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10 young climate activists you don't know but should

Image: Planet in Focus

With over 1,000 boil advisories each day in this country, a government infatuated with pipelines, and a claim to many of worst mining companies on the planet, there are many reasons to be depressed about the environment in Canada. For these reasons and many others, concerned citizens must cling tightly to the faint glimmers of hope that cross their paths. They are few and far between.

It is only fitting then that, on October 18, David Suzuki took time out of his schedule to celebrate some of these country's rising environmental stars -- a well-deserved recharge for one of this country's leading environmental voices.

In front of a small gathering of family members, friends, and media members, Suzuki met with 10 young "eco-heroes" for a roundtable discussion on environmental activism. The event was part of the Planet in Focus Film Festival in Toronto and the discussion was, as Suzuki himself noted, nothing short of amazing.

While some may question the abilities of these next-generation eco-heroes, who range in age from 13 to 25, for those in attendance there was no question about their commitment, ability, and passion. From launching a restaurant review blog focused on local and organic food at eight-years old (Ryan Storm, 15), to creating his first feature film at age 12 (Jonah Bryson, 16), to raising awareness of plant-based foods at the University of Toronto (Ruth Midgley, 25), the list of accomplishments in the room was staggering.

These eco-heroes breathe new life into a conversation that, at times, feels quite stale. At a moment when the media has "the attention span of a hummingbird," according to Suzuki, these young leaders have fully devoted themselves to causes like protecting pollinators such as bats, beetles and bees (Arani Kulamurugan, 16) and stopping fracking (Asha Mior, 14). They explore these issues through writing, film, storytelling and grassroots activism. 

Celebrated author and environmentalist Adria Vasil moderates the panel. She introduces each participant before allowing them to ask Suzuki a question, which they have prepared in advance. As each eco-hero takes their turn questioning Suzuki, the audience gains unique insights into the life of one of Canada's leading environmentalists as well as the next generation of activists.

When Hannah Alper, 13, asks "Does being a father make you a better activist or does being an activist make you a better father?", the room smiles at her sincerity. Suzuki recounts his regret at not being more present while his daughters were growing up. He acknowledges the vital role the children's mothers played in raising them when he was travelling for work or completing one of his 52 -- yes, 52 -- books.

Suzuki also recalls the huge weight that was lifted off of his chest when, in a moment of clarity, he realized that the responsibility to save the planet was not his alone to carry. "One person cannot save the planet; we can each only do our best," Suzuki tells the group. The young activists nod in agreement. 

The eco-heroes share their personal experiences, noting classmates who seem to not care about the environment or parents who find it difficult to connect with their child's zeal. Kevin Matthew Wong, 22,co-founder and artist director of Broadleaf Theatre, a company devoted to shedding light on local environmental issues, asks "How do you shape stories and ideas to connect widely with audiences across Canada?"

The question goes around the table, with various eco-heroes sharing personal accounts of how they've broken through to a wider audience. Others suggested finding work and food can serve as barriers to environmental activism. There appears to be no single answer to this question, merely an agreement amongst all seated at the table that sharing what you're passionate about is an important first step.

Akeesha Footman, 22, asks Suzuki for advice to support people protecting the environment in light of colonialism and the widespread dismissal of traditional Indigenous knowledge. Suzuki responds by emphasizing the importance of Indigenous knowledge, stating "Indigenous people are the only people on this planet with a track record of living sustainably." He adds, "science will never duplicate Indigenous knowledge which is thousands of years old."

Footman nods agreement before sharing accounts of friends and family pushed off of the land in places like Grassy Narrows because of mercury poisoning. She recalls friends warning a young man with mercury poisoning not to swim in Lake Ontario only to have him reply "what's the point? I'm only going to live until I'm 40 anyway." 

The room, previously filled with chuckles and loving gazes from parents, grows tense. Interestingly, it is the audience, not the panelists, that seem uneasy. Growing up with the Internet has clearly altered the conversation around environmental justice. These young people are extraordinarily well-researched, conscious, and thoughtful; they are unafraid to tackle the troubling realities often ignored by the media.

As the 2013 viral video of panelist Rachel Parent, 17, debating Kevin O' Leary about mandatory GMO labelling illustrates, these eco-heroes will not tolerate misinformation and deception.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, 20, asks "How should young people approach non-violent civil disobedience?" In response, Suzuki concedes that he is "not the best person to ask." He asserts that he was effectively blackmailed by CBC, told that if he were ever arrested, he would not only be removed from The Nature of Things but that the show (the only one of its kind in Canada) would be cancelled entirely. As a result, Suzuki has never been arrested, though he has found himself in many dangerous and difficult situations while protecting the environment. He concludes his answer by stating, "elders should be putting their bodies on the line alongside young people. It's young people that have everything to lose while elders have already made their way through the system."

Amid the many questions, a recurring theme quickly emerges: what can we do to reach people that don't take the climate change seriously? Here, the panel is talking about all people but with a particular emphasis on the generation before them which, as Suzuki acknowledges, "treated the planted like a garbage can."

In response, Suzuki notes that many of the people seated at the table are too young to vote. He implores the table to get their parents to write letters and make calls to elected officials, stating "if you can't convince your parents, how the hell are you going to convince anyone else?"

The "Eco-Heroes: The Next Generation" round table was live-streamed into homes and schools across the country as part of the Planet in Focus Festival in Toronto which ended October 23. Information about the festival and the work of the Eco-heroes mentioned here can be found at planetinfocus.org

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Image: Planet in Focus

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