17-year-old Kiwi shames world leaders into action at Rio
Twenty years ago, a 12-year-old rocked the Earth Summit in Rio with a plea to world leaders to get serious about saving the planet. Her name was Severn Suzuki, and today, she hands the torch to another young’un, Brittany Trilford, 17, who will address the leaders of 140 nations as the Rio+20 Earth Summit finally gets off to its official start.
Trilford hails from Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. Last winter, she entered the Date With History contest that invited young people to record themselves giving a speech to the leaders of the world about the future they wanted. She won the grand prize, a trip to Rio for the Earth Summit. She didn’t learn until later that she would actually have a chance to speak to at the summit in person.
Trilford’s date with history is at 9 a.m. Eastern time (that’s 6 a.m. on the West Coast). It should be webcast live here. Watch Grist for highlights later in the day, and a link to the video when it’s up. (See update at bottom of post.) Meantime, I caught up with Trilford yesterday with some questions about her speech, her prognosis for the planet, and how she got to be so freaking opinionated.
Q. Where were you when you recorded yourself telling world leaders about the future you want?
A. My bedroom. [laughs]
Q. Did your parents know what you were up to?
A. No. They didn’t know until I’d won. I told my mom about the contest and mentioned that I’d entered and she said, “Good on you, sweetie, that’s great.” Then I said, “And guess what … ”
Q. What do you think of all the events leading up to the Earth Summit?
A. It’s a huge circus. It seems like there’s been a lot of talking, a lot of promises made that aren’t committed to, that aren’t taken very seriously.
Q. Does it get you down?
A. Being here in Rio makes me angry. I am not policy savvy — it’s just about basic moral truth here: They [delegates] never talk about the future we want, the future that we need. They fluff around when what they need to do is make really bold, courageous promises. The youth and civil society groups are supporting them, but the political will is just not there.
I spoke [at a pre-summit gathering] today, and I asked the international leaders why they were here — whether they were here to save face, or save the Earth.
Q. How’d you get so lippy?
A. My mom will say that it was her. I don’t know, I’ve always asked questions. I’ve always asked, “Why?” And that’s just what I’m doing here. I’m basically just posing a big fat question to the world’s leaders tomorrow: Why are you not doing something?
Q. Is there anything you’ve seen here that makes you hopeful?
A. I’m very hopeful that this conference will be successful, just perhaps not in the ways that people expected — not in this completely unambitious document that got negotiated at the convention. I just look around and I see that everyone [outside of the official proceedings] is so determined to create a better future — the fact that they could all come together and share their anger at the lack of progress.
Young people have this amazing tool. We can talk to people all over the world. We can share ideas. We can communicate and educate and inform. We can recognize and engage with this.
Q. What’s your prognosis? Is the world completely screwed, or can we turn this thing around?
A. I think it can be saved. I was talking with Severn Suzuki this morning. She was telling me about this Nature article that shows we’re approaching some kind of tipping point. I think we’re heading for one of those if we don’t do anything, but I think we can change it, move things around. If we start working now, we can level things out.
But I also think we’ve made some wrong moves and we will pay the consequences. And if we continue to make wrong moves, the next generation will pay the consequences.
Q. Do you think a lot of young people feel this way?
A. The youth I’ve talked to feel that they cannot trust our leaders. They tell me, “They’re not going to listen to you.” My mom always says, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” I hope they’ll listen.
Q. What message do you want to send to Grist’s readers?
A. I would like them to join me in demanding change from world leaders, to engage with what’s going on and be angry about it. There needs to be a revolution. We need a complete change in what we think of as human capacity. We can fix these problems. Some people think it’s too overwhelming to talk about, but if we don’t, we may reach one of these tipping points. I’m not willing to risk finding out.
Q. Are you nervous about the speech tomorrow?
A. There’s no getting away from the nerves. I mean, I’m speaking to 140 world leaders. But I’m more excited than nervous.
UPDATE: Find the video of Trilford’s speech here. (She killed it!)
For all of Grist’s Earth Summit coverage, click here.
Donate now to support our work.