As most Canadians who have seen him on television or heard him on the CBC would agree, David Suzuki’s impassioned ecological issue pleas packs a powerful punch to the heart, as well as the mind of the listener.
As one of the pioneers of what is now known as the environmental movement, he shows no signs of slowing down, and looking around at the audience of the Concordia auditorium where he spoke last week, people are still very much listening.
Calling on his rapt audience to develop a world view that recognizes how interconnected life is, he said emphatically “The way we see the world, is the way we’ll treat it.” Adding that “Air is the first thing we need when we’re born and the one thing we need 15 to 40 times a minute until we die. Even at the end of an exhale our lungs are still half full of air.” He concedes that we are air, water, earth and the sun – literally.
In one analogy, he points out our proximity to air by noting that our lungs cells’ have the same surface area as a tennis court, and that at a reduced scale, the earth can be seen as a basketball and the atmosphere a mere layer of saran wrap. People with asthma he concludes, are the so called “canaries in a coal mine”, indicating the poor quality of the air that we breathe.
Although many of these explanations may be seen as simplistic, Suzuki clearly knows the hardcore science behind his assertions. A PHD graduate in Zoology at the University of Chicago, who has taught at both University of Alberta and UBC, Suzuki went on to produce the CBC radio science program Quirks and Quarks and has been host of the science TV show The Nature of Things since 1979 when it first aired. Since then he has also authored and co-authored countless books on science and environmental issues, and was awarded fifteen honorary doctorates from universities in Canada, the U.S., and Australia.
But even with all these accolades he maintains a steady message. He expresses much frustration with the common misconception that a ‘healthy’ economy will make for a healthy environment. An intrinsically flawed theory, it becomes clear in his speech that a good economy isn’t good for all human beings, let alone other species. If unemployment and pollution are the necessary evils of a thriving economy, then Suzuki’s not buying.
This is all fine and good, but what does an individual pressured by industrial and consumer forces do to slow his or her own contribution to waste and destruction?
With the same breath that he uses to inform us about the detriments of metal from computers, or clothing from The Gap or Nike, Suzuki directs listeners to his foundation’s web site, where there is an initiative called “The Nature Challenge”, which seeks to collect names of people committed to at least three strategies to reduce their own ecological footprint.
When asked what unique habits he’s put into practice in his own life to promote sustainability, he admits that his wife dragged him kicking and screaming into reducing the garbage that comes out of their household.
His first response to her resolution was, “Listen, I’m too busy to start pulling staples out of paper, and separating paper into fine paper, and running plastic up to the recycling.”
Eventually, though, they did manage to put out only one bag of garbage a month.
“When you confront the issue of garbage, you really confront your consumptive habits, and you really have to let a lot of things go because it’s not acceptable. The thing that I’m ashamed of is half the garbage we do put out is still non-recyclable plastics that we just can’t avoid,” he says.
Suzuki bought the first Prius Hybrid car sold in North America. Still, he and his family try to cycle or take public transit, and if a destination is less than 10 blocks they walk.
“The North American automobile fleet gets less mileage per gallon than a model A Ford did in 1917. That’s because half our fleet now are SUVs,” says Suzuki.
The biggest dilemma Suzuki faces as an individual is the huge amount of green house gas generated whenever he flies; and he flies a lot.
Friends of the Earth Holland estimate that the ability of Holland’s trees to reabsorb carbon dioxide would afford each individual only one long plane trip a lifetime.
Suzuki rationalizes, “No one can live perfectly right now. We’re in a period of transition and the most important thing is to share information and catalyze that change.”
The David Suzuki Foundation purchases green energy to compensate for the carbon dioxide generated in flight or through other energy use.
It seems that many of us have known who David Suzuki is and what he stands for our whole lives, even if it was only a vague notion at first.
While he’s been an effective presence in the public debate over the environment for 40-odd years now, he says that when he was first studying genetics, there was no debate.
The potent combination of having a university professor’s tenure and a consistent public forum with the CBC, Suzuki has been able to speak out without ever selling out. The steady independence of his voice is a rare thing in our corporately funded society.
He points out that, “whoever pays the piper calls the shots.”
As tempted as he may have been to know how much advertisers would have paid, Suzuki never accepted sponsorship offers. Even Atomic Energy of Canada approached him once, but he would have none of it.
His advice to young people terrified of selling out is not particularly novel but valuable nonetheless. “You have to identify your principles, and don’t violate those.”
To learn more about the Nature Challenge and other initiatives from the David Suzuki Foundation, visit www.davidsuzuki.org