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David Suzuki's no mad scientist

Green Lifestyle magazine

While all scientists are tasked with searching for the truth, Suzuki takes it one step further by also asking about the meaning of that truth – so this brilliant, analytical mind might just be able to solve some of the biggest problems facing us today.

David Suzuki in Green Lifestyle

Credit: David Suzuki Foundation www.davidsuzuki.org

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One day in the 1950s, Canadian academic and environmentalist, David Suzuki, was in his physics class at school when John, one of the boys everyone looked up to, stood up and announced that he wanted to be a politician. “He was a great athlete, handsome and smart,” says Suzuki. “Everybody said ‘wow, isn’t that great!’ Nobody said ‘oh, you’re just after money’ or ‘you’re just on a power trip’. Nobody was cynical about it because we really thought that going into politics was one of the highest callings for people who wanted to make a difference and improve society.

“Young people today are so cynical about politics,” says Suzuki, who has over the years moved from academic sciences into a more philosophical role in society as an environmental activist. In his opinion, the reason for distrust in politicians is because politics now is run by the corporate agenda. “That has led to a tremendous cynicism because we know that politics isn’t about a better society or improving the human condition, it’s all about the corporate agenda; and that’s a drive for profit and growth. People are loosing faith in the political system.”

Suzuki’s bugbear is corporations; big or small, he’s not a fan. “Corporations are so powerful. They fund so much lobbying and fund political campaigns so that when people get into office, corporations call the shots.” Citing the fossil fuel industry in particular, he says that “a lot of corporations shouldn’t exist, quite frankly”.

“We cannot continue to act as if the survival of a business comes before using the planet as a garbage can. The highest priority has got to be to protect the biosphere itself that sustains all life on earth, not just human life,” he warns.

When prompted on how to make business more sustainable, Suzuki replies that it’s very difficult. “When the companies’ priorities are put as the highest priority, and not air, water and soil as our highest priority, we’re always going to have economics trumping the environment.

“If you don’t have air for more than three or four minutes you’re dead. If you have polluted air, you’re sick. So surely, the ultimate bottom line is air. And if you don’t have water for more than a few days, you’re dead. If you have polluted water, you’re sick. And then it’s the same with soil. Our food comes from the soil. Surely, protecting the soil, which gives us the food, without which we can’t live more than a week or so; those must be the bottom line… only then can we ask how we can do business.

“The spectacularly defective part of business now is that they seem to run on the notion that growth is not only possible forever, but that’s it’s necessary. The very definition of economic wellbeing is how well our economy, or our business, is growing. Steady economic business is impossible in a finite world. We suffer from a business model now that is fundamentally flawed… we’ve got to find a way of making a living and a profit that does not depend on steady growth. That’s only going to happen when governments and businesses start making the environment the bottom line.”

Suzuki explains that a major problem is the idea of ‘growth’ – economic growth and population growth. “If you plot the growth of the economy over the last couple of years the steady growth in our economy is perfectly correlated with the increase in population size. So there’s this strong correlation with population growth and economic growth, and so politicians and business have concluded that you have to have population growth in order to have economic growth. What you see in the curve is a correlation, it is not causation. It is not proof that the population has to grow if you want a steadily growing economy. So, first of all, I say economic growth should not be the be-all-and-end-all goal of our governments, but then I also say that we have to disconnect notions that population and economic growth are linked.”

Things got pretty scary when we asked Suzuki what he thinks would make for a ‘sustainable population’ of humans on the planet. “The problem is we don’t know what’s sustainable because we’ve damaged nature itself,” he states. “In terms of the load of chemicals that we’ve added to the air, water and soil, in terms of the extinction of huge numbers of species and destruction of ecosystems, the planet isn’t really as resilient as it was 200 years ago. So we don’t really know how many humans the biosphere will be able to sustain.”

But on a more positive note, he does say that if we’re going to survive long-term, then it’ll have to be a global solution, because a lot of Western countries tend to blame developing countries for a population crisis. “But our population pressure isn’t just a function of the number of people, it’s also the amount of resource that we each use,” he points out. “And many Canadians, Americans and Australians use about 40 times as much per person as the average Indian or Chinese, maybe 60 or 80 times as much as the average Somalian or Bangladeshi.

“It is the industrialised countries that are by far the overpopulated ones because they’re using so many of the planet’s resources to sustain us. Certainly, the way we’re living in the rich countries is absolutely unsustainable. The only way that we can try to achieve a sustainable world is to rapidly reduce our reproduction and to rapidly reduce our consumption of the planet’s resources in the rich countries.

“We have a very big ecological footprint… this has never happened in the history of earth, that an animal as highly predacious as us has achieved such a massive number. The reason of course is because humans are taking down other animals and ecosystems at an astonishing rate, and there’s no way that this can be sustained.”

Lately, Suzuki is putting his efforts towards engaging the youth and the elderly. “I shoot off my mouth about a lot of things when people ask me to comment, but I’m in the last part of my life, and I have the energy to concentrate on just a few things, and one of them that’s very important is trying to reconnect young people with nature.” He says that the average child in Canada today spends eight minutes a day outside, and more than six hours a day in front of a television set, a computer monitor or a cell phone.

“So we’re increasingly estranged from the natural world that supports us. Our kids are not aware of where their food comes from, they’re not aware of the role that air or atmosphere plays in their lives,” he says.

Using his own not-for-profit organisation, the David Suzuki Foundation, as a channel, he challenged Canadians in the month of May to spend at least 30 minutes outside each day for 30 days in the 30x30 Nature Challenge, and over 10,000 people signed up. “I was amazed at how challenging this is for a lot of people. We don’t mean the cigarette smokers standing outside, or people walking along the street listening to music. We mean having your senses opened to the sounds and the smells and the sights in the area around you… In the long run I think you only fight to protect what you love. And we can only love nature if we get outside and see what nature is.” David says that the majority of us are now city folk, “and in our cities we’re losing touch with the natural world”.

The tireless crusader, Suzuki also explains that he’s trying to galvanise the elders in society. “I keep saying to elders ‘get off the couch and the golf course; this is the most critical part of your life!’, because as elders we have something no other group has in society; we have lived an entire lifetime. Surely we’ve learned a lot in that lifetime that’s worth passing on to future generations? I’m trying to get elders involved, because elders no longer have a stake in perpetuating the status quo. We can now speak the truth that comes from our primary concern for our children and grandchildren.” He says that being beyond driving for fame, money or power, elders can help us reflect on the enormous changes that have gone on within a single lifetime and tell the young what kind of truly a happy and sustainable society we should be aiming for.

One of the men Suzuki admires a great deal is Australia’s own Clive Hamilton. “He wrote a book called Requiem for a species, and guess what species it was a requiem for – it was us. I read the book and there’s nothing in there I disagree with, except the conclusion, which is that it’s too late. And I want to tell your readers that it is very, very late, and the future looks very, very dire. But I think that you can never say with certainty it is too late because we don’t know enough to say that. So we always have to cling to hope. My hope isn’t just a Pollyanna-ish wish, it is based on my knowledge that we are too ignorant to conclude it’s too late.”

Suzuki then regales an impressive story that often inspires hope even in the most jaded environmentalist. It’s about the highly prized sockeye salmon, which has a vivid, bright-red flesh. Frazer River in British Columbia, Canada, has the biggest ‘run’ of sockeye salmon in the world at around 30 to 35 million salmon each year. But three years ago this dropped dramatically to just over one million. “I said to my wife ‘that’s it, they’ve had it, the sockeye will not make it’. But then, one year later, we got the biggest run of sockeye salmon in 100 years! Nobody knew what had happened – why was it so low, and why did it suddenly rebound?

“What it said to me is that nature still has secrets that we don’t know, and nature can still be generous if we give her a chance. So nobody should say it’s too late, but it is very, very late, and we’ve got to act now. Our highest priority has to be to protect nature because nature may prove to be much more forgiving than we deserve.”