Livia Albeck-Ripka on David Suzuki
I phone David Suzuki on an unseasonably drizzly morning from Melbourne. On the other side of the world in Vancouver (where it is supposed to be winter) it’s a crisp nine degrees and sunny, and David is in good spirits: Canada’s new government has just sworn in its first climate change minister—a title validating the phenomenon he has spent most of his life trying to convince the rest of us exists.
Most well known for his 55-year-running CBC series, The Nature of Things, Suzuki became the face of the environmental movement when he left the lab for the screen in the 1960s, recognising that popularising science was the best way to shift the ecological agenda. After earning his PhD in zoology in the United States, David returned to Canada to launch what would become one of the most popular nature shows of all time, as well as creating other series, producing for The Discovery Channel and writing 52 books (19 of them for children). In 1990 he founded the David Suzuki Foundation to promote sustainability.
Over a lifetime battling irresponsible policies and behaviour, David’s will has waxed and waned. After a factual slip-up on the ABC’s Q&A during a visit to Australia in 2013, he remarked, “I’ve had a belly full of fighting.” But speaking with me ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference* in Paris—where just over a week after we chat, a terrorist attack leaves 130 people dead—David is hopeful, because he has to be. For David, war, terrorism and poverty are critical discussion points on the public agenda, but they are footnotes compared with irreversible climate change which threatens the very existence of our species.
One of David’s most famous thought experiments is to compare human beings to exponentially growing bacteria in a test tube (the Earth): “Let’s suppose at 55 minutes one of the bacteria says, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been thinking, we’ve got a population problem!’ The other bacteria would say, ‘Jack! What the hell have you been smoking? The other 97 per cent of the test tube is empty and we’ve been around for 55 minutes.’ At 59 minutes, they realise Jack is right. Our home, the biosphere, is finite and fixed,” says David, and our attempt to grow infinitely within it is impossible.
During our conversation, David has a nasty cough, excusing himself a couple of times for a glass of water. At 79, he is in what he calls the “death-zone,” a term he uses lightly rather than despondently. For David, avoidance of mortality is part of our dissociation with the cycle of life—in part to blame for our reckless attitudes to the environment, of which we are an intrinsic part. Change will only occur when we abandon the paradigm of exponential growth. This is what David is pleading for in his 59th minute.
*The conference resulted in 195 countries agreeing to keep global warming well below two degrees Celsius, to make “nationally determined contributions” to reducing emissions and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them. Go to cop21.gouv.fr/en/ for full details of the Paris Agreement.