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David Suzuki on the prospects for humanity and the others we share this planet with

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David Suzuki on the prospects for humanity and the others we share this planet with


Common Ground Magazine (Vancouver) March 2011



Sustainable activism


A conversation with David Suzuki on his 75th birthday


Interview by Joseph Roberts


Joseph Roberts:

How did it all begin?


David Suzuki:

We started when the Worldwatch Institute said

it's the turnaround decade. We thought we were

only going to be here for 10 years. So we said

every dollar we raise we're going to spend

because we don't have time. Who would've imagined

that 20 years later we'd still be here and that

conditions would be worse.



And it hasn't turned around.



No. We've had five years now of the most

anti-environmental government we've ever had. We

have a leader who claims the economy is his

highest priority, proroguing parliament to focus

on the economy and yet a leading economist like

Sir Nicholas Stern says if we don't deal with

climate change it's going to destroy the global

economy. Our prime minister has never, ever, said

this is an important issue affecting Canada and

we've got to do something.



My concern now is the way global economics is

actually speeding up the destruction. With the UN

declaring 2011 the International Year of the

Forest and we have less than a third of the

forest left on this planet, what is to be done?



From my standpoint, I don't attend international

meetings anymore. I went to Rio in '92 and Kyoto

in '97. And we've had, you know, the Year of the

Child and the Year of the Ocean and God knows all

these wonderful things, but so long as we cling

to this economic system, I don't see any way out

of it. As you said, it's this economic drive that

is just trashing the planet.



At universities today, a higher percentage of

students are focusing on the so-called 'financial

industries' and less and less on the sciences and

the arts.



My parents were survivors of the depression and

the lessons they taught me were, to me, very

important. Live within your means, save some for

tomorrow, help your neighbour as you never know

when you might need their help. Simple lessons.

My dad and mom said you need money to buy the

necessities in life, but you don't run after

money as if having more makes you a better or

more important person. My parents didn't like to

talk about money. They felt there was something

about that - that you don't just obsess over it.

Now, we have over 500 billionaires. How can any

human being be worth a billion dollars, and at a

time when two billion people live on two dollars

or less a day? This is an obscenity.



And 17,000 children die of starvation every day. This is not right.



But we revel in the economic antics of Bill Gates

and these people and I think we've really lost

our way in our obsessing with the economy.



There was a line in a book by Matthew Fox that

really stopped me: "The human race will not

destroy itself from lack of information. The

human race will destroy itself through lack of

appreciation." Where do you turn to heal and

regenerate yourself when dealing with these

massive challenges we've just discussed and the

consequences of being aware of and witnessing the

ecological damage?



It's soul-destroying to see what we're doing to

the planet, but I have four grandchildren and

spending time with them renews my determination.

For me, the big breakthrough was, I used to come

home late at night going, "I gotta keep going, I

gotta keep going, I gotta finish..." And at one

point I looked in the mirror and thought, "Who

the hell do you think you are? You think you're

so important you're going to make the difference?

You're one human being. You've got to be part of

a much bigger movement, but you yourself are

insignificant." That relieved me of this terrible

conceit that I was so important I had to give my

whole life to the cause. My wife is always saying

we need sustainable activism. Too many people put

everything into it and burn out and what

stabilizes us, of course, is family, and the

things that we do together with family, like

getting out in nature.


In Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods,

he says we are now suffering from a whole

spectrum of problems that are classified under

"Nature Deficit Disorder." Our children need to

experience nature and when you look at things

like attention deficit or bullying or

hyperactivity, these are all related to the fact

that our kids aren't getting out there. Nature

calms us; nature heals us. We need to have

nature. We're growing a group of kids now that

spend the least amount of time outdoors than any

generation in human history.


I grew up in the 50s. We had a house with six

people in less than a thousand square feet so it

was a small house. I remember the constant

refrain in our house was, "Get out of the house.

Go out and play!" And if we said, "But mommy it's

raining outside," she'd say, "Put a raincoat on

and go on outside." And we'd be out in the

ditches and the ponds, but it was a necessity

because the house was tiny. Now, we don't want

our kids to go out. There might be a pervert

behind a bush or speeding cars. We want our kids

inside and we'd rather have them playing video

games or text messaging or working on the

computer. We need to experience nature. It's

certainly for me my touchstone and my salvation

in terms of maintaining my sanity.



If people don't love something, they're not going to protect it.






In the larger arc of your life going from

childhood to being a professor, the many things

you've done, have there been some common threads

consistent to the weaving of it all?



I don't know. I've never gone through life

planning a direction. I mean, things happen. I

was always taught that if you want to represent

or stand for anything you have to be able to

speak out. I don't like being the center of

attention. I don't like if people hate my guts.

It goes against what I am. But I feel obligated

to speak out.


I guess the driving force is that in 1941 on

December 7 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour,

even though I was a third generation Canadian I

suddenly became the enemy. I believe Canada let

down its principles and ideals, when we talk

about democracy and equality and right to freedom

of speech and all that. The only time those

guarantees become important is when the crunch

comes because if you can't guarantee them during

the crunch then they don't mean anything. So the

driving force for me is trying to get people to

live up to their professed ideals. Canada failed

again in 1970 when Pierre Trudeau invoked the War

Measures Act. I think that, in a democratic

society, there's no place for a War Measures Act.

When I see poor treatment of blacks or Jews or

gays or women, it's all part of the same piece

and I find myself fighting against that.


But the driving thread now I guess is that as a

scientist, a biologist, I can see that we are in

a global ecological crisis of unprecedented

proportion. So even though I'm a geneticist, not

an ecologist, I've been focusing more and more of

my time on that message. You asked a question

earlier I want to respond to. I began my career

in television in 1962. At that time, I'd just

come back from living in the US for eight years,

where I got my education. I was appalled at the

level of ignorance about science. There was no

coherent science policy in government. The

funding for scientists was abysmal and there was

a total lack of appreciation that science, by

far, is the most powerful force shaping our lives

and our society.


I was born in 1936. When I was a boy, my mother

and father wouldn't let me go to movies or

swimming pools in the summer because they were

afraid I would catch polio. Kids today have no

idea what polio is. When I was a child, hundreds

of thousands of people died of one of the most

terrifying diseases we know - smallpox. There

hasn't been a case of smallpox now for over 30

years. It's extinct. When I was a child, my

parents never worried that I was watching too

much television, playing video games or text

messaging because there was no such thing then.

There were no jets, no birth control pills, no

computers, no satellites, no transoceanic phone

calls. I've got a list of dozens of things - all

as a result of the application of science - that

have transformed the way we live. When I tell

kids what the world was like when I grew up as a

boy, they can't believe anybody's that old. And

the first question is "What did you do?" A kid

today cannot imagine a world in which you don't

have a computer or text message and can phone

anybody on the cell phone.


We are being hammered by the impact of science.

Yet if you don't know anything about science how

do you make decisions about stem cells, cloning,

genetic engineering, artificial intelligence,

space research, climate change, deforestation,

toxic pollution. These are big issues and yet we

are so ignorant as a society - we elect people to

office who can't even assess the scientific

advice they get.

I began my career in television to try to educate

people about it. We now have access as a society

to more information than people have ever had in

human history. Anyone sitting there with a good

laptop can access virtually every book in the US

Library of Congress, every encyclopedia -

information on a vast scale. Well, what has

happened? It turns out we don't ever have to

change our minds because there's so much

information that if you want to believe global

warming is crap you can find dozens of websites

saying it's junk science, it's not happening. All

you have to do is read the National Post; you'll

never have to change your mind. It turns out we

have too much information; you can believe any

crazy idea you want without ever analyzing the

information. "Ah, global warming, pile of crap. I

found a website that says there are all these

scientists saying, "blah blah blah."


We're in a period that is really terrifying

because a great number of the global warming

skeptics are basically undermining the science.

They're saying, "These scientists have their own

agenda, 'climategate,' all this other stuff. You

can't trust science." If we're at a point where

we can't even trust science, we're in deep

trouble because then you say the Koran says this,

the Bible says this, Rush Limbaugh says this,

Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter. You know, the

Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Fraser

Institute. Is that where we're going to go to

because we don't want to face the reality of the




Sometimes ignorance is quicker to conclude than

to seriously investigate the truth.



It's called dogma.



Recently in Egypt, we saw masses of people in the

street, motivated for some reason for some sort

of change. But many people in North America

aren't motivated to take action because of their

complacency. At the same time, you just touched

on the way even new media and blogs are

perpetuating unsubstantiated opinions that are

not being challenged in any real sense. People

believe all sorts of crazy things. It's like when

the PR firm was hired to convince people that

second-hand smoke was okay and tobacco is healthy.



If you look at Naomi Oreskes book Merchants of

Doubt, you find that the opponents to the idea

that second-hand smoke is dangerous, or even that

smoking is dangerous, are the same ones that

ended up saying that global warming is baloney.

It has its roots way, way back. It's a very

interesting critique. She's an American scholar.

What she does is trace the money for these

various denial movements and they all go back to

a small group of scientists in the 1950s that

were involved in the fight against the Soviet

Union. It was communism vs. free enterprise

capitalism. These were cold warriors who were

scientists and top-notch physicists and when the

Soviet Union imploded, what were they left with?

So then it was, "Oh the goddamn EPA, the

environmental protection agency, is trying to

oppose regulations. This is the beginning of

socialism. These guys are trying to get

government," etc. So government and its agencies

becomes the enemy of these people because it's

the road towards communism. It's a very

interesting analysis.



I'm reading a book right now called Super

Imperialism by Michael Hudson and it's the one

book in the last five years that's changed my

perspective on so much of what's going on here.

Economics is driving this thing, but they'll be

against anything that gets in the way and the one

thing we've got to understand is that they want

it all.



The only reason corporations exist is to make

money. They may do things that we need; they may

produce something that is useful, but their

raison d'être is not to improve the quality of

life for humanity or whatever. Their whole reason

for existing is to make money, and as fast as

they can. The tragedy is we now have governments,

because of the lobbying interests in the

financing of candidacy, that have become boosters

of the corporate agenda. We claim, unlike the

Egyptians, that we live in a democracy. But when

almost half of Canadians don't even bother to

vote, we don't have a democracy. You always have

to fight to get more.


The problem we face is not only that the

corporate agenda has become the government

agenda, but that the economic system, which we

exist within, is fundamentally flawed and

inevitably destructive. So you have companies

like Patagonia or the Body Shop or Capers that

are trying to do the right thing. But they live

within an economic system that is fundamentally



I won't go into a long critique, but currently

nature and nature's services - cleansing,

filtering water, creating the atmosphere, taking

carbon out of the air, putting oxygen back in,

preventing erosion, pollinating flowering plants

- perform dozens of services nature to keep the

planet happening. But economists call this an

'externality.' What that means is "We don't give

a shit." It's not economic. Because they're so

impressed with humans, human productivity and

human creativity at the heart of this economic

system. Well, you can't have an economy if you

don't have nature and nature's services, but

economics ignores that. And that's an

unbelievably egregious error.


Then to maximize the problem, economists actually

think that, even though we actually live within a

finite biosphere, the economy can grow forever.

It can't. Nothing within a finite world can grow

forever. Yet we've come to equate growth with the

definition of progress and growth, growth, growth

is all we drive for. Nobody ever asks, "What's an

economy for? Are there no limits? How much is

enough? Are we any happier with all this stuff?"

No, we just say "growth growth, growth," and

that's the be-all and end-all and that is




And we see examples - the Tar Sands, the Northern

Gateway pipeline, fish farms, clear-cut logging.

Each of these is an extension of what you're

talking about.



We now have a campaign on chemicals known to be

carcinogens that are in cosmetics. Here are

manufacturers that make cosmetics that are going

to go right onto your skin, your lips, the most

sensitive parts of your body and they don't give

a shit whether they're carcinogens or toxins in

there. What kind of an economy would allow

companies to do that? Look at your food. Food

isn't about nutrition anymore. It's about carving

out a place in the market, and if we're going to

load it up with trans-fats to get it to taste

better, or with sugar to make you want more,

they'll do it. What kind of an industry is it

where nutrition and health aren't the driving

forces? It's got nothing to do with that. This is

a sick situation we have.



What do you do to stay healthy when all these

things are being thrown at us, David?



If you look at one of the common factors in

reducing the risk of cancer, heart attacks,

strokes, Alzheimer's, diabetes there's a long

list - it's exercise. The human body was made to

move. We evolved out of nature. Long before

people used horses or invented cars, people did

it by sheer muscle power. The human body needs to

work in order to stay healthy. Working, moving

around, is the best medicine we can get.



And we have all these kids with early onset

diabetes playing video games eight hours a day.

It's nuts.



It's absolutely crazy. When my kids were young

and we used to walk them to school, I'd see these

big sports utility vehicles roll up and then out

would jump these roly-poly kids. You know, double

bang for your buck - pollute the atmosphere with

SUVs and drive your kids rather than walk.



All this crap going on and life is still rich. It's still exquisite.



I like to tell the story that my great mentor, my

hero, was my father. When he was 85, in 1994, he

was dying of cancer. He knew and he was ready for

it and not afraid. Thank God, it wasn't painful.

I moved in with him for the last month to take

care of him, and that was one of the happiest

times I spent with my father. Every night, my

wife would come over with slides and come with

the kids and show pictures of trips we've taken.

In the whole time, he kept saying, "David, I die

a wealthy man. I'm so rich." In that whole time,

he never once said, "Gee, you remember that

closet full of fancy clothes or that 1987 Buick I

had or the house we owned in London, Ontario."

All we talked about were family, friends,

neighbours and things we did together. That was

my father's wealth and he was truly a wealthy man.


We've got into thinking things, stuff, are what

make us happy, but it's not. I just spent 10

glorious days with my grandchild - just watching

and being with him and there's nothing better

than that. Those are the things that really

matter and they renew us and recharge our




There's so much I'd love to talk to you about.

There are details, like the BC Water Act. One

thing that came across - I was really inspired by

an article by Marianne Williamson. She was saying

we don't need to go out and get more people to

become aware. God help them if they're not aware

by now with all the crap going on. What we've got

to do is connect the people that are aware and

get them motivated to do what they need to do.


DS: I think you're absolutely right. I'm going to

take part in a debate in a week or two and the

topic is "Why is environmentalism failing?" I

think it is failing big time. Part of the problem

is the environmental movement that started in

1962 was very powerful. When Rachel Carson's book

Silent Spring came out, there wasn't a single

department of the environment in any government

on the planet. The environment didn't exist.

We've driven that. You can't imagine now, even on

the municipal level, not having a committee on

the environment. It's a part of the way we live.

You think of clean air and clean water acts and

endangered species. Huge amounts have been done.

But we're still going the wrong way. We're still

much more destructive than we were in 1962. The

problem is our underlying value system. We've

made the environment just another political

project or issue.


I've talked to Elizabeth May about this, and

thank goodness we've got the Greens to keep the

issues on the agenda, but the reality is the

environment is everybody's issue. We shouldn't

allow the other parties to say, "Oh well, that's

the Greens' issue. We can focus on the economy."

The failure of the environmental movement is when

you marginalize it to become just another special

interest group and that's what's happened. We've

got to broaden our tent way out. I don't call

myself an environmentalist. Hunger and poverty,

those are my issues. A starving person who comes

across an edible plant or animal is not going to

worry about whether it's on an endangered species

list. They're going to kill it and eat it. I

would. So if you don't deal with hunger and

poverty, forget about the environment.


Someone living under pressures of genocide,

terrorism and war is worried about saving their

ass. They're not going to be worried about

protecting the environment. We've got to broaden

the tent out to human rights and social justice.

Then we have a very broad tent. These are all our

issues. So what is the challenge? In 1940, I was

four-years-old, growing up in Vancouver, in

Marpole. I remember vividly my dad taking me in

the streetcar downtown to go to a movie and I

suddenly said, "Daddy, I can read that sign." And

in 1940 that sign said, "Do Not Spit." In 1940

there were signs telling people not to gob

anywhere. Cut ahead 70 years and there are no

signs saying "Do Not Spit." We don't teach our

kids in kindergarten not to spit; we don't have

spit police who throw people in jail because not

spitting in public has become a part of our

values as to who we are. There are a lot of

societies I've visited where people gob on the

floor of restaurants. I was in an operating room

in China and the surgeon stepped back from the

table while he was operating on this woman and

gobbed on the floor.


So we in Canada understand that as part of our

values, what it is to be Canadians, is you don't

gob in public places.


But in terms of the environment, we're back in

1940. We have to say, "Don't litter, pick up,

recycle." We have to tell people what to do. When

what it is to be Canadian is to understand in our

deepest roots that air, water, soil that gives us

our food and plants that give us our energy are

what we are. Those are what keep us alive and

healthy. Then it won't matter whether you elect a

right wing or a left wing government, because

everybody knows that you don't mess around with

our air, water and soil. That's what keeps us



That's where we have to go, but right now we act

as if, "Oh, air, well, you know, we've got an

economic downturn, it's okay you can pollute the

air a little more because we know it costs more

money to have those pollution devices." We don't

understand to our very soul that air, water and

soil are the very source of life and biodiversity

is what enables us to survive on this planet.



You have found your gift to speak out. Which

principles are important for people to get right

now and which tools are really useful at this




You're asking someone who's been, I think, a

total failure. I've done the best I could, but I

don't see much traction. To me, the most

important thing is what I wrote in The Sacred

Balance. It's the most important book I've

written and it's simply trying to remind people

that we are animals. There are lots of places,

like in southern Alberta or part of Texas, where

I've given speeches and told kids, "Don't forget

we're animals." Man, their parents get pissed off

at me. "Don't call my daughter an animal. We're

human beings." We have this attitude that we deny

our biological nature.


You can see it in the way we use language. If we

call someone a worm or a snake or an ape or a

jackass or a pig or a chicken, these are insults

because we think somehow we're above these

creatures and we forget the most basic thing. As

animals, our most elementary, fundamental needs

for our health and happiness are clean air, clean

water, clean soil that gives us our food, clean

energy that comes from the sun and biodiversity.

Those are the rock solid foundations that we live

on and must protect.



I'm so happy that you've just been who you are.

At the end of the day, it's about are we David or

Joseph? Are we who we came here to be? Did we

actualize our potential as that spark of life?



I'm at an age now where I realize success,

achieving what you're trying for, is not where

it's at. It's the actual act of trying that is

the important thing. If I'm going to die the way

my dad did, I want my grandchildren to be with me

and I want to look each of them in the eye and

say that grandpa did the best he could. Not that

grandpa succeeded in a bloody thing, but did the

best he could. "I love you and this is what I've

tried to do." I think if there are millions and

millions of people that do their best, we can

bring about huge changes.



Absolutely. Now, what's your greatest hope?

There's the reality of what's going on, but

there's something inside of us as grandparents,

parents, children. We need to become elders and

wiser. Rather than getting old and forgetting, we

should be realizing who we are and letting the

rest of the world know that. So your greatest

hope right now?



Well, you know Moses Znaimer. He's now an elder

and he doesn't like calling himself that so he

calls himself a 'zoomer.' Now, as an elder, we're

at the most important phase of our lives. We're

no longer driven by a need for fame or money or

power or sex. We're relieved of those things as

elders. Our job, our responsibility now, is to

look back on a lifetime of experience, of

thought, and to distill from that some lessons we

can pass on. That's our job as elders, dammit,

because we can speak directly from the heart.

There are no hidden agendas and we can tell the



One of the most powerful groups in the peace

movement were retired admirals and generals

against nuclear war because they've gone through

the whole system, but once they're free of that,

they're retired, they can speak the truth. That,

I believe, is the role that elders have today.

We've been very marginalized. When we started the

David Suzuki Foundation one of the first things

we did was to ask a group of elders to come and

be a council of elders for the foundation. My

idea was that it would be like the role of elders

in indigenous communities. You know, they're like

rock stars in their communities. I thought, well,

maybe if we had elders sitting here, as people go

about their jobs here, they might sit down and

have tea with Mary or Bob and talk about their

experiences as elders. Well, it turned out it

never worked. We were so damn busy trying to save

the world that we didn't have time for our

elders. After 10 years, they're finally getting

some traction now I think. They're going to do

some good things. But we need to rediscover our

elders and reintegrate them into society.


You asked what I would like to see done. To me,

the most important challenge now is the economy.

In 1944, as the allies saw they were going to win

the war, the big question was what the hell to do

with the world in which so much devastation had

taken place. So they called a meeting of the

allies in Bretton Woods in Maine. The drive was

led by John Maynard Keynes, the prize-winning

economist, and out of that meeting a number of

steps were taken. Two countries that were

absolutely devastated were Japan and Germany.

They came back to become economic powers.


There were a number of problems. They set up a

concept of development based on the northern

model of the industrialized countries and then

tried to globalize it. Which is crazy. We need

diversity not a single notion.


But they left out nature. What's needed now is a

Bretton Woods II conference to deal with the

challenge of reintegrating nature as a part of

our economy and of realizing that we need to have

an equilibrium - an economy that doesn't grow.

The economy is already far beyond the capacity of

the biosphere to support it. We can't keep

supporting it in this fashion.


We've got to work on a stable economy that is in

harmony with the things that make it possible to

have an economy. Which is nature - we've got to

incorporate the economy as a part of nature and

stop this suicidal notion that growth is the

definition of progress. The industrialized

countries have got to degrow their economies.

We've got to shrink. We've been able to develop

as economies because we've exploited the entire

planet and the ecological footprint of a country

like Canada is just massive, way beyond the land

that we've got. This is the challenge for me -

that we've got to have a totally different

concept of economics.

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