When you are little, it's not hard to believe you can change the world. I remember my enthusiasm when, at the age of 12, I addressed the delegates at the Rio Earth Summit. "I am only a child," I told them. "Yet I know that if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this would be. In school you teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? You grownups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, to make your actions reflect your words."
I spoke for six minutes and received a standing ovation. Some of the delegates even cried. I thought that maybe I had reached some of them, that my speech might actually spur action. Now, a decade from Rio, after I've sat through many more conferences, I'm not sure what has been accomplished. My confidence in the people in power and in the power of an individual's voice to reach them has been deeply shaken.
Sure, I've seen some improvements since Rio. In my home city of Vancouver, most people put out their recycling boxes. The organic grocery and cafe on Fourth Avenue is flourishing. Bikes are popular, and there are a few gas-electric hybrid cars gliding around. But as this new century begins, my twentysomething generation is becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world. We buy our drinking water in bottles. We eat genetically modified organisms. We drive the biggest cars ever. At the same time, we are a generation aware of the world--of poverty and social imbalance, the loss of biodiversity, climate change and the consequences of globalization--but many of us feel we have inherited problems too great to do anything about.
When I was little, the world was simple. But as a young adult, I'm learning that as we have to make choices--education, career, lifestyle--life gets more and more complicated. We are beginning to feel pressure to produce and be successful. We are learning a shortsighted way of looking at the future, focusing on four-year government terms and quarterly business reports. We are taught that economic growth is progress, but we aren't taught how to pursue a happy, healthy or sustainable way of living. And we are learning that what we wanted for our future when we were 12 was idealistic and naive.
Today I'm no longer a child, but I'm worried about what kind of environment my children will grow up in. In Johannesburg the delegates will discuss the adoption and implementation of documents by governments. Yes, important stuff. But they did that at Rio. What this meeting must really be about is responsibility--not only government responsibility but personal responsibility. We are not cleaning up our own mess. We are not facing up to the price of our lifestyles. In Canada we know we are wiping out the salmon of the West Coast, just as we wiped out cod from the East Coast, but we continue overfishing. We keep driving our suvs in the city, even though we are starting to feel the effects of climate change--a direct result of burning too much fossil fuel.
Real environmental change depends on us. We can't wait for our leaders. We have to focus on what our own responsibilities are and how we can make the change happen.