with a staggering amount of bad news about dying species and melting Arctic ice, it can be challenging to show children how they can help.
David famously said, "Environmentalism has failed." He explains: "It has failed to shift the perspective, so we're battling many of the same fights over and over again. But the alternative is not to give up. I have grandchildren who are going to inherit whatever we leave for them."
Perhaps what has failed about environmentalism, suggests Severn, is the belief that we're protecting something external to us when, in fact, it's ourselves we're saving. "There isn't a line that you can draw between the air and your body," she says. "We are the environment."
That understanding, she contends, is key to getting the next generation on board. "That relationship with the world is absolutely essential to our understanding of who we are as human beings," says Severn. "Let them fall in love with nature. That passion is very powerful if it gets translated into action. And if children feel they can do something, the sky's the limit."
Check out how you can raise your kids to change the world.