this man can't save you

Dr. David Suzuki has spent most of his life asking us to take nature seriously. Are we listening?

photo by erica blair

David Suzuki needs no introduction to most of the English-speaking world. Dr. Suzuki’s The Nature of Things is the most successful, internationally syndicated program of CBC Television. Over the last several decades it has won awards as an authoritative source of in-depth reporting on the wonders of the natural world we live in, often focusing on new insights arising from the sciences and medicine.

I first came to know David Suzuki in the early 1980s on a Nature of Things program called “Arctic Oil.” I was an environmental engineer turned advocate, working with the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee. We were trying, against what seemed to be overwhelming odds, to stop offshore drilling in Lancaster Sound, the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage – located at the western edge of Greenland’s “iceberg alley.” The government of Canada had already issued exploration leases. Oil companies were excited. Their surveys were indicating significant oil-bearing structures and they were stimulated by tax incentives so generous that most could actually make money without ever finding a drop of oil.

The drilling was portrayed as “progress and development” on the Arctic frontier. However, the environmental science, and on closer examination the engineering facts related to the risk of proceeding, both pointed in the opposite direction. David Suzuki, in a broadcast from the shores of the Arctic Ocean, brought the facts to life. Perceptions shifted, as did the political climate. No drilling took place. It was a victory of simple common sense, which, in the aftermath, has to be the strangest kind of victory there is.

Our paths crossed again twice in the late 1980s and early ’90s: once briefly for a Nature of Things program related to the health effects of pollution in the Great Lakes, and once for what became a two-hour special featuring a controversial World Bank–funded mega-project in India. I was the chief of staff to an independent review of what was described by the Bank as the largest civil engineering project in history – the damming of the Narmada River (see ascent issue #9, spring 2001). In both cases, what brought the real issues to life once again was Dr. Suzuki’s intense personal interest matched with the depth of his scientific knowledge and his ability to articulate a truth that is too often buried in technical reports, economic assumptions and political jargon.

We hadn’t been in touch for about ten years. In the interim, I had made the choice to move to an ashram, wanting to find a meaning behind the life I have been given – I thought that there must be a way of understanding human nature in the context of a larger Divine Nature. It was early morning when we connected again, this time over the telephone. It was a reunion of sorts, but I was startled when Dr. Suzuki began by saying that the scale of what was facing us now is well beyond anything that we had been involved with in the past. The picture he began to paint was of a planet groaning under the indiscriminate activity of its dominant species. And time is running out. I was wondering aloud what in God’s name this meant when I pressed the record button for our interview.

Swami Sivananda  So it could be said that humans are currently the dominant species on our planet. How do you think we got into this position, and how are we doing?

David Suzuki  Well, if you go back to when we appeared as a species about 150 000 years ago in Africa, any scientist looking down from outer space would never have pointed to the two-legged naked apes and said, “Watch that one. That one is going to take over the planet.” We weren’t big; there weren’t many of us; we weren’t strong or fast or gifted with sensory acuity. There was nothing visibly distinctive about us. And that’s because the one strategy for survival was hidden inside the skull – and that was the brain.

SS  The human brain?

DS  The human brain was very inventive, and it invented something no other animal has – the concept of a future. Because we invented a concept of a future, we’re the only animals that realized that we affect the future by decisions that we make today. So, what we did was we began to look ahead, saw where the opportunities were, saw where the dangers lay, and chose accordingly. And that strategy was the key to our success.

Foresight was the great gift of the human brain. I’m not a Christian, but you can see it in the Bible: when Joseph went to Egypt and he got to be a buddy of the Pharaoh and he said, “Pharaoh, I think we’re in for a hard time. Let’s start putting away grain.” And they stored their grain. And sure enough there were seven years of famine. And they got through it because they had foresight. Even in our deepest myths, we value that gift of foresight.

SS  Do we value or use this gift of foresight nowadays?

DS  Well, look at us now. We’ve become the dominant animal on the planet; we’ve got all the increased brainpower of scientists and engineers, with the benefit of computers and global telecommunication. For over forty years now they’ve been telling us that we are going down the wrong path. And we’ve been ignoring them.

Scientists predicted exactly what happened with hurricane Katrina. We knew it would happen. And I was listening to CBC news this morning: they were reporting on new findings that the Amazon is going through an “unbelievable drought.” It sends shivers up my back – some of us have been warning about this since the 1980s! Use of foresight is the one trait that could define us as humans, but we are not using it today.

Another point is that for most of human history, people understood that they were deeply embedded in nature and absolutely dependent on it. And for most of human existence we’ve lived within what anthropologists call the “worldview.” In a worldview, everything is connected to everything else and full of significance. When we take a worldview, we realize that everything we do has repercussions.

SS  How do you think we’re viewing the world presently?

DS  We no longer see the world as a single entity. We’ve moved to cities and we think the economy is what gives us our life, that if the economy is strong we can afford garbage collection and sewage disposal and fresh food and water and electricity. We go through life thinking that money is the key to having whatever we want, without regard to what it does to the rest of the world. So that is the challenge – to put the world back together again and realize that everything we do has repercussions, and that we have responsibility for our actions.

SS  You’ve mentioned what happened in New Orleans, and now the Amazon, and it sort of makes a bleak-looking future. Do you think there’s time for us to change course?

DS  I don’t know whether there is or not. It’s – it is very bleak and the direction we are heading is straight down the chute. With literally hundreds of thousands of species going extinct in a lifetime – over 90 percent of the big fish in the oceans are gone and nothing is coming back to replace them. We’ve already added 32 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than there was 150 years ago, and what we’ve added to date will not equilibrate for hundreds of years. I don’t think there   is any way you sugarcoat the reality: we’re in deep trouble and we continue to act as if we’ve got all the time in the world.

SS  This brings to mind a hearing I was present at in the 1980s in northeast Alaska. There was an old Inupiaq woman who came up to the stand – she must have been in her eighties, bent over behind the microphone. Through a translator she said, “It’s really too bad that the young people today can’t learn from their elders, because if they can’t learn from their elders the only other teacher is Nature. And Nature is a very, very severe teacher.”

DS  Oh, wow!

SS  And that just went through me like a knife and her words have always stayed with me. And when you refer to these global concerns like climate change, it keeps coming back to my mind: what does it take to get our attention? Is the media useful?

DS  I just spent four years on the board of a UN-sponsored group called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Have you heard about this?

SS  No.

DS  That makes the point. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project was the largest study ever done of the ecosystems of the planet – involving 1300 scientists from 71 countries in the world. We completed the report in March 2005. We released the report and it made the third page of the Globe and Mail. And the following day the Pope was taken to the hospital and pushed everything off the news.

So here was the largest study ever done of the state of the planet – it’s a terrifying document – and it made the inside pages of the paper for one day, and that’s it. That makes me wonder what is going on. When you look at the papers and what they are obsessed with is Michael Jackson or O.J. Simpson – absolutely trivial things. I don’t know what it will take to get people to realize this is not a joke; this is not speculation. We should be in crisis mode. I’ve spent most of my life trying to get people to take these things seriously.

SS  Well, you’ve got tremendous power of conviction, of commitment to these issues. Where does that come from? What sustains you?

DS  Well, I have grandchildren – I feel that our children and future generations have been left completely out of the equation. In the power politics of government, they look to the next election, and children and future generations don’t vote. So the reality is they don’t count. The intergenerational inequity is absolutely terrifying.

I also take what scientists say very seriously – it’s crystal clear where we’re heading. But, talk about power and media: you know, when I started in television – my first television series was in 1962 – I thought I was the medium to communicate science to the public. I was just going to translate this stuff, give the public information, and the public would be empowered to act on that.

SS  Did that happen?

DS  To my amazement that didn’t happen at all – television is a very ephemeral activity. Producers spend months creating a show, but when the viewer looks at it, they’ve got kids crying, and the dog’s barking, and they’ve got to take a pee and get a beer – all kinds of things distract them. And in the end they only remember bits and pieces…

Still, over time, people got to know me – they don’t remember what each show is about, but they remember I was always there. And they began to trust me. So the opposite happened to what I wanted: I wanted to empower the viewers by giving them information. Instead they threw that back on me and they expect me to act on their behalf.
SS  How does that power and responsibility go back then to where it belongs?

DS  Well, I take this very, very seriously. I continue to try to use my position now to give information to the people, to marshal their interest and involvement. So when I give a talk – and I give lots of talks – I always say: You can’t wait for people like me to spread the message. You’ve got to get involved. Every one of you has the power if you can begin to act: talk to your neighbour; that’s the way it’s got to be.

SS  So we have a lot more power than we think we have because we have this power of choice. In yoga we sometimes say that the greatest power that we have as humans is the power of choice.

DS  Absolutely! That’s a very, very profound statement.

SS  So how can we use that power?

DS With our foundation www.david we asked: What can we do as individuals to be most effective in lightening our impact on nature? And we came up with what we call the Nature Challenge, which are the ten most effective things individuals can do to begin to lighten their load. With this we try to get people to realize that where we live – our housing; what we eat – our food; how we move – our transportation, have significant impacts on our surroundings. And every person can make decisions that will have significant effect in reducing that impact.

The other thing that we’ve done, that I’m very excited about, is, we said: Let’s stop fighting over this clearcut here, or this polluting company or this new development. Because when we are battling away over these issues we forget to ask: Where are we going?

Instead, we’re looking ahead and asking: What do we want Canada to be by the year 2030 – a generation from now? Do we want a Canada where the air is free of chemicals and we don’t have epidemic levels of asthma? Well, of course! Do we want us to be able to drink the water out of our rivers or lakes? Yes! When you look ahead and define the kind of place that you want, everybody agrees – businesspeople, politicians, faith community – I’ve taken this to all of these communities. They all agree. Well, now we’ve got a target. Let’s stop fighting each other. Let’s start looking at that target – we all want to have a Canada like that.

SS   So this is an example of the foresight you were talking about earlier?

DS  Exactly! Exactly! But what the foresight does is it unites us now, because we are no longer caught up in these crazy battles. We’re saying, let’s transcend that and look ahead. We are all going to be part of the solution. And this is what Gandhi says: We’ve got to be the change we want. Each of us has to do that. We’ve got to act on it, understanding how insignificant we are, but understanding that millions and millions of insignificant people can add up to a considerable force. And I believe that there is a tipping point that can happen…


Swami Sivananda is secretary of the Yasodhara Ashram Society in British Columbia, Canada. As noted in the introduction to this interview, he worked for many years as an environmental consultant and advocate.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life