Ecowarrior: David Suzuki


G caught up with David Suzuki, scientist-turned-philosopher, who continues to inspire millions of environmentalists around the globe.

Suzuki at Beatrice Lake in Ontario, Canada.

Suzuki at Beatrice Lake in Ontario, Canada.

Suzuki by totems

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You're just about to finish up what you say is your last tour to Australia. How are you feeling about your time here?

"Well the response has been incredible. You know, I was here in October as well, with my book, The Legacy, and everywhere I went - and I went right across the entire country - the events were sold out and there was a very enthusiastic response. And it's been interesting coming back, since I was here in October, the cyclones and the flooding has had a real impact. I think people are very concerned about the issue of climate now. And I see that Tim Flannery has been appointed as Commissioner on climate change, which is fabulous, and I look forward to Australia taking some big steps to deal with this crisis."

The film Force of Nature is released in Australia soon. What's the main message that you hope that people will take away from it?

"Force of Nature is really what my Legacy tour in October was about. The book came out of the movie. So they go hand-in-hand and the book and the movie basically are saying the same thing. But my whole point in The Legacy and in Force of Nature is that elders have got a real responsibility. You see elders are very special in the sense that they no longer have the drives of a young person - you know the drive for sex, or fame, or power, or money - we're at the end of that time, we don't need those things, so that we can look back on the lifetime lived and say what are the things that I've learnt in that lifetime, what are the things that are really important that I want to pass on as lessons to the coming generations. So one of my messages is to urge elders to step up and play this role of being spokespeople who are credible because we don't have outside, or hidden agendas."

"And my message is very simple; that we've forgotten the most fundamental truth, and that is that we are animals. And there are a lot of places I've been, that when I tell them that they are animals that they get very very angry. They deny that they are animals. They think that human beings are different, or that we're not like other creatures. But what I try to say is that as animals, we need clean air, clean water, clean soil that gives us our food, clean energy from the sun, and a diversity of other living species in order to stay healthy and alive. So when you recognise that we're biological creatures, then our priorities become very different from what politicians or businesspeople see. Right now it's all about the economy and money. But we can't put that ahead of our basic need for clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity - those are the things that keep us alive."

In regards to evolution, humans now have the capacity to consciously evolve - given books, the internet and an increasing knowledge of how the world works - do you see that influencing the future for us in a positive way?

"Well, I had always thought that the more information that we had, the better informed we are and we make more informed decisions. Today, anyone with a laptop or a computer can access information as no other generation in human history. Here in Melbourne you can access the entire Library of Congress in the United States, you can access every Encyclopaedia, and the amount of information we have is overwhelming. The terrifying thing to me is that there's so much information that people don't have to change their minds or think about anything. I mean, if you want to believe evolution is bunkem, you just have to go online and you'll find all kinds of websites on creationism. And if you don't want to believe in climate change, there are dozens of web and blog sites telling you that climate science is junk and talking about sun spots and all that kind of baloney, and all that. And what I find now is that people don't use information that they can judge how credible the information is, they just search for information that confirms what they already believe. And that's very frightening."

"If you found a website that says 'smoking is good for your health' I think the first thing you'd do is think 'who is paying for this website' and of course, the tobacco industry did spend hundreds of millions of dollars telling you that the smoking was not dangerous to your health. Well, lots of deniers of climate change - guess where they're getting their money? They're being supported by the fossil fuel industry! So if people aren't at least a little critical about where the information is, then we're in deep trouble. And I think we are in deep trouble. In North America, there are fewer people believing scientists about climate change now than there were ten years ago."

That touches on an important point - that environmental activism can become really depressing sometimes. How do you remain optimistic?

"Well, I don't remain optimistic. Or pessimistic. I know that we're going in the wrong direction. I know that we're in deep trouble and I know that whatever we do today, there's still going to be effects, beyond my grandchildren's grandchildren. We're talking about an amount of carbon that has been added to the atmosphere now that is going to take centuries to equilibriate out. So, we've already started a massive experiment with the planet and there's nothing we can do about that that. The question is, are we going to continue to contribute to the problem and make it worse, or are we going to try to bring ourselves under some kind of control? Well, at my age, whatever happens to me is not going to affect me; I'm in the last part of my life. If I live another five or ten years I'll be very grateful. So it's not going to affect me, but what keeps me going is I want to look at my grandchildren and say 'look, my generation did all of these things without thinking about you, and I tried the best that I could to turn things around', and that's all I can do. I've got that as my responsibility."

Was there a turning point for you that propelled you into the life's work that you've done now?

"It was a gradual accumulation of experience and information and meeting people. But for me, the definitive thing I guess was a book that came out in 1962. I was trained to be a geneticist and I had a career in genetics and I'm very proud of what I did in genetics, but in 1962, when I was beginning my scientific career, Rachel Carson published a book called Silent Spring that was all about the unexpected effects of pesticides. And that book began the modern environmental movement. Because of her book, millions and millions of people around the world woke up to the fact that our great technologies and practices were having an impact on the environment. When her book came out, there wasn't a single environment department in any government on the planet. I mean the environment just didn't mean anything - until her book came out and suddenly woke people up to the fact that we had problems. And so for me her book was a really big thing."

"Another major event was coming to Australia. I was offered a job at the University of New South Wales in the mid-1960s and I didn't come because I knew that there was a 'whites-only' policy or attitude in the country, and I said I was not going to go to a racist country. But I'd always dreamed of coming to Australia because I was fascinated by the idea of a duck-billed platypus. I just wanted to see a platypus! So, finally in 1988, I was invited to come to Melbourne by the Commission for the Future. It was a new organisation that was set up to look at what was coming to us in the future. And, when I came I knew about global warming of course, but I hadn't taken it seriously as a big issue - I was more interested in fighting against clear-cut logging and overfishing. And I came to the Commission for the Future and the scientists there showed me what was happening with climate change. And I suddenly thought that we can't fool around anymore, that we've got to do something. So that was a huge thing for me - my first visit to Australia, and the kind of kick in the pants to me to say 'we can't wait, we've got to start talking about climate change now'."

And did you end up seeing a duck-billed platypus?

"Yes, and I saw a duck-billed platypus! The first one I saw was in the Melbourne Zoo, but then I've been out in the wild and I've seen them in creeks."

So, what do you think of Australia's future now? We've come a long way, I guess, from the 1960s - do you see us heading in a positive direction?

"I think that the environmental movement is very alive and well, but the reality is that we're all going in the wrong direction - Australia as much as Canada. And the challenge we face is that we still think the most important thing in society, and in our lives, is the economy. If you look at the discussions that your Prime Ministers or your Premiers will indulge in when we talk about climate change, it's always within the context of 'we've got to protect the economy, of course we've got to do something about reducing greenhouse emissions, but it's all about the economy, the economy, the economy'. When the first reports came out of the Queensland floods, what are the first lines in news reports? 'Well, this is hitting the coal industry very heavily and we've had to stop exporting coal.' We ought to be getting off coal anyway! But the 'economy' dominates us to the point where the atmosphere, that air we breathe, comes second to the economy. And that's the big shift that we need. If we don't understand that without a clean atmosphere we don't even live, let alone have an economy. Cleaning up the atmosphere has got to be a higher priority."

Would you be able to pass on any tips that you have for a happy and fulfilling life?

"Absolutely, and it comes from my experience with my father who was my great teacher and mentor. When he was dying at the age of 85, I moved in to take care of him in the last month of his life. Fortunately it wasn't a painful type of cancer that he had. He knew he was dying, and he was completely unafraid that he would die. And I can tell you that was the happiest time of my life with my father. And my wife would come every night with the children and bring slides of trips that we'd taken together and we just talked and laughed and in that whole time as he was dying he never once said 'gee, do you remember that closet full of fancy clothes? Do you remember that big car I once owned? Or that house we lived in in London Ontario?'. He never talked about stuff. He kept saying over and over 'David, I die a rich man'. But he didn't have money. All we talked about were family, friends and neighbours and the things that we did together. And that was my father's wealth."

"Somehow, we've got off on this weird idea that being happy is about having stuff! We go shopping for fun; this is really bizarre! And I urge people, to spend time with the people that matter to you. Spend time with your kids, and I say that out of personal experience in my life when I was a scientist with my first family; I was so keen on my science that I was at the lab seven days a week. The things that really matter has to do with the people that matter to you and the things you do together. It's not about money, it's not about stuff, it's about people."

So what lies ahead for David Suzuki now?

"Death. At my age - next month is my 75th birthday - so I say I'm 'in the death zone'. And there's nothing morbid about that, it's the reality, it says that I'm in the last period in my life. If I live for another ten years I'll be delighted. If I live for five years, well, that's the way it goes. Right now I'm in good health and every year is a gift. I have three teenage grandchildren from my first family, and I'm just delighted I've been able to see them grow up into young adults now. And now, my one and a half year old grandson is everything to me. And what my life is, is all about spending as much time with him as I can."

Find out more about David Suzuki's new film Force of Nature here.