Has the Environmental Movement Failed? A Conversation with Dr. David Suzuki
Dr. David Suzuki discusses the environmental movement’s failure to sustain its victories and the vision that will be needed to ensure public support for environmental protection
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News, reporting from Vancouver, British Columbia. Today we have the opportunity to speak with Dr. David Suzuki, a legendary figure from Canada’s environmental movement. Dr. Suzuki has authored over 55 books. He’s a scientist, he’s a broadcaster, he is the recipient of the United Nations Environmental Programme medal, and he has been an ubiquitous voice in defense of environmental rights and causes in this country. It’s a privilege to have you today. Thank you for joining us.
DAVID SUZUKI: Good to be here.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I wanted to start by touching on a statement that you made in the last few years. Actually, you’ve made it a few times I think. You expressed a view, which was quite startling to those of us who’ve seen your tremendous work in the field of the environment; that the environmental movement has failed ultimately. In what sense do you think it’s failed? And what are the causes of that failure?
DAVID SUZUKI: There is no question that ever since Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, came out in 1962, there’s been a huge change in public awareness. When her book came out, there wasn’t a single department of the environment in any government on the planet. Her book changed everything. We began to take the environment seriously. Because of her book, I believe, we have departments of the environment all over the world in every level of government. We’ve got laws to protect air, water, soil, endangered species and millions of hectares of land are protected now in force. So, we can’t say the environmental movement hasn’t achieved anything, but I think back on some of the major battles that I’ve been involved with back in the 70s and 80s.
We were fighting against the writers on American legislation to allow oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I did three programs on the porcupine caribou herd that helped to stop that proposal. We stopped the proposal to bring supertankers from the north slopes of Alaska through British Columbia waters to Seattle to refine that oil. David Anderson was one of the leaders at that time. He fought it and stopped it. We fought it and stopped the dam at Site C on the Peace River. My wife and I got very involved stopping a dam in the Xingu River in Brazil. All of those we thought were great victories of the environmental movement. And yet, every one of those has come back and is still an issue.
The dam we stopped at Site C is now 1/4 of the way to being built; it’s already started. The dam we stopped at Altamira in Brazil is already going full blast. The proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — still there. We’re bringing supertankers not from the Americans’ north slopes but from our own outlets. So, what’s happened? What we thought were victories, were not victories at all. They were temporary and they were skirmishes, because the deep underlying cause of our destructiveness hasn’t really been touched by those battles that are going on. I feel that there is a need to change our relationship with the planet.
So long as we look at air, water and soil as resources, and all we’re debating is how much will it cost to use them, we haven’t really come to grips with the reality that we are biological creatures. If you don’t have air for more than three minutes you’re dead. If you have to breathe polluted air, you’re sick. So, I would’ve thought clean air is the highest priority of any group of people on the planet, and it’s the same with water. You and I are 60 to 70% water by weight, but the water leaks out of our skin, and our mouth, and our crotch, and we lose water. If you don’t have water for four to six days you’re dead. If you have to drink polluted water you’re sick.
So, clean water is like clean air. And I can go through; clean soil that gives us our food and clean energy that comes from the sun. Those things are what keep us alive and healthy. I would’ve thought that any society would have used those as the foundation of the way that we live. Indeed, I call those things, that indigenous people around the world call the four sacred elements; earth, air, fire and water. Those are sacred. You can’t put a value on them — they’re sacred. I would’ve thought any group would fight like mad to protect those sacred things.
The problem today is that we’re constantly left with saying, “Well, you environmentalists, you want to do this. What about the jobs? You’re going to destroy the economy.” We had a prime minister for 9-1/2 years who said we can’t do anything about climate change, it’ll destroy the economy. I don’t think he believed that climate change was real, but Stephen Harper elevated … the very air that keeps us alive, he elevated the economy above that. If that isn’t suicidal, I don’t know what is. The challenge, I believe, is to shift people’s way of seeing the world, and realizing that we are biological creatures embedded in a world that allows us to live happily and healthily and with prosperity.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: We talked about the radically different perspective of people like Stephen Harper. Of course, his reign came to an end in 2015 after Justin Trudeau’s liberals ascended to power. Recently, Bill McKibben authored an op-ed in the Guardian, in which he reviewed the discrepancy between the rhetoric of the liberal government and the reality of its action in regard to the climate crisis, and his conclusion was quite stark and harsh. It was essentially that Justin Trudeau was a disaster-
DAVID SUZUKI: And it was absolutely right. Absolutely right. And another article that came out, either a little before or after that, I said Justin Trudeau is a liar. He lied to us. He based his campaign on a number of things that he simply hasn’t got or come through on. One of the important issues is climate change. Now, it’s true only two months after he was elected they went to Paris. They’re brand-new, they went to Paris, and not only did he say, “We agree to limiting our emissions to keep temperature below 2° this century,” he said, “We want to hit 1-1/2°. That is a deep target to aim at, because we’ve already used more than one degree, so we don’t have much wiggle room.
If that’s true … And shortly after he came back, I sent him a long letter. I said, “Are you serious about Paris?” And he wrote back and said, “Yes, I’m serious.” Okay. If that’s true, we know on the basis of physics how much more carbon can be liberated into the atmosphere from Canada. That means that 80% or more of our known fossil fuel reserves have to be left in the ground. If that’s true, and if we’re serious about Paris, why are we still subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, the most profitable sector in society, to the point of over $3 billion a year? Why are we supporting any more exploration for more oil? The Arctic is opening up because it doesn’t get cold enough.
They’re saying, “Oh, great. We can get into the … ” No. We shouldn’t even be looking for more. 80% of it … What we know has already got to be left there. Why are we going after extreme oil like tar sands and deepwater oil or fracking? I mean, these are all crazy things that have to be abandoned immediately because we can use the readily accessible ones. Most of it’s gotta be left in the ground. Why would we build a new pipeline? If you build a new pipeline, you gotta use it for 20 to 30 years to make it make any sense. We know that we can’t have a food supply chain where food is grown more than 3,000 miles where it’s grown to where it’s consumed. You can’t do that. So, the North, the Peace River Valley that’s going to be flooded by the dam at Site C, should be the breadbasket of the north.
And yet, we’re gonna go ahead and flood the thing for energy. Why? Why do we need that dam? So that we can fuel LNG plants that are talked about being [crosstalk 00:08:34] built. Yeah. I think Christy Clark, at one time said 16 LNG plants. Are we going to have 16 dams as big as the dam at Site C? This is crazy. And it’s not LNG, it’s LFG; liquefied frack gas. Fracking has gotta be the dumbest way you can imagine to get energy. It’s not just a matter of drilling in holes. You pump water in there for heaven sakes. Clean water, laced with chemicals, that will never be usable again. What the hell is this? It defies sense. It doesn’t make any sense.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, what is going on here? You expressed some skepticism — fully justified — about whether Stephen Harper actually believed the climate science. Is ultimately Justin Trudeau also a climate skeptic? Is he indifferent to the future of our children? Is he simply beholden to the fossil fuels industry? What accounts for this massive discrepancy between the rhetoric [crosstalk 00:09:32] and the reality-
DAVID SUZUKI: That is the $64 question. I don’t know. I’m assuming that it’s because politics now intervenes. And politics, of course, is based on action that will reward you before the next election. And taking serious action to get Canada off fossil fuels, on to renewable energy, is a huge opportunity but it’s going to take a lot of money upfront and the payoff will come several elections down the line. Why would any politician, whose only focused on the next election, do something where he’s going to get pounded because it’s gonna cost billions of dollars, so that some other politician, 10, 15, 20 years down the line will say, “See? Canada’s done a great job”? It doesn’t make any political sense.
Trudeau was such a breath of fresh air after Harper, because I believe Harper should be in jail. In the corporate sector, if you have someone running your corporation, who deliberately ignores information that is critical to his doing his job, they can be thrown in jail for willful blindness. Well, what is more willful blindness than deliberately firing hundreds of scientists working for government, for limiting what any scientist working for government can say to the public, for not even mentioning the word “climate change,” for acting as if climate change is not an issue? If that isn’t willful blindness, I don’t know what is.
Because Canada, of all of the industrialized countries in the world, is probably more vulnerable to climate change than any of them. Why? We’re a northern country, and in the North you know that the warming is going out at a much greater rate, and the Inuit have been telling us for 40 years that something weird is happening. We have the longest marine coastline of any country in the world. Water, when it warms, expands. Sea level rise, just from the warming of the water, is going to affect us more than any other country. And when the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica fall in, you’re gonna see sea level rises of meters. Canada’s gonna get hammered by that-
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And particularly here in Vancouver. You have … I think Richmond [crosstalk 00:11:50]-
DAVID SUZUKI: Absolutely. Every coastal area and most of our big cities — well, a lot of them — are hugging the coast. Then you think of all of the climate-affected activities like agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism, winter sports. All of those are going to be hammered by climate change, and to deliberately ignore those, I think it’s criminal. There is an intergenerational issue that I think really raises its head. We don’t have any mechanism to hold one generation responsible for what they leave another generation. So that what we’re doing is, we’re living in a time when political and corporate activity is all focused on very short-term agendas; profit for the company in the next quarterly report or success in the next election.
And meanwhile, you’ve got the next generations coming up, that are gonna inherit the consequences of what is or is not done now. I’ve just written a letter to our minister in the environment and climate change. It’s not the minister of the environment. Minister of environment and climate change. I’ve met Catherine McKenna a number of times. She’s smart, she gets it. I just wrote her and I said, “Dear minister … ” I said, “You know how serious this issue is, and if you know that, you also know that scientists are now saying it’s a question of whether our species is going to survive by the end of this century. Whatever … ”
And what I told her was, “Whatever you do or do not do, it’s gonna have very little effect on me — I’m an old man — but I guarantee you it’s going to reverberate in the lives of your children. You have young children. Now, what the hell’s going on? Your government is not making anything like the big decisions that you have the power to make, and you’re not doing it. And it’s your children … Forget the politics … It’s your children we’re talking about now. Why did you even run for office if you’re not going to do something to protect our children?” We just don’t hold politicians accountable, and I’m convinced the reason Hillary is so hated … I couldn’t understand the venom towards Hillary compared to Trump; they’re in totally different leagues.
I realize now, one of the things about Hillary is she’s been in politics for decades. Most politicians come in, they do their time, and they disappear. Who knows about past presidents or prime ministers? We don’t hold them accountable. And here’s Hillary, being a politician, and she gets hammered for what Bill did, she gets hammered for all kinds of other things. But that’s because she’s one of the few politicians that’s hung around long enough to get lumbered with the question of, “Well, you’re responsible for these bad things.” We need a way of holding our people accountable.
Now, my wife had a wonderful suggestion; she’s way smarter than I am. She said, “We don’t have any mechanism … ” because politicians are looking from election to election. We don’t have any mechanism to hold them to account, but we have an unelected Senate. Our senators don’t have to run for office. So, they should be the ones that are … We talk about sober second thought. Yes, but they ought to be thinking, not about the economy or corporations or any of … They ought to be saying, “Look, if we pass this bill, what’s that going to do seven generations down the line?” They are our safeguard potentially to take that longer range.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. Since we’re on the subject of subsequent generations, I wanted to ask you about your grandson, Tamo Campos, who a few years ago, in an act of peaceful civil disobedience on Burnaby Mountain was arrested shockingly by the RCMP, and this was in regard to the Kinder Morgan trans-mountain pipeline expansion-
DAVID SUZUKI: Along with his mother, my daughter, and his sister.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I wasn’t aware of that. Wow. Virtually the whole family. So, you wrote a very powerful letter in defense of your grandson. I want to ask you about the role of civil disobedience. Given the dire circumstances in which we now find ourselves, isn’t civil disobedience now an indispensable tactic [crosstalk 00:16:12]
DAVID SUZUKI: Civil disobedience has to be a tactic. I worry that there are those who see very clearly the crisis we’re in, that are saying, “What the hell? I’ve got nothing to lose,” and who are going to do far more than just respond to civil disobedience; they’re gonna be much more violent. That’s what worries me, but there’s no question … When you look at the kind of influence corporations now have, we’re not talking about a million dollars or 10 million.
We’re talking about billions of dollars being poured by the private sector into all kinds of causes; right wing causes, supporting think tanks, supporting so-called journalists, and even television and radio channels and networks. You gotta say, how on earth do we balance that? And civil disobedience is, to me, a very innocuous form of objection. When people are actually willing to go to jail for what they believe in, that’s …
DIMITRI LASCARIS: That’s powerful.
DAVID SUZUKI: Yes.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: While we’re on the subject of legalities, last thing I want to ask you about is the Blue Dot Tour. As I understand it, what you’ve conceived of is a constitutional amendment to give exalted status to the environment. Can you talk to us a little bit about what you have in mind?
DAVID SUZUKI: Well, it wasn’t my idea, although I jumped on it as soon as it was proposed. It was David Boyd, who is a very eminent lawyer and environmental thinker; he’s published a number of books. He came to the David Suzuki Foundation and said, “You know, we ought to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in our Constitution.” Now, I personally would like to enshrine the right of nature in our legal system, and some countries have done that, like Ecuador and Bolivia but we’re not that far along. The question is, what is the right to a healthy environment? Well, guess what? It’s clean air, clean water, clean soil and we think that every Canadian should believe that that’s one of the things this country stands for.
So, we floated this idea of trying to get the support for this on a broad range across the country. Now, we called it the Blue Dot Movement, the “blue dot” being this blue planet, and the first thing we did — because the David Suzuki foundation works with indigenous people — was consult the indigenous leaders across the country. And they said right away, “What the hell? That’s what we’ve been fighting for.” When you look at our saying, honor the treaty, those treaties say that we have a right to live in the traditional way that we always have. That’s clean air, clean water, clean soil. [inaudible 00:18:52] and they jumped right on to partner with us.
So, we started to tour across Canada three years ago and we started in Newfoundland and came across the Vancouver, and every 22 stops bringing indigenous people and well-known people; Margaret Atwood, the artist Bob Bateman, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn. We had just this eminent [inaudible 00:19:19]. The Royal Ballet in Winnipeg composed the thing, they danced for us. It was just a marvelous event, trying to get local grassroots support for the idea of a constitutional amendment. We now have 150 — very good number for our 150th birthday — 150 municipalities that have endorsed the idea of a right to a healthy environment.
That includes Vancouver, it includes Toronto, Montréal, Halifax, Yellowknife. It means that one in every three Canadians now lives in a jurisdiction that has endorsed the Blue Dot idea. So, now we’re taking it to the federal level, and beginning to try to seek support from specific politicians to endorse the idea of putting this in our charter of rights and freedoms.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: We wish you the very best [crosstalk 00:20:16]-
DAVID SUZUKI: To me, whether we actually get it or not is not as important as the conversation that we’re having, and seeing the response at the grassroots level for this idea; that fills me with great hope.