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Interview with David Suzuki

March 5, 2012

Dr David Suzuki... a little while ago

About a year ago I had the privilege of interviewing David Suzuki. I’ll admit, with much shame, that I wasn’t too familiar with his work until I had to research him for this interview.

Once I’d done my background I was pretty excited, and pretty terrified.

I’ve included the full transcript, which is horrendously cumbersome for web, however I think it’s got some great quotes from the man himself, and is well worth having online in its entirety. You might want to grab a cuppa or a glass of wine!

___

Lou Pardi interview with David Suzuki, 11 February 2011

Dr Suzuki:
I’m in British Columbia, up near the tip of Alaska and my daughter is married to an aboriginal person and lives on the reserve here. So I’m visiting my grandson and it’s beautiful out.

Lou:
How fantastic, you’re coming to Australia for the film. How did the film come about? Had you always thought that you’d make one or was it a reasonably new idea?

Dr Suzuki:
I’ve always been impressed with the impact that feature films have. I’ve been doing television since 1962 and when people watch TV, they’re watching it usually in a big chunk of time. They have to go to the bathroom, or put the kids to bed, or let the dogs out. They’re not focused tightly, but when people go to a movie they’ve paid money and they’re going to sit there for two hours and watch. It has a very different impact and I remember I was in the audience when Dances with Wolves first came out and the impact of that film on native and non native people alike was immense. I remember when Crocodile Dundee came out and you know, people suddenly had a different attitude towards Australia and so feature films can have a huge impact. And so I was asked three years ago if I would be interested in getting involved in a feature film and I jumped at the chance. When I said yes I had no idea I would end up the central part of the film, that’s not what I had in mind.

Lou:
How did that come about?

Dr Suzuki:
There was a fellow named Laszlo Barna who is a long time film maker for television and feature films and he asked if he could meet with me. He told me he would like to do something in the area that I was interested in, so I then wrote up a very long proposal which was kind of like a… have you seen the movie Avatar? [Lou: No, not yet] Well, I saw it as a big budget film with a lot of computer graphics and basically I wanted to do the story of creation – that is from the Big Bang 14 million years ago, to the evolution of the planet, to the evolution of life, to the evolution of human beings, right up to the present. So I had this grand sweep where I was going to talk about the creation of the universe and where humans fit in and that was very quickly abandoned by the people and Laszlo brought on a man named Sturla Gunnarsson who is a very immanent director of films and Laszlo and Sturla came to a number of speeches that I was giving and then Sturla evolved the idea of the film which was to use my life as a way of hanging a number of very important… like he used my life to illustrate a number of issues that have come up from the civil rights movement to the atomic bomb over Japan to genetic engineering to the environmental crisis.

Lou:
What did you want to communicate through that…

Dr Suzuki:
Well the way that the film evolved, I got this idea, ‘look if you’re going to focus on me, why don’t I speak as an elder: someone who is no longer pressured by the desire for fame or power or money or sex.’ You know, as an elder you’re freed of a lot of these constraints or pressures that drive you when you’re a younger person. So, is there anything in reflecting back over a lifetime, is there anything in my life that I think that I would like to pass on to future generations as a legacy. And so I constructed, working with Sturla, we worked for months, I must have gone through 20 different versions of a speech I would give. A the time it [the film] was called The Last Lecture. The idea being I was retiring from the university and would I present my legacy speech to the university community. So that was filmed and then became the spine, or the backbone of the film but the message basically was an environmental message that had become much clearer in my mind.

David Suzuki still some time ago

Lou:
You’ve been in media a long time as you mentioned, is this project more or less exposing than the work that you’ve done before?

Dr Suzuki:
It’s a distillation of a lot of ideas and experiences that I’ve had over a lifetime. So, I mean I’ve written two autobiographies, what a conceit, eh? To write two autobiographies. I wrote one when I was 50 and then when I was 70. I said, ‘gee I left out a lot of stuff,’ so I wrote another one. People have known, basically, followed my evolution, but this was a distillate of my thoughts and I’m very, very pleased with it as well as the book that came out of it, which summarises a great deal of what I’m thinking today.

Lou:
So how likely is it that we’ll need another one of these films in ten years time from you?

Dr Suzuki:
Well it won’t be from me, I’ll probably be long gone. As I say, no I say I’m in the death zone now, when you get to be 75, and I will be next month, you’re in last part of your life and so far I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve got good health but I know that at my age people are dropping like flies all around me and one day it’s going to be me. So I have no desire to look forward to ten more years. I’m going to do something else. No, that’s it for me.

Lou:
So is this your… not that you were ever a swan, but your swansong?

Dr Suzuki:
Well I don’t want to call it a swansong but it was a big effort. I’m very pleased with it. The film is not my film it’s Sterla’s film it’s Sterla’s idea of a film. He created it and you know summarised my life in 90 minutes, so it’s a very different film from what I would have given. But I think a lot of the ideas are out and I really want to focus now on spending a great deal of time with my grandchildren and I, you know my wife has said, ‘David, stop talking about (you know), just kind of disappearing,’ because, she said, ‘you know, you’re still healthy and you believe passionately in what you’re doing, so just keep doing it, but maybe take a little more time for your family and people that really matter to you.’ So that’s what I’d like to do, I will still comment and give speeches and write but a great deal of my time will be like this, I just took off for five days to spend time with my grandson here.

Lou:
Amazing. So you’ve done a lot in this lifetime is there a bucket list of things that you’ve missed that you need to do, besides spending time with family?

Dr Suzuki:
No, I’ve had a bellyful of travelling, and I’ve got a carbon footprint from flying that I have to pay penance for somehow and travel… you know of course travel is very exciting but at my age the idea of travelling doesn’t hold the same excitement that it once did. I would like to spend more time in places that are very special to me. Right now where I am is a very, very special place and if you see my film, you’ll see why this is so special for me. It’s not only where my grandson is but it was where I became involved with first nations people in Canada in the late 1970s.

I would dearly love to spend a long chunk of time in Australia, which became like my second home. I fell in love with Australia in 1988 when I made my first visit. About four years ago I said I’m never coming back to Australia because of the carbon footprint. It’s so far away, I couldn’t stand the carbon output, but last year I was persuaded to come back when I publishedThe Legacy and here I am six months later coming back again for the launch of the film. So I don’t know, if I ever get a chance, I would love to spend six months or something in Australia where I love the people. I love the country.

Lou:
We’d love to have you, it would be very exciting for us. I think that anywhere you travel, taking into account carbon footprint, surely the knowledge that you bring and the minds that you shift must mitigate that.

Dr Suzuki:
Well that’s… thank you for that, I, you know, the rationalisation I have of course… for five years I paid for carbon offsets; that is to compensate for all the carbon I make, I invest money in building solar and wind turbines in other parts of he world, but that’s not a reduction. I have to reduce my carbon output and what I say is, right now nobody is living the way we’re going to ultimately have to live. We all live with contradictions, society has to be re-made so that we don’t have to use a car, so that there will be all kinds of… you know, you don’t have to drive to work. We’re going to have to redesign the places that we live. Nobody is living the way that we are aiming for,say in a generation, and right now the most important thing is to spread ideas, so I justify in my mind the travel that I do, by the fact that I hope I’m spreading ideas that are helping us all work towards that sustainable future.

Lou:
There are very few people like you and people like you do seem to be getting older. Who… do you have someone waiting in the wings?

Dr Suzuki:
There are you know, no movement that’s a serious movement can depend on one or a few individuals. Of course with the economic melt down in 2008, everybody focussed on the economy, but I think when we begin to realise that the ecological crisis that we face is going to be economically disastrous if we don’t do something about it, then I think you’re going to see much more of a focus on getting on with doing the right thing. I see all kinds of young people very different from my generation or your generation, they’re coming up much more aware, much more aware that their lives are going to be very, very different, the world is not going to be the same for them as it has been for their parents. I hope that the young people are going to drive this now. Basically, knocking their parents and saying, ‘look mum and dad, you guys have lived like kings and queens and now you guys had better start doing something for me and my children.’ So I think young people are going to, I hope, encourage their parents and that generation to get going on doing some good things.

Let me just ask you now, out of curiosity, have the disastrous floods and that hurricane that hit Australia got people thinking more seriously about climate change?

Lou:
I would love to say yes, but it’s not strongly reflected, not in mainstream media. They kind of say: the last time this happened was in 1970-X and it happens ever so and so years, so it is being pushed as kind of a cyclic thing I guess. Those who are even mildly aware know that this is highly unusual and bizarre. But unfortunately…

Dr Suzuki:
That’s the thing that’s the thing that I find really terrifying, because it’s crystal clear now, you know even in the media we tend to say, ‘oh that cyclone or these floods these are natural disasters.’ They’re not natural anymore you see. So a lot of us are now referring to climate change as climate chaos. What we’ve done, human activity, through burning fossil fuels, has changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and now climate is chaotic. We can’t depend on patterns anymore, because humans have upset the whole natural cycles and the balance, so to look at these severe cycles or floods now or droughts, you’ve had a long drought, as if somehow these are a natural process, is a way of not having to face the reality that we’re causing it.

Lou:
Absolutely. You’ve studied zoology and met a lot of people. What is it about this species, of humans, that makes them behave this way?

Dr Suzuki:
Well that’s a big issue you see, when I started in television – I did my first television series in 1962 and I was appalled at the level of illiteracy, the lack of understanding about the impact of science, by the general public. So I thought I would use television to inform people about what’s going on, to provide them with information about the exciting discoveries going on in science, so that people would be better informed and make better decisions about how science would be used to affect their lives. But what I have found is that people don’t respond rationally. I mean, we can be a very rational creature but just look at the response of the Tea Party in the United States for example, or all of these sceptics who don’t believe in global warming, it’s got nothing to do with science or information anymore, they’re responding in a gut emotional way and they’re being whipped into a frenzy and denying the great ability of human beings, which is to use your brain and look at the facts and figure things out. I mean science is one of those great human activities, that is the pinnacle of human thought and yet we’re now denying them. Every time I hear some commentator say climate change is balony or junk science, that is an absolute attack on science itself. The scientific community overwhelmingly is saying that climate change is happening and humans are causing it, you know the national academy of science is in the US, the leading scientists, the Royal Society Of London, I don’t know what your society is in Australia do you have a society of the top scientists in Australia?

Lou:
No doubt we do I don’t know their exact name.

Dr Suzuki:
You do, and I know that the Australians, Canadians, all the leading scientists are saying climate change is happening. We’re causing it and we better do something. So every time someone gets up, and I know that you have commentators on television that are saying it’s balony, I got interviewed by one of them when I was there last. This is an attack on science itself, because they’re denying the validity and the credibility of the scientific community and then it’s pure emotion and pure dogma and ideology and propaganda and all these other things come into play now, but it’s got nothing to do with science.

Lou:
Have you seen one of those people change their opinion?

Dr Suzuki:
No, and no because it’s got nothing to do with science, so you can no longer, it’s like arguing with a creationist who believes in the Bible, there is absolutely no point in entering that argument, because the argument is based on very, very different assumptions. I never debate a creationist. I know that evolution is a fact. It’s not a theory, it’s a fact and yet to argue, they begin with a totally different set of assumptions and values. There’s no point. So anyone that tells me there’s no evidence that climate change is being caused by human beings, I’m not interested in talking to them because it’s not about facts or science any longer and you’ll never convince that person.

Lou:
Do you think that they just have a different set of assumptions and they just don’t want to leave them or are they motivated by greed or some other…

Dr Suzuki:
No. They have a set of beliefs and they don’t have to change their mind because there’s so much misinformation out there that you don’t have to change your mind. I don’t know what your comparable newspaper is in Australia, but in Canada one of our national newspapers is called the National Post. If you don’t want to believe in global warming, only read the National Post. Because the National Post’s whole assumption, it would be like Fox News in the United States or any of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers or television networks, you just watch that and you don’t have to change your mind, so you don’t have to be convinced by anything, because the commentators and all of the reports support what you already believe. That’s the frightening thing: that the status of scientists on the global warming issue has gone down in last 20 years, less people in the United States believe the scientists than they did 20 years ago.

Lou:
So considering that humans in their time have evolved to do certain things and are highly evolved in some ways, and highly unevolved in other ways. Without emotional attachment, is it a species that should be saved, that’s worth saving?

Dr Suzuki:
Well, anybody that knows of love, of human love: the love I have for my grandson, the love I have for my wife, my family; that to me is that aspect of humanity that is magnificent. No other animal on the planet has that. I would never write us off as a species, but we are a flawed species and the tragedy is that we are flawed very recently because we’re turning our backs on the very means that has been our success. That is, looking at human beings, we evolved about 150,000 years ago in Africa. We weren’t a very impressive looking animal. You know, we’re basically a naked ape. We weren’t very fast, or strong, or endowed with special senses of vision or smelling or hearing. I mean we weren’t a very distinguished animal, but what we did have was a brain that was more complex than any other brain we know and that brain had a huge memory, it was very curious and it was very inventive and because of that brain we among all animals on the planet were the only ones that could say, ‘Gee, there’s a thing called a future.’

We invented the idea of the future and because we had this concept of a future, we could look ahead and say, ‘Gee, if I keep doing this, I’m going to get into trouble, but if I do that, I could avoid that trouble.’ Our ability to look ahead, foresight, was the great advantage that we had over any other creature and that’s what got us to where we are now. We’re the dominant animal on the planet. But now we’ve increased our ability to look ahead, we’ve got super computers, we’ve got scientists, we’ve got engineers. For over 40 years, the leading scientists of the world, looking ahead, have said we are heading down a very dangerous path.

There are alternatives: look if we go to solar, if we go to wind, if we begin to reduce our emissions, our toxic pollutants, we can have a richer future. But now, ideology, money, interfere with our ability to do what we always did for 150,000 years: look ahead, see the dangers and take action now to avoid the danger and exploit the opportunities. That was our great advantage and now we’re not taking advantage of it because people don’t want to. In 1988 leading scientists, climatologists said the proof is in, we’re changing the climate and this is what we’ve got to do. What happened? The fossil fuel industry in the name of profit has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting a handful of sceptics and jerks like Lord Christopher Monckton, that I know has come to Australia supporting people like… you’ve got this geologist there – you’ve got your deniers there too but the fossil fuel industry has created confusion on the part of the public by supporting websites that say global warming is junk science and all of that and so they’re undermining our ability to see what’s going on and to take what scientists say seriously.

It’s a tragedy, and I am absolutely sure that 100 years from now if humans are still around, they will look back and say, ‘Those people in the fossil fuel industry, those deliberate sceptics who know the evidence is in but say otherwise, they should have gone to jail.’ It’s an inter-generational crime what’s going on today.

Lou:
You’re still very passionate about it…

Dr Suzuki:
How can you not be passionate about a future for my grandchildren?

Lou:
Absolutely. How do you process that, or is your work part of processing that? Because I guess the more you know, the angrier you get and the easier it is to despair.

Dr Suzuki:
Well, I think that the biggest temptation is to give in to despair. And you know, once you despair you basically have said ‘it’s too late’. We used to say in the 1980s, ‘think globally, act locally’, I now think that is really wrong. For most people, when they think globally and see the immensity of the crisis we face, they feel ‘oh my God, it’s hopeless, it’s too late.’ They feel disempowered by the immensity of the challenge and so I think that Thomas Berry was right, we have to think locally and act locally to have any hope of being effective globally.

So get involved at the municipal level and there you can see things actually taking place. We have many cities in Canada that are going to reach the Kyoto target, in the city, of reducing greenhouse gases, so you can actually get things done and see it getting done. I don’t go to international meetings anymore because it’s too frustrating and it’s too gloomy to go to those things, to see all the grand pronouncements the United Nations and all these organisations make and see how little gets done. So focus locally and work away and if there are enough of us, there have to be millions and millions of us doing little bits, I believe that can achieve a great deal.

But I’m enough of a scientist to know we’re heading down a very, very dangerous path and there are many people, Clive Hamilton in Australia, do you know Clive? He’s one of your leading philosophers and environmentalists he’s just written a book Requiem for a Species I’ve read it, I’ve read it completely, and there’s nothing in there I disagree with. But he’s basically saying it’s too late.

Lou:
What’s your view on that, is it too late?

Dr Suzuki:
Well my view is, I can see why people like Clive and others are saying this and many environmentalists are saying that, but I don’t think anybody can say it’s too late because we don’t know enough to say it’s too late. You always have to have hope. We don’t know enough about how nature works. If we can pull back and give nature room, then you have to hope that nature will be far more forgiving than we deserve.

David Suzuki

Lou:
On ‘think locally and act locally.’ I speak with people in younger generations all the time and I’m always impressed by them and impressed by the education that some of them get in that sustainability is ingrained in some of the university courses and things like that. But they have amazing communities and they have grown up in a time when it is easy to be connected with people overseas. They have access to technology and they consider their community as being international. Is there… can they think locally and act locally – do they have that opportunity do you think?

Dr Suzuki:
Well I mean… that’s a very good question – I don’t know. My feeling is that necessity is going to impose itself. That is in Canada, we’re in the middle of Winter and in Canada in any town or city in the country, you can buy fresh strawberries, asparagus, lettuce and tomatoes. Where the hell do we think that’s grown? It’s not grown in Canada, unless they’re grown in greenhouses, which are very expensive in terms of energy. They’re shipped from half way around the world. I can buy an apple, right now in Canada for under a dollar and that apple comes from New Zealand.

Now it is crazy to me, that that apple can be sold at that lower price and has come half way around the world. We haven’t paid the true value of that apple, because all the greenhouse gas emissions and chemicals and things that were used to create that apple and ship it here – none of that is really included in the price of that apple. If we paid the true cost to the earth, of that apple, it would probably be 50 or 60 dollars each. So I think that right now you can get cheap deals on Europe and fly all over the place, I don’t think we’re going to be able to afford to fly because we’re going to have to start paying the earth cost of flying.

I think we’re going to have to eat much more seasonally and locally and be much more self-sufficient. That is, the global economy is trashing the planet and that’s why I thought in 2008 with the economic downturn that could have been an opportunity to really start living in a different way. There’s going to have to be a massive economic crisis when we begin to realise that we’re not paying the true price of the way that we’re living and then I think then I think young people are going to find that their way of life is radically different. One of the ways that we’re going to find that difference is in food. People are finding that we’re eating crap for food – it’s not healthy and much of our food is being processed and shipped half way around the world. So there’s a whole re-emergence of local – you know eating local and eating seasonal and food is going to be one of the entrees to the big changes that are going to happen. We’re going to have to be a much more local creature and we’re going to have to be much more self sufficient and dependant on our own resources and abilities.

Lou:
The bizarre thing is that that shouldn’t be a hard sell, because that’s a really enjoyable wonderful thing to do.

Dr Suzuki:
Well it will be, but the transition is going to be very, very difficult, we’ve got used to all of this cheap stuff and you know, people go shopping in Walmarts because people think this is great to buy all this crap they don’t need. But that’s what drives the economy. It’s not going to be easy.

We’ve got an economy now dependant on consumption, consumption that has got nothing to do with the basic needs in life or the quality of life, it’s just consumption for its own sake. Well to undergo a shift is going to be a huge, huge departure.

Lou:
Have you been involved in dialogue with any of those industries that rely on consumption?

Dr Suzuki:
Of course, I mean we’ve got to begin this discussion but the problem is that the corporations, however well-meaning they may be, they are still plugged into an economic system that considers nature basically free. That’s why they don’t want to pay a price to put carbon in the atmosphere. You mention a carbon tax to most corporations and they will start slobbering, like they just go crazy because they don’t want to pay that and they want – they belong to an economy where they think growth forever is not only necessary but is absolutely critical to keep progressing. That is, a company that is making lots of money, selling to 10% of the potential market, a company that says ‘look we’re happy staying at 10%, we don’t want to grow any further’, is a company that is considered to be dying.

Our economic system says that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. But steady growth forever is not possible, that’s the creed of a cancer cell. Cancer cells think they can grow forever, they can’t, and by trying to do that, they kill themselves and that’s exactly what’s happening with our economic system. Our economic system, thinks that the economy can grow forever, which it cannot, and that it must grow forever because that’s the definition of progress. Well this is suicidal, this is crazy and most corporations are in that economic system, so even though they mean well, they want to reduce their energy use, they want to reduce their pollution, they want to do all the good things…

I talk to Walmart all the time, they’re going to reduce their packaging to zero and their waste to zero and their energy to all renewable and that’s all wonderful but Walmart is basically a totally unsustainable corporation. You can’t keep growing the way they are and that’s the hard sell you see: it’s very, very difficult.

Lou:
What is their response to that, is it just that it’s not in their job description to consider anything outside that?

Dr Suzuki:
It’s the kind of thing that I was involved in the 1970s, when we were fighting the forest industry and the CEO of one of the big forest companies said to me, ‘Listen Suzuki, if you don’t like the way we’re clear cutting our forests, then your argument is not with me, it’s with the government. Everything that I do is legal, so if you think clear cutting is wrong, if you think the large size of the cleared areas is wrong, you talk to your government because I’m doing everything within the letter of the law.’ He was right. He said, ‘My job is to maximise profit for my shareholders and I’m good at it.’

And that’s the problem you see, his job is to make money and if he was to go to his shareholders and say, ‘Gee shareholders, I want to have forests forever so that 50 years from now we’ll still be logging and making money,’ the shareholders are going to say ‘Look, you can make a hell of a lot more money by clear cutting it now. I want you to clear cut it now.’ Because a shareholder isn’t in it for the long run, they don’t care about sustainability, they’re greedy, they want to invest and make as much money as they can and that’s what the CEO’s job is.

Lou:
Do you think that that’s changed at all since then?

Dr Suzuki:
Not much.

Lou:
I should absolutely let you go but if there was one message you wanted to deliver to Australia what would it be?

Dr Suzuki:
Well I think that my generation and the boomers that followed ought to be thinking about their legacy. What do they feel they want to be remembered for when they pass on? And I don’t think when you think about it that way – it’s not going to be the fact that you owned two big fancy cars, or a big house or a swimming pool or a closet full of fancy clothes. I think you’re going to want to be remembered for something more than that, like you know, things that I’ve done for other people, things that I’ve done for society. I mean what is Rupert Murdoch going to be remembered for? Are we all going to praise him and admire him because he was rich as could be? I wonder whether that’s what people are aspiring to. I would ask people to think about that as they’re getting on.

And to the young people I would say the most important lesson is that we are biological creatures. We’re animals and our most fundamental needs, if we want to stay healthy and survive, are: clean air, clean water, clean soil that gives us our food, clean energy that comes from the sun, and diversity of living things on the planet. Those things keep us alive and healthy. When you realise that, down to your very soul, then you know that the way that we’ve constructed society and our economy just is wrong.

We use air, water and soil as a dump for toxic chemicals and we think that’s ok. We’ve got to start thinking, ‘what are the things that keep us alive and healthy?’ And we’ve got to protect those above anything else. We’ve come to think the economy is everything. I’m sorry, if you don’t have a biosphere in which you get clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and diversity of living things you don’t have an economy. You don’t have economists you don’t have humans.

Ends

David Suzuki

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 3, 2012 2:21 pm

    Dr.Suzuki I believe is right to criticise the degradation of the environment. Imposing carbon tax is also a means of making money for the government the manufacturers and the suppliers of goods. Tax will not cut down pollution. However if research and development into energy generation
    by solar,wind and even tidal movement was financed by ALL the carbon tax collected then we should make progress towards achieveing the ideal biosphere Dr. Suzuki and many other scientists and citizens have been campaigning for.

    David Azzopardi

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