I'm reading
David Suzuki is a force of nature
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
David Suzuki is a force of nature
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
David Suzuki is a force of nature
Pass it on
Pass it on
“The economy is a human construct, we invented it. We can change the rules of the economy. We can’t change the rules of ecology. Those are nature’s laws.”
Conversations
6 March 2017

David Suzuki is a force of nature

Interview by Livia Albeck-Ripka
Photography by Grant Harder

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.

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

LIVIA ALBECK-RIPKA: Is it as gloomy over in Canada as it is here in Melbourne today?

DAVID SUZUKI: Gloomy? The sun is out, it’s a beautiful day.

Ah, lucky you.

And, we have a new government! What more could one ask? We’ve had 10 dark years under a government that wanted to be like George Bush. And now he is out. Hallelujah.

We also recently had a change in leadership, thank God.

Not quite the same thing, although I am thrilled that [Prime Minister Tony] Abbott is gone. I hope Turnbull will be different.

And what about your new government?

Unbelievable. The change was obvious immediately after Mr Trudeau was elected. Now we have gender parity in cabinet. Of 30 cabinet members, 15 are women in senior posts. And the “environment ministry” has been changed to the “ministry of environment and climate change.” The Harper Government that was replaced did not admit climate change was real; they did everything they could to keep us from talking about it.

On that hopeful note, I’d like to put a question back to you that you asked in your first episode of A Planet for the Taking. Thirty years ago you asked, “Can we find a way to shift our perceptions to find a view that will encompass both our technical achievement and our ties with our planetary home?” What do you think, have we found a way?

No, we haven’t yet. The problem is that we keep asking nature to fit our agenda. At the December meeting in Paris, we’re going to have 195 countries trying to negotiate the future of the atmosphere (that doesn’t belong to anybody) through the political lenses of 195 national boundaries and 195 economic agendas. Everybody is going to be saying, “Oh I don’t know if we can afford this, are we going to pay the money? I don’t want to pay this money!” My response is: “Wait a minute, folks—don’t we all agree that the air is something that is absolutely critical for our survival? If we don’t have air for three minutes we’re dead. If we have to breathe polluted air we’re sick.” So we need to begin the conference by saying: “Protection of the atmosphere is our highest priority and we’ve got to find a way to do that, and it can’t be within our economic or our political constraints,” we have no choice.

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

We still haven’t understood that the most important thing everybody needs is clean air, clean water, clean soil and clean energy.

That has to be at the foundation of however we live—protecting the air, water, soil and sunlight we capture in photosynthesis. Then we can ask, “How can we make a living? How can our countries survive while protecting those things?”

But unfortunately we do live in a world where the dominant belief is that the economy and marketplace rule.

Yes. This is absolute suicide, to act as if the economy must be served above all else. The very word “economics” comes from the same word as “ecology.” “Oikos” (eco) is a Greek word for “household” or “domain.” Our domain is the biosphere. Ecology is the study of the biosphere, which is the science that attempts to find out how species can live sustainably, indefinitely. Economics is the management of the household. Economics should be subordinate to ecology. Whatever the economy does shouldn’t violate the principles of sustainability. But that’s not how we do it.

We’ve had 10 years of a conservative government now that practically destroyed the country, because the economy came before everything else. This is crazy.  We’re altering the chemistry of the atmosphere; it’s having a tremendous impact  on weather and climate. But it’s crazy to think that we have to keep going this way to keep the economy going. The economy is a human construct—we invented it.

We can change the rules of the economy. We can’t change the rules of ecology. Those are nature’s laws.

So how can we get the leaders who are meeting in Paris to have that conversation? Is it realistic to think we can shift this deeply rooted paradigm?

I met with the French ambassador to Canada a year ago. I said: “Mr Ambassador, we’ve already had 20 Council of All Party meetings on climate. They haven’t gone anywhere to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. If you’re just going to have a 21st meeting and continue the path that the other 20 were on, forget it!”

At the time we spoke there were three things I didn’t anticipate: one, the science has become clearer and clearer. Scientists are now practically begging we do something because of the danger of continued greenhouse-gas emissions. We simply are on a very terrifying path. The science is in and it is frightening. Two, I never imagined that the two biggest emitters, China and the United States, would get together and say, “We have to do something about climate change.” That’s huge. But the third thing, that is the absolute game changer, was Pope Francis’ encyclical. It is the most incredible piece of literature. I weep when I read it. He puts everything together; he doesn’t fragment everything, he doesn’t say, “Oh well, hunger and poverty, that’s an issue for Oxfam, and social justice, that’s an issue for Amnesty International, and the environment, that’s an issue for the Suzuki Foundation.” All of it is in a single package: we’re now confronting a moral issue about the way that we live on this planet. We’ve spent all of our time being focused on two relationships—human relationship with God and human relationships with other human beings. But the third one is a human relationship to the rest of creation.

And you’ve spent most of your life trying to communicate this holistic approach to the world. You started off in television, then radio, you’ve written 52 books. As somebody who’s tried all these methods of communication, what’s the best? What’s going to wake us up from our stupor?

The people who have taught me everything about a different way of seeing the world are the indigenous people that I’ve encountered from Australia to Canada, to Africa and South America. Everywhere that my wife and I have met indigenous people, they tell us the same thing: the Earth is our mother. When they say that, they’re not speaking metaphorically or poetically. They mean it literally. We are created by the four sacred elements: earth, air, fire and water. If we don’t base the way that we act and think on that relationship, then every conference we have, like the one that’s going to take place in Paris, is doomed.

We’ve spent all of our time being focused on two relationships—human relationship with God and human relationships with other human beings. But the third one is a human relationship to the rest of creation.
David Suzuki

We have done terrible things to the original people of Canada. Yet they have survived with a strong sense of their attachment to land. And after all we’ve done, they’re still willing to share that perspective with us. Twenty years ago, the attitude towards First Nations people was really horrific. Totally racist. If I did a program 20 years ago about alcohol, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put a picture of a drunken Indian on skid row in the show. Today that is unthinkable. The position of First Nations has completely changed. We have 10 indigenous members of parliament, and two of them are now ministers, including the minister of justice. Now almost every environmental issue that’s going on in the country is being led by indigenous people. The environmentalists are simply following along.

The First Nations have been unbelievably generous. Most of the indigenous people 150 years ago signed treaties that essentially allowed the conquering colonisers to take over the land, giving them tiny reserves but committing to allowing them to continue their traditional trapping hunting and fishing as long as the sun shines, the wind blows and the rivers flow. All they’re asking us is, “Please obey your treaties.” They’re not saying, “We want it all back.” They’re saying, “You signed treaties! And in order to get our signature, you made promises to us. Now live up to those promises.”

I was actually just in remote central Australia, where the indigenous people have a worldview and vocabulary around the environment that is totally at odds with the dominant Western myth of human control over land. I was thinking that perhaps language itself—not just what we say but the words we use to talk about the environment—needs to change. It reminded me of your story of a mother being furious with you for calling her child an “animal.”

That was many years ago in Texas at a green building conference. There were a lot of children in the audience. At one point, I said, “The most important thing for you to remember from my talk here is that we are animals.” Their parents were furious! “Don’t call my daughter an animal! We’re human beings!” My response to that is,  “If you’re not an animal, are you a plant?” Because we are biological creatures.

[Laughs] so how can we get people to start calling themselves animals, and the environment mother? Without sounding like hippies.

The obvious wish that I have is that we could “indigenise” our worldview.

But I think there’s still a lot of barriers from the colonisers to take over that kind of language. I don’t know if you know that in the province of Alberta, there is a deposit of oil second only in size to what can be found in Saudi Arabia but the oil is like tar, and in order to extract that tar, we have to pump a huge amount of heat down and literally melt it so it can flow through pipes. It’s a very energy-intensive source of petroleum that we think should be left in the ground. So the CEO of a large oil company in the Tar Sands calls me and says, “Can I come down and talk to you?” I said, “Sure. I don’t want to fight.” I’m done with fighting because when there’s a fight, there’s a winner and a loser. And we all have to be winners.

So he came down to Vancouver the next day. When he came to the door I said, “Thank you for coming. I’m honoured. But before you come through my door please leave your identity as a CEO of an oil company outside. I want to meet you as a human being.” Well, he wasn’t very happy about that. But anyway, he came in. I said to him, “Look, I know this is unusual. But I think before we begin to negotiate, we have to agree on what the bottom line is. We have to have an agreement, all of us, on what our fundamental needs are that we have to have fulfilled to be able to live and to be healthy. Let me start by suggesting that if you don’t have air for three minutes”—as I told you earlier, “You’re dead. If you breathe polluted air, you’re sick. So for every human being on the planet, our highest priority should be the protection of clean air. We are absolutely dependent on it for our survival and our health.”

Then I said to him, “Every one of us is 60 to 70 percent water by weight. We’re basically a big blob of water. And the body leaks the water through our skin and our eyes and our mouth so we have to keep drinking water. If you don’t have water for four to six days, you’re dead. If you have to drink polluted water, you’re sick. So surely clean water should be like clean air—a high priority. And if you don’t have food for four to six weeks, you’re dead. Contaminated food, you’re sick. Most of the food that we eat is grown in the soil. So clean food and soil should be there with clean water and clean air.” And then I said, “Every bit of the energy in your body that you need to move and grow and reproduce, all of that is sunlight captured by plants in photosynthesis. We get that by eating the plants or eating the animals that eat the plants. And then we store that energy in our bodies. And when we need to move or jump or do anything, we burn those molecules and liberate the energy of the sun back into our bodies.” I said, “Could you not agree with me these are the most precious, the most important things that we need to survive and be healthy? So we need everyone to agree that’s the foundation of the way we live. And then we ask, ‘How do we make a living?’”

And what did he say?

Well, he couldn’t agree with me. If he were to go back to his shareholders and say, “I had a discussion with Suzuki, I agree. Clean air, clean water, clean soil. We’ve got to protect that whatever we do,” he’d be fired.

So how do we get the “Mr CEOs” to listen?

Well I thought that by coming down to talk to me, he was interested in discussion. But he was there really to negotiate. We have to get beyond that.

The way we’re doing it here is by starting a grassroots movement to get a constitutional amendment that says if you are Canadian, you’re guaranteed a healthy environment.

At present, when a company comes in and begins to pollute the air, water and soil, the victims have to go to court and prove that their health is affected. But if we put this in the constitution, then any company will have to prove, before they start, that they’re not going to harm the environment. We did a seven-week tour across Canada last fall with 23 events including famous people like Neil Young. We had all kinds of performers and artists supporting this initiative. We want a grassroots movement to drive the municipalities to adopt it. They will go to the provinces and then the provinces will go to Parliament. We now have 99 communities ranging from Montreal to Vancouver to Yellowknife to Hamilton (these are big cities). One out of every five Canadians now lives in a city that supports the right to a healthy environment.

And last month, we got the premier of the first province to commit to the right to a healthy environment. And 110 countries in the world already have such guarantees. The English-speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States, England, we don’t. France enacted one during Premier Mitterrand’s regime, its conservative government. They enacted a guarantee for a healthy environment. So this is the direction we’re going.

I was reading that Exxon Mobil has been taken to court in the States for failing to reveal the real risks of its actions. Do you think that we’ll look back at the petroleum companies like we do at big tobacco? Do you think they will truly be held to account?

In 1988 the concern about global warming was at its absolute peak. And then it dropped. Why? Because the fossil-fuel industry began to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a campaign to say it’s junk science. You have Gina Rinehart, the coal baron in Australia, leading this fight against climate change as if it’s not real. There are people that should be going to jail for what they have done in ignoring the reality of climate change. Clive Hamilton—one of the leading eco-philosophers—has written a book called Requiem for a Species. He’s saying it’s basically too late. We haven’t done anything and it’s too late to reverse that.

And what do you think?

I’m sure he would agree with me that what the oil companies have done is absolutely criminal. The oil industry is employing the same PR people that led the tobacco industry’s battle to say that smoking wasn’t harmful. Scientists, who are saying, “No, no, no, it’s not happening, it’s not real.” Scientists for hire. I’ve been absolutely outraged that for 10 years we have had a government that muzzled and fired hundreds of scientists. A lot of scientists were told, “You can’t state publicly the work you’re doing.” So science has been shut down. It’s been discredited. This has been a terrible, terrible time in our government. Thank goodness that’s over. One of the first things our new government did was free scientists by saying, “You’re free to speak to the press or the public.”

And how do you feel about the public discourse around climate change? I worry that competing information and the sensationalism that comes out of that has created a kind of dumbing-down of many of our important public conversations. You yourself have reflected on how The Nature of Things went from being a program where you really had the space to explore in-depth scientific issues to something which had to be increasingly flashy, in order to grab people’s attention.

Yeah. Of course, that’s the result of the explosion in information accessibility. When I started in television in 1962, in many parts of the country, there was only one channel: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. But over time, that increased to four channels, then we brought in satellites and cable, and now virtually anywhere in the country you can have anywhere from 60 to 1000 channels to select from. Well when you have that many channels, you can zip through channels like bing, bing, bing, bing, bing!

And that’s just television!

Yes.

And the problem on the internet is you don’t have to change your mind anymore. If you want to believe UFOs came to Earth and had babies with human women, you can find a website for that!

There are websites saying that climate change is junk science. So people don’t have to change their minds, they just have to find a source which agrees with them. That’s the challenge we face, that people are not really literate on what is credible information and what is not.

That’s very concerning. How are we going to shift the worldview to one that is more aligned with indigenous belief, given that we can just have our existing myths confirmed?

Well, for me it’s about legitimising indigenous people in Canada. It’s really important that we raise their visibility and respectability. We have outbreaks of terrible suicide in indigenous communities and I think that’s in large part because the kids don’t respect themselves. What do you expect after 150 years of colonisation? But slowly, it’s changing.

You’ve spoken about how in hunter-gatherer societies the idea of the hero was avoided because the family and tribe were everything. You were voted the most trusted Canadian in 2011, so—perhaps unwittingly—you have become the hero. How do you feel about that? Do we need heroes in the modern world?

Well I don’t think any movement should depend on one or a few people.

Any movement worth itself has got to be widespread. I’m just one person who has been very fortunate to have a platform. I’ve been hosting The Nature of Things on CBC for 36 years. That’s a long time to be in prime time. It really is the kind of program that has led to the public trusting me. It’s an incredible responsibility. I’m going to be 80 in a few months. Who knows? I could kick the bucket any minute! But I feel very, very strongly about the movement among young people. There are some fantastic people coming up—including my own children and grandchildren and people like Naomi Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis.

There are lots of people who are leading the battle for a safer, cleaner future because things are so serious. It’s their future that’s at stake now.

I’ve earned a living as both a professor in a university and as a host of a program. I feel privileged that I’ve been able to do what I believe in and love to do, and get paid for it. I’ve been very, very fortunate and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful to the Canadian public. I’m very proud to say The Nature of Things, which is still running in Canada and around the world, started in 1960; it’s the longest running series in Canadian history. It’s always had a very large audience.

Yet when it began, you were in the lab. You went from being a research scientist to a television host. What was  that like? Did you ever miss the quiet of the lab?

Of course! I was trained to be a scientist. I never set out to be a “populariser” of it. I spent eight years in the United States getting my education because Canada didn’t have the kind of institutions that I went to in the States. I came home because I preferred to be in Canada; Canada was different. This was a time when American science was just exploding because the Americans were in a space race with the Russians after Sputnik. I was getting job offers from universities all across the  United States—they were just expanding their university departments like mad.  But I deliberately chose to leave the United States and took a big pay cut to do that.

When you say Canada was “different,” that you wanted to come home—what was different about it? What did home mean to you?

It was the country I was born and raised in. I just went to the United States to get an education. But home was Canada. That was my country. Canada was a peacekeeper, not a warmaker. One of our prime ministers, Lester Pearson, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on the Suez crisis. Canada doesn’t weigh everything in terms of money. We had a party called the CCF, which is the company NDP, which is a socialist party. I couldn’t imagine a socialist party existing in the United States. They’d go bonkers! They’d call it a commie party.

One of the greatest Canadians was the leader of the socialist party who, although he never became prime minister, was instrumental in getting Medicare in Canada. I was proud of Canada. When I came home, we had a program where the rich provinces shared some of their wealth with the poor provinces. I preferred that. We had a social safety net. We had the National Film Board, we had the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, we had Quebec—all things I valued very much.

But when I came home in 1962, I was shocked at the state of science in this country. The people I graduated with at the University of Chicago were getting grants of $60-80,000. My first grant in Canada was $4200. Normally they’d give a grant of $3500 to a beginning scientist, but I had a year of postdoctoral studies, so they gave me more. I then thought, Oh my God. If I want to be a scientist I’ve got to go back to the United States. But in the end, I got a huge grant from the Americans that they allowed me to use in Canada.

I felt that it was important for Canadians to know about science: why science is important and how science is going to affect their lives. So in 1962 I did my first eight-part series of television programs. I did that first series and I realised that people liked what I did.

My ability was to translate scientific ideas into a language that the public could understand. That was my gift, if I have such a gift.

But I was anxious to become a hotshot well-known scientist. I eventually had the biggest genetics lab in the country in the 1970s. But then I got more and more heavily involved in television because I got a grant that allowed me to stop teaching.  They hired someone to teach my courses so that I could focus on television.

And did you foresee that this would become your life? One in the public sphere, rather than in the lab? Was there any point at which you thought, What am I doing? I’m a scientist!

Absolutely. The big thing about being a scientist is you’re only as good as your last paper. Once you stop publishing, you basically are a has-been. That’s why you’ll see a lot of senior scientists, even though they’re long past doing original or interesting work, they will hang around in their lab and keep applying for grants so that they can still hang in there—it’s the whole sociology of science. It’s a very macho activity. It’s changing a lot now because there are many more women. But when I started in science women were very, very rare. The size of your grant was like the size of your phallus.

[Laughs].

Big grant man, he’s really very endowed! And your publications, those are the things that gave you a sense of your identity and your place in the scientific pecking order.

So you suffered, having chosen a different path?

Yeah. And that was hard.

Speaking of identity, you struggled as a child being neither really Japanese nor Canadian: you didn’t speak Japanese, so you didn’t fit in there, but you didn’t look Caucasian either. You’re nearly 80. Have you found a sense of belonging?

Well of course, I was educated through my second wife, who was born in England. I would be grumpy and say, “Oh you don’t ever understand what it is to be a Japanese in a white society.”  She would just turn right around and say, “Well, you would never understand what it is to be over 50 percent of the population and be treated like crap.” It was through her that I began to see that feminism was about the same kind of bigotry that I had experienced as a Japanese Canadian. I have four daughters, I’m a feminist.

There is lots of discrimination still to be fought. But the Japanese thing is no longer a part of it for me. I don’t feel alienated in the way that I did in my youth. One of the terrible burdens I had as a result of my experience in the war years was constantly doing things because I didn’t want to let people down. I was trying to prove to Canadians that they made a mistake in the way that they treated me and my family. We were Canadian born. We were Canadians! And yet we lost everything. We were incarcerated for three years and then kicked out of the province and made to go east of the Rocky Mountains. As a young person, you might be trying to show that Japanese Canadians are good people, but when you get older, it’s kind of like a sickness that you carry around; there’s got to be a time when I can say, “Okay! I don’t have to keep proving it over and over again.”

I realise now that being an elder is the most important time in my life. It should be for everyone.

I urge every elder to stop spending so much time on the golf course, or sitting around on the couch watching television—we’ve got something no other group in society has: we’ve lived an entire lifetime.

In that lifetime we’ve made mistakes, we’ve suffered failures, we’ve had a few successes. Those are hard-won life lessons and they are priceless. We’ve got an enormous responsibility. This is our job now. The other thing is that we are no longer running after money, fame, power or sex. We don’t have to worry about getting a promotion or a raise. We don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass.

Okay, so David, if you had to distil your message as an elder into a sentence, what would you say?

[Laughs]. You want me to distil a lifetime of experience into one sentence?

Yep! [Laughs] unfortunately that’s all the attention span us millennials have.

Yeah, I know.

A meme?

[Laughs] I think we’ve got to talk about what our fundamental needs are, in the way that I talked to that CEO of the oil company: what are the most important things that keep us alive and healthy? If we don’t think about that, all this argument about the economy, jobs, all that stuff is totally irrelevant.

Use your power

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Photography by Grant Harder

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.