David Suzuki’s Final Stand

October 1, 2010

The Legacy started as a lecture; now it’s both a book and the basis of a documentary in theatres October 1. How did it come about? Often when a professor reaches retirement age he gives a last lecture to sum up what he’s acquired over a lifetime of thinking. [UBC’s Department of Zoology hired Suzuki in 1963.] That’s what this gave me—the opportunity to hone a few ideas that I could present as summation of a life of science and broadcasting. The book has the same basic theme, delivered in the same spirit, as the speech. But there were a lot of things I was able to expand. I completely wrote the thing myself. So many books I have people working with me and basically they do all the work. But this book, it’s mine and I’m very pleased with it.

Is it your legacy? Someone asked me a couple of months ago, “How do you want to be remembered?” My answer was “I don’t really give a shit how I’m remembered—I’m going to be dead.”

In the book, you talk about all the changes you’ve seen over your life. Have we progressed? In 1988, I interviewed the newly appointed minister of the environment, Lucien Bouchard. I said to him, “What is the most important issue we face?” And he said, “Global warming. It threatens the survival of our species.” That’s 22 years ago. What’s happened since? Fewer people take global warming seriously now. There’s not a single environmental problem that we had in 1962 that isn’t still a problem today. The difficulty is that we fight so many battles in the environmental area. We lose most, but even when we win it’s only temporary. Thirty years ago I was involved in fighting with First Nations against the proposal to drill for oil in Hecate Strait, and we won that. We fought 30 years ago against a plan to create a dam at Site C on the Peace River, and we won. Guess what? Those things have come back now. Our victories are temporary, and meanwhile, when we lose, the planet’s resilience is being reduced.

You make the point we have become like gods. Only a few years ago if there were hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, forest fires—they were considered something we had no control over. Guess what, folks—we have joined the gods. Scientists have said this period is called the Anthropocene period—"anthro-": that's us! We have become a geological force. We are altering the biological, chemical, and physical features of the planet.

And being altered. We’re created out of the air, the water, the soil that gives us our food, the energy from the sun. Whatever we do to the air, the water, the other species, we are doing directly to ourselves. We are at the centre of creating the problems, but we are also the biggest recipients of the results.

How will it be resolved? Some of the leading thinkers in the environmental area are concluding that it really is too late; we’ve passed tipping points where it will not be possible to avoid really catastrophic change. They’re not saying necessarily that humanity is doomed to extinction, but someone like James Lovelock is saying that 90 percent of human population will be gone by the end of this century. His recommendation is to head for the hills—head north or up the sides of mountains—because the planet is suffering from a very heavy fever. And we’re causing it.

Wasn’t the Kyoto Protocol meant to turns things around by reducing carbon emissions? Canada is bound by international law to try to meet those targets. The vast majority of the 34 countries that signed on are going to meet those targets. We have a government that for four years has said that one of its primary platforms is law and order, yet the first thing Mr. Harper did when he was elected prime minister was to say, “We’re going to ignore Kyoto.” He’s declared Canada an international bandit.

How do you of all people travel the world representing essentially a rogue nation? It’s humiliating. Look at Sweden, which imposed a carbon tax in the 1990s that pays $150 a tonne for carbon that has reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions to nine percent below 1990 levels, long past the Kyoto target—its economy grew by 44 percent during that time. Sweden stands as the example that our leaders are full of shit when they say that it can’t be done, that it’ll destroy the economy. Capitalism, the economy, corporations, currency, markets—these are human inventions, not forces of nature. We act as if, “The economy’s in trouble. What am I going to do?” As if this thing we invented has got to be served at all costs. That’s crazy. Wasn’t it Einstein who said when you’ve got problems, doing the same thing that got you into the problem in the first place is not going to give a different outcome?

And yet you keep going. Don’t you get worn out? Many people come into a movement—doesn’t have to be the environmental movement: human rights, social justice, peace—and we put everything we can into it and burn out. My wife has said for years, “We need sustainable activism” and I think the real danger is of burnout. We have to be in it for life. I’m at the end of my life and I know as long as I’m physically okay, I have no choice. 

Other articles on environmental issues:

Perpetual Motion: A zoologist at UBC, Todd Jones, uses leatherback turtles to gather unprecedented intelligence on the health of the world’s oceans. By Bruce Grierson

Tzeporah Berman's Green Idea: The original tree hugger has a big, pragmatic agenda. Meet Canada’s next-generation climate change warrior. By James Glave

Sturgeons And The Fraser River's Conservation: Measuring The Fraser River's Health. By Tyee Bridge

Marc Jaccard Talks Climate Change: SFU economist and climate change expert Mark Jaccard on Earth Hour, energy-efficient light bulbs, and our capacity for self-delusion. By James Glave

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