- One of Canada’s best known scientists and ecologists, David Suzuki recently announced his retirement from hosting “The Nature of Things,” the acclaimed Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television series seen in over 40 countries.
- Also a prolific author with 52 books to his name, he has now turned his attention to becoming an ‘active elder’ in the fight to save the planet.
- “The thing about elders [is] they’re beyond worrying about money or power or celebrity, so that they can speak a kind of truth,” he told Mongabay in a new interview.
David Suzuki was one of the first voices to call for action to curb climate change, but he is probably best known as a broadcaster and prolific author of 52 books. In an interview conducted in late 2022, Canada’s highest profile scientist and environmental activist reflected back on his long career, the rapid decline of the natural world, and why he thinks the environmental movement has so far failed to persuade the world to effectively put a brake on carbon emissions.
At the time of this interview, the 86-year-old had just finalized his retirement from The Nature of Things, the critically acclaimed Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television series seen in over 40 countries – which he first started hosting in 1979 – and a revised edition of his bestselling book, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, was released.
In this interview, Suzuki said that “elevating the economy above the atmosphere that gives us air to breathe, weather, climate and the seasons” is, in his words, “the creed of cancer,” a doctrine of endless economic growth that condemns Earth’s life support systems to rapid destruction. He instead calls for a shift from society’s anthropocentric orientation to an eco-centric view of life, one that acknowledges the radical interdependence between humans and all of nature.
What gives him hope is the growing activism of the young, who are partnering with Indigenous people and scientists to demand fundamental change, and told Mongabay that he is looking forward to his own new role as an ‘active elder’ in the fight to save the planet. “The thing about elders that’s different in society is they don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass to get a job, or a raise, or a promotion,” he said. “They’re beyond worrying about money or power or celebrity so that they can speak a kind of truth…To me, hope is action.”
Suzuki spoke to journalist Richard Schiffman in mid-October 2022 via video call from his home in Vancouver, and his answers have been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
Mongabay: What is the weather like in Vancouver today?
David Suzuki: It is sunny, but we are overwhelmed by smoke from both Washington and British Columbia. Yesterday you couldn’t even see the mountains. And the burning season – which is only a recent thing that started in British Columbia – was usually over by September. Here we are in the middle of October, and we’re in a drought, and this is a rainforest. We’ve never worried about water. On the Sunshine Coast, which is north of us by 100 miles or so, they recently announced that they want everybody living in that area to start conserving water, because they’re running out. It’s pretty frightening to see what we’re going through.
Mongabay: How did we get ourselves into this crisis, in your view?
David Suzuki: I think what we’ve done in the West, in the industrialized world, is that we have shifted in the way we see the world. For 99% of our existence, we saw ourselves living in a web of relationships with air, water, land, the sun, and other species. And in that web, we were one small strand, so we understood that we were dependent on everything else. We have come along, and we’ve shattered the web and made it into a pyramid where we’re at the top, and everything down below is for us. And our actions in this pyramid are now driven for economic, political, and legal reasons that are founded on this idea of us being at the top instead of being in a web. And that’s the real crisis, I think. We’re still arguing about climate change as if it’s an economic problem.
When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said acting to cap and reduce greenhouse gas emissions was “crazy economics,” he elevated the economy above the atmosphere that gives us air to breathe, weather, climate and the seasons. Now that’s crazy – the creed of cancer, namely endless growth, is a fundamental assumption and goal of the economic system. Nature is only a source of raw materials or a dumping ground for our wastes, but ecosystem services like filtering water during the hydrological cycle, the creation of soil, the creation of oxygen-rich air, the removal of carbon dioxide, etc., are ignored as ‘externalities.’
Mongabay: You and your wife drafted the Declaration of Interdependence during the 1992 Rio Summit. What is that?
David Suzuki: We said, ‘Can we distill the essence of who we are as a species in a way that will be uplifting and poetic, but profound?’ I wrote the first draft. We recruited Rafi, a children’s singer, and then Wade Davis, a prominent ethnobotanist, and Guujaaw, the leader of the Haida people, and they all had a go at it. It’s now been translated into over 20 different languages, including two Indigenous languages in Canada.
Mongabay: The basic idea is that we are integral parts of nature, not separate from it?
David Suzuki: Yes, I started thinking, ‘What is Guujaaw’s system [affirming the unity of humans and the natural world] telling us?’ We’ve been fighting neonicotinoids – these very powerful insecticides, bees are especially sensitive to them – but you have to ask, how do they act? Well, guess what, they’re neurotoxins, they kill by hitting our nerves. Wait a minute, now, in my genetics lab, we discovered a mutation in fruit flies that affects nerves, and we got a huge grant to study them. Why? Because nerves in a fruit fly, an insect, are relevant to the nerves in human beings…if we’re spraying and affecting insects, you’re damn sure it’s affecting humans as well.
Mongabay: An important event in your life was meeting the Haida people, an Indigenous group who live on islands off the coast of British Columbia, while filming. What kind of an impact did that have on you?
David Suzuki: This is back in the 1970s, and huge battles were going on in British Columbia, not over climate change, but over forests. I interviewed a Haida, an Indigenous guy who was leading the battle against logging. Now, I knew they had over 50% unemployment in their communities, and I knew a lot of the loggers were Haida. Logging was giving them one of their few economic avenues. So, I said to him, ‘Why the hell are you fighting against the logging? I mean, you’re an artist. What difference does it make to you if the trees are gone?’
And his answer went right over my head. He said, ‘Well, I guess when the trees are gone, we’ll be just like everybody else. We’ll just be like you.’ I thought, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ And it was only later, when I was looking at the [unedited footage] and I realized, my God! He’s saying something so profound, that to him, being who he is, his very essence as a Haida, doesn’t end at his skin or his fingertips. That it’s the air, the water, the trees, the fish, the birds, all of that is what makes him who he is. When you destroy one part of that, you destroy a part of who he is. And that just opened my eyes to this radically different idea.
Mongabay: Partly as a result of the documentary that you produced on the issue, the forests of the island are now better protected.
David Suzuki: Yes, the big victory was a recognition that the Haida, the Indigenous people, had something pretty important to tell us. They were saying, ‘We’re not protecting this area just for Haida people. This is a protection for humanity, as far into the future as we can go.’ And that was a very, very important thing. The Haida now basically have control over the management of that area, management through a Haida perspective. That is a huge victory.
We also had a major battle 20 years ago when the [Indigenous] Mohawks in Quebec fought against a development in what they call “The Pines,” a small pine forest. Now it’s a trivial piece of land compared to what they need. It’s not a huge part of their economic future, but they fought this. They shut down a bridge. People were killed over it. I mean, it was a real battle. Why? Because they felt it was just not right to build a golf course, and a condo, and a series of condominiums.
They were trying to exert their responsibility to care for that land, and that’s the big message that they have to give us. You have a responsibility to act, to receive the world as you got it from your ancestors, and to pass it on to future generations as you received it. That reciprocity of receiving and giving back is what’s missing in the society that we now live in. We can use air, water, soil as a garbage can, and we don’t feel any responsibility.
Mongabay: You say that we need to move to an eco-centric world view. How do we get there?
David Suzuki: Well, I mean, that’s the real challenge. And, of course, we’ve had five centuries of denigration of Indigenous people everywhere. They’ve been regarded as savages, as primitive, that they had nothing to teach us. Nevertheless, there are remnants of that worldview. And we first have to recognize and honor that their worldview is rational, is credible, and has something to teach us. A Miꞌkmaq elder named Albert Marshall from Nova Scotia said, ‘We have to have two-eyed seeing — two eyes, one Indigenous and the other one [scientific] and Western. And that together, the two-eyed seeing allows us to see the world as it really is.’
Mongabay: You started as an environmental communicator in the 1970s. How has your own thinking about the environment evolved? Obviously, we didn’t know as much about climate change back then as we do today.
David Suzuki: No, absolutely. I remember doing a film about global warming in 1990, and writing global warming is a serious threat, but it’s a slow-motion catastrophe. Back in 1990, I thought we had decades to do the right things. I never imagined that a rise as little as 0.9° [Celsius] would already have such really remarkable impacts on the biosphere.
Mongabay: We created the problem with our technology. Can we solve it the same way?
David Suzuki: When I was just beginning my senior year at Amherst College, and the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, it was electrifying. We were in the Cold War, and in 1962, John F. Kennedy said, “We will get astronauts to the moon and back within a decade.” At that time, Kennedy and the experts, they really didn’t know how the hell they would do it. But look at the results. Not only did America land a man on the moon, but every year, NASA publishes a magazine called Spinoff that is filled with hundreds of technologies and businesses that have spun off from the space program. Nobody knew there would be GPS, laptop computers, ear thermometers, space blankets, 24-hour news channels. I mean, all of that resulted because America said, ‘We choose to beat the Russians to the moon.’
Mongabay: So, it shows that we could have the same kind of success addressing the climate crisis if we set our minds to it?
David Suzuki: I go to the States, and I say, ‘It is un-American to say we can’t do anything about climate change, like it’ll be too expensive, it’s too far gone.’ That’s not the America that I knew.
Mongabay: The future of our planet is at stake, and we’re unwilling to mount this kind of all-hands-on-board effort. Why not?
David Suzuki: There’s a book about this just published in Canada called The Petroleum Papers. Did you know that the fossil fuel industry, through the American Petroleum Institute, held a meeting in 1959, and Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, got up and told those people, those CEOs and all, that burning fossil fuels liberates a pollutant called carbon dioxide, and the greenhouse gas properties of CO2 are warming the planet. And if we don’t do something about it by the end of this century, we could be in deep trouble.
So, they’ve known since 1959. Exxon’s own scientist in the 1970s, James Black, was saying this. The American Petroleum Institute President, Frank Ikard, who later became a politician, said in the late 1960s— ‘Burning fossil fuels is warming the planet, and by the year 2000 could very well be out of control.’ They knew it all at that time. And what did they do? They chose to hire people from the tobacco industry and use their PR specialist to say, ‘No, no, no, no, the evidence isn’t in. This is a crude science. Warming is natural. This is a part of the natural cycle,’ even while they knew what the science told them. It is disgraceful. Why aren’t any of these people in jail?
Mongabay: You are a scientist. Are those who know the science just not framing the message in the right way so that people don’t feel the urgency of it?
David Suzuki: It may very well be. We [scientists] have never put a high premium on the responsibility of translating our work into language that was understandable. But when you consider Exxon itself, as well as the other major petroleum companies, have spent [a fortune] on advertising to tell us it’s not true, and to denigrate scientists, this is the thing that absolutely demolishes me. We scientists are not good at telling you what the solutions are. We’re very good at telling you what the state of the planet is, we’ve got all this amplified capacity of the scientific community to look ahead, and not to listen to that, is, I think, a deliberate result of the success of the PR campaign by corporations.
Mongabay: The young are now leading the fight against climate change— surprisingly.
David Suzuki: Well, no, that shouldn’t surprise us. They’re the ones that are going to pay the price. This is why Greta [Thunberg] has had such an enormous impact because she cut through all of the garbage and just said, ‘I take science seriously, and I don’t have a future. Why should I go to school?’
Let’s get elders from the scientific community, people who’ve spent their lives in science but can now sit back and look at the bigger implications…we need to get them [involved as well.] The thing about elders that’s different in society is they don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass to get a job, or a raise, or a promotion. They’re beyond worrying about money or power or celebrity so that they can speak a kind of truth like Greta.
Mongabay: So, what you’re suggesting is that both ends of the spectrum — the young and the old — should get together and form an alliance that could be powerful enough to really change things.
David Suzuki: The young, the elders, and the Indigenous people, what a powerful triumvirate that would be.
Mongabay: So much of the environmental news nowadays is depressing. What gives you hope?
David Suzuki: We’ve got to be depressed. And if you’re not depressed, I don’t know what will depress you. So why do I continue on? You remember [the popular cartoon] Roadrunner being chased by Wile E. Coyote? He comes to the edge of a cliff, and he turns 90 degrees. But Wile E. Coyote is going so fast, he goes right over the edge. And there’s that moment when he’s standing there going, ‘Oh,’ and he’s suspended. And then down he goes. We’re there. Climate change has kicked in. We’re losing 200 and some odd species a day. We’re over the edge of the cliff.
But then they say, ‘Well, is it too late? We can’t do anything.’ No. It depends on how far you fall. Wile E. Coyote falls right to the canyon bottom. I want to be sure that we catch onto a ledge somewhere. So, we’re over the edge, but I’m doing my damnedest [to make sure that we catch] that nearest ledge. To me, hope is action. Because in acting, it indicates we believe we can have an effect. So, if we aren’t all activists and acting, then there is no hope. Hope is action.
Richard Schiffman is a reporter, author, and poet based in New York City. His latest poetry collection, What the Dust Doesn’t Know, was published by Salmon Poetry.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan and marine biologist Sara Iverson discuss the blending of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge with Western science, i.e. ‘two-eyed seeing,’ listen here:
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