In 2012 I did a TEDx Talk at the University of Waterloo on the topic ‘Environmentalism, Urgency, and Seizing the Day.’ In my talk I tell my story of leading a 14-member international youth delegation at the age of 19 to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012. It was the largest UN Summit in human history, let alone a Summit concentrating on sustainable development. I’m happy to share that our delegation succeeded in our goal of making it to the United Nations and engaging in the full Summit. In Rio de Janeiro, we in fact got to sit down with world leaders and state delegations at length to discuss polar sustainability issues in relation to national environmental agendas.
That said, it was not reaching the final goal of going to the UN, but rather the somewhat difficult journey to get to get there that taught me so many life lessons and made me a more well-rounded person (i.e. how to work with all kinds of people, how to operate in a highly politically-charged environment). Failure, setbacks and adversity are some of the greatest teachers in life.
I’ve posted my TEDx video and transcript here. I Hope you enjoy it!
I’m sure no one has missed the media coverage of the devastation that Hurricane Sandy wrought on the East Coast of the United States, particularly New York and New Jersey. But do you realize, that if we don’t protect the polar ice caps, if we don’t slow their melting, this flooding is going to be permanent. This is going to happen all over the world, and will affect our food supply, it will flood our homes, and it will ruin lives. This is why we need to be urgent about the planet, because this is going to affect every one of us.
Taking care of this [world] is the greatest challenge we have ever faced.
Now, I will admit that I am still young – last week I complained to a 50 year old about turning 20 and being old…I wouldn’t recommend doing that!—I’m still young, and I don’t have all the answers, but today I would like to explore what it means to be urgent at the very core of our human spirit. I believe we all have the urgency within us to protect our planet, and we can each make an unbelievable difference if we act on that urgency.
I know this because I have done it. This year, I led a youth delegation to the Rio+20 Earth Summit—the largest UN conference in human history.
– pause –
But first, let’s go back in time to imagine a childhood memory. As a kid, I loved playing in the fields, collecting butterflies and grasshoppers. I day dreamed. I had all the time in the world. I didn’t have to worry about what time I had to come home. It was summer. It was hot! It was wonderful! I was a child with a pure love for nature, a child with no urgency. Keep my childhood memory in your head.
As I got older, my dad, who works for Environment Canada, taught me about pollution, about species extinction, and about global warming. As I learned about these issues, I became really upset! I was so disturbed that I was moved to even paint the images in my mind because the one thing I loved—nature—was being destroyed. I was upset, but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to take action. And so I didn’t do much about it for a few years. I just didn’t even think about it. I was aware, but I was passive, and so I avoided the problem instead of tackling it. I chose inaction.
In high school, I got actively involved with environmental issues. Because of that when I was 17, I got the rare opportunity to go to the Arctic on an expedition with Students on Ice. These students were not only across Canada but around the world, and we were accompanied by polar experts, journalists and researchers. And for two weeks we were alone together, exploring Eastern Baffin Island by ship, sailing the seas, hiking the tundra, observing wildlife, and visiting Inuit communities.
What did I see there? The Arctic is a magnificent place, a magical place, a spiritual place. For most of us growing up in cities, the wonder of such a vast place is otherworldly. It is just impossible to describe with words.
There were so many moments which I will never forget, when all my senses came alive.
One of those moments was when I found myself hiking through Auyuittuq National Park, a huge stone corridor chiseled by Mother Nature, with ice-capped mountains on both sides. You can appreciate how very small, and insignificant we felt. We trudged through frigid and angry river veins [River]; the force of nature on full display, with one false step you could wash away to your death. As Boromir would say, one does not simply walk into Auyuittuq.
And then I suddenly realized what I was experiencing. I was experiencing climate change firsthand. The glaciers were melting, creating these rivers. I was standing at the source of rising sea levels, the same water which may one day flood coastal cities.
When I shared a laugh with Inuit children, it was so bittersweet, knowing they are gradually losing their way of life after so many generations, because the sea ice is disappearing. They are the frontline victims of climate change.
This mother polar bear with her cubs are also victims. She and her cubs are stranded on an island, surrounded by water where there should be sea ice, unable to hunt again until winter.
The Arctic made issues real to me. It was these moments that conveyed to me the urgency of what Earth means to us. It is what sustains us. We have to value it. We have to protect it. We each have to make a personal effort to protect it. It is up to us, and only us, to protect it.
After returning home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen. Every day for the seven months following the expedition I could not sleep, because I kept trying to think of what I could do to take action—I had a fiery urgency burning deep within. I kept thinking, what can I do to make a unique and profound contribution to this world? We only get to live once and I want my life to count.
I kept thinking about three things: 1) I went to the Arctic with so many committed people, just as passionate as I was, with the same desires and aspirations to change the world. 2) I knew that the Rio+20 Earth Summit was coming up in one year in June 2012, and I wanted to be part of it 3) I wanted to protect the polar regions. And all of a sudden the idea clicked: Why not lead a youth delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to speak about polar sustainability in front of world leaders?
I was overcome by excitement at the possibility of doing this. But this excitement was immediately met with the strongest fear of my life, the fear that I couldn’t do it, that I would fail trying, that I didn’t know how to do it. After all, it was a big idea and I had never done something big like this before.
Now, you already know that we did make it there, but let me share with you a few of the early moments which were pivotal in making the delegation possible. First was the initial email I sent to the expedition leader of my Arctic expedition, someone that I trust. I simply told him my idea.
He replied, suggesting that I present the idea at a reunion event with other youth alumni of the polar expeditions. So a few months later, I did just that, in front of 80 youth from across Canada and around the world. I shared my idea and it was met with cheering and clapping. I was PUMPED! And right then and there we had our first team meeting.
As summer started, those who wanted to be part of the delegation communicated over email and Skype – after all we were spread out across Canada and around the world. BUT we still had a year to prepare.
As the summer ended we lost momentum. I became paralyzed with fear and worry because I had no idea how to do this. So I returned to that same rotten state of inaction that I had as a kid.
But one day, I received an email from one of the members of the delegation and it changed everything. He said to me “Hey! This delegation idea is running out of time. This is something that is really possible to do, and has the potential for massive success. But as project leader the responsibility falls upon you to put this into action.”
Something about his words woke me up and brought me to my senses. It made me realize the opportunity was slipping away…the opportunity to fight the good fight to protect the polar regions. He pushed me. I was urgent once again.
And after that email, we re-committed ourselves. We set out to make the delegation a reality. To go to the Earth Summit.
Here’s our team. None of us could have done it alone. Over the next eight months until the Earth Summit we worked tirelessly together. We were spread across time zones from coast to coast to coast in Canada, to Mexico, to Hong Kong, to Norway, and the United States, connected only online.
But even with such a great team, the fact of the matter is there’s no handbook out there to teach you how to lead a delegation to the United Nations. No one tells you how to work as a team across time zones. We had to figure it out ourselves. We struggled. What drove us was our urgency which pushed us past every obstacle, every unknown.
It’s been said that “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal” and that was certainly our experience.
Over the course of eight months, we did everything we could to prepare for the Earth Summit. Leah handled the logistics and finances. Jenna and Audrey led communications, getting us in newspapers across the country. Jessica drove our policy effort, arranging meetings with high-level decision-makers. Graham led the education effort, facilitating presentations to more than 2500 youth. Donovan and Bridget wrote some amazing blogs. Fatin, Carolyn, Ingrid, and Beatrice and even those who couldn’t go did presentations and helped write our peer-reviewed recommendation paper which we sent to decision-makers. We had super dedicated advisors, John, Paige, and Tim, and very generous institutional sponsors.
– pause transition –
17 days before Rio. I was thinking how far we had come as a team to reaching our goals, and how close we were to Rio. Going to Rio for the Earth Summit was now more than a dream. Over the last year, our team had done so much together.
On June 16th 2012, we flew out from all parts of the world and the fourteen of us met for the first time at the Earth Summit. BUT HOLY COW. The extremely effective communication we had online suddenly blew up when we met face to face and individual personalities and ways of thinking began to come out and cause riffs within the group. No matter how much we planned, this came out of the blue—completely unexpected!!
But we learned to work together. We knew, as an international youth delegation, that we had to stay united and what kept us going was our passion, understanding, and concern for the future of the polar regions. We want to ensure a sustainable future for the polar regions and the planet. And for one week in Rio, we knew we had to do what this whole year had led to. And we did.
We presented directly to decision-makers, bringing polar issues to the international level, starting an international dialogue.
We had meetings with the Canadian, Australian, European Union, and Seychellen delegations, as well as 15 other delegations: China, New Zealand, Turkey, Japan, Brazil, Finland, Norway, and the United States, Argentina, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Dominican Republic, South Africa, and Monaco.
We were in the plenary, listening to heads of state speak.
We shared our experience with those back at home, through media interviews and social media.
We got to meet heads of state. Here we are (photo), meeting HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, here we are meeting Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, and here we are meeting the Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
And we got to meet legendary ocean explorers Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau. I personally spent some time with David Suzuki and family.
But I couldn’t have done this all by myself. We did it as a team. We achieved what we did because we had the urgency to go as far as we could.
Let me tell you one more story. It is a story about Minnie Molly, one of our delegates. Minnie Molly is a young Inuk from Kangiqsuallujuaq, Nunavik, a remote community in the Canadian Arctic. Minnie Molly is an inspiration to me. She came to Rio all the way from the Arctic, and for 10 minutes she spoke directly to former Quebec Premier Jean Charest about her opposition to Quebec’s Northern Development Plan. She spoke truth to power out of urgency and necessity, and she spoke for all the Inuit people, and for all of us, when she said:
“We Inuit, are very concerned, and are watching you, because what you want to do may include harming our land, the land we have lived in and relied on for thousands of years. We are afraid. If you here have the time to research, if you have the time to plan, you must have the time to hear our voices.”
The world may seem too large for any one person to make a difference, but it isn’t. My moment of realization was looking at the sparkling polar horizon, realizing that we each have a huge capacity make a difference. Who knew that as a 19 year old I could bring a delegation to the Earth Summit?!! I am living proof.
There is a phrase out there that I’ve heard many times, and only now have I started understanding its meaning, “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But now that I am grown, I put childish ways behind me.”
I am not a child anymore. We aren’t children anymore. Every one of us has a responsibility to take care of this planet. We live in an urgent time. And urgent times require urgent actions by each of us.