In just over ten days, from June 20-22, representatives from world governments, civil society and the private sector will come together in Rio de Janiero for the Rio+20 conference, to discuss and address the multiple environmental challenges facing the world today. The objective of the conference is to attain renewed political commitment to sustainable development, ‘while addressing new and emerging challenges’.
Rio+20 follows on from the Earth Summit held twenty years ago in Rio de Janiero, where in recognition of the role of children to the process of sustainable development, a chapter titled ‘Children & Youth in Sustainable Development’ was included in the ‘Agenda 21’ workplan and adopted with the following wording:
“Youth comprise nearly 30 per cent of the world’s population. The involvement of today’s youth in environment and development decision-making and in the implementation of programmes is critical to the long-term success of Agenda 21”.
Twenty years later young people continue to be involved in preparations and through the Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) they will be involved in sustainability negotiations at Rio+20.
Balancing the needs of the current generation with those of the future is argued to be a matter of urgency. This message was clearly conveyed at the 1992 Earth Summit, by a 12 year old Canadian girl named Severn Suzuki. In a speech to delegates Suzuki stated that she was there ‘fighting for her future’ and soberingly communicated her fears and concerns for the world while calling on adults to ‘change their ways’.
Suzuki’s speech resonated with delegates to the point of reducing some to tears. She came to be known as ‘the girl who silenced the world for 5 minutes’ (see the video here) and the impact of her speech reverberated throughout the world.
With over 20 million views on You Tube, Suzuki’s speech continues to be heard as do its core messages of protecting the environment for future generations and of addressing the extreme inequality present throughout the world. Nevertheless, in a world where governments, public and private sector organisations face competing and urgent priorities, the same statement of ‘I am fighting for my future… ‘ could equally be made by Suzuki’s children today.
The consistency of these messages is encouraging, as is the increasing acceptance of the argument for including children’s subjective perceptions in processes of social change and action. Change takes time, sometimes generations. It is easy to become fatigued with the slow pace and in this respect the perspective of children can play a refreshing and encouraging role as well as remind us of the responsibilities we as adults carry for future generations.
A Kenyan proverb, quoted by Archibishop Desmond Tutu is pertinent to this point, “The world was not given to you by your parents; it was lent to you by your children.”
 The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, was first held twenty years ago in Rio de Janiero.