How David Suzuki thinks humans can sustainably coexist with the earth at this point

We asked Earth's biggest champion for his solutions, and if he thinks we're doing anything at all right.

We asked Earth's biggest champion for his solutions, and if he thinks we're doing anything at all right.

(Illustration by Katy Lemay)

This article was originally published October 11, 2017

David Suzuki is nearing the end of his of life – but don't feel morose for the scientist, environmentalist, husband, father and grandfather. Suzuki, 81, assured hundreds of people recently at EDIT: The Expo for Innovation, Design and Technology, that he is content. In a talk on how humans can sustainably coexist with earth, he began by mentioning that he has learned so much while on this planet and enjoys a life that currently consists of walking his grandson to school in the morning.

And in the next breath, he got very matter-of-fact.

Suzuki, like many scientists, believes the survival of humans as a species depends on what we do in the next few years. He also believes that we may go extinct in this century, noting that we only have a 5 per cent chance of meeting the Paris Accord requirements.

Why is that? Well, humans' demand for technology and our consumption habits. "We are the dominant factor shaping the future properties of the planet," he told the audience.

Who better to ask what the solution is… if there is one.

"You know, everybody thinks, do we have to go back to living in caves, scrounging around killing rabbits and rats to eat," he said to me later in a room at the old Unilever factory in Toronto, at the southern end of the Don Valley. "No. What I say is, let's set a target of 1950. I was an adult in 1950 and we lived pretty well. Three quarters of the things we take for granted today, cell phones, computers, weren't there. But believe it or not, we were happy."

He also says that Canada is more vulnerable to climate change than any other industrial country – we have the longest marine coastline, so sea levels rising will affect Canada more than any other country. As Canadians, he urged us to be vocal and hold our politicians – especially Justin Trudeau – accountable, and to also look to our Indigenous community to take care of the land, by supporting projects like the Indigenous Guardians.

I sat down with him after his impassioned talk to ask him more about the real state of affairs… and if he thinks we're doing anything right.

You've been the host of The Nature of Things for almost 40 years now and you have been an environmental activist for just as long. Do you ever get angry and think, "I've been talking about this for 40 years"?

All the time.

What is your strategy to deal with that anger?

The thing is, there is a great reward to being active and doing things. At the ground level, you feel like you're making all kinds of progress. Whether it's working with an Indigenous group, for example, recently Grassy Narrows got an $85 million commitment from Kathleen Wynne. And our foundation worked a lot with Grassy Narrows in order to get that commitment. And that's very rewarding! Even though it's a drop in the bucket.

So you get all of the encouragement at the local level. The great frustration is at the political and corporate level. And they are good people. They mean well. I love Catherine McKenna. She is a great person to have as minister of the environment. But, she's constrained by the politics of the Liberal government. They want to make inroads in Alberta and they want to support Rachel Notley, so they're throwing her pipelines, and things that they know they shouldn't be doing.

As constituents, is the onus on us to talk to the politicians to ask them to represent us properly?

It used to be that we elected people to office, knowing they were going to be our servants. They were going to look out for our interests. And in return, we give them the respect and the gratitude and all of the perks of being in office. That's all coming from the taxpayer. The problem now is that it's all been distorted now by the corporate money that comes in. The top ten corporations are bigger than most countries in the world. And they throw their money around. Netflix just threw $500 million [into Canada]. It's nothing. It's a drop in the bucket for them, and they'll get a tax write off. The corporations have got to be reigned in, because they call the shots.

Is there anything that we're actually doing right at the moment?

There are a lot things that we are doing right. The problem is that it's too small scale. The solutions are out there it's just that you have so much investment in the status quo. We got hooked on oil. It was such a great product: Lots of energy, easily carried around. And we built our whole society on oil. And even though there are groups and companies doing what we need to do, [the politicians and corporations] go, "No, it's impossible."

We have always had the argument from Harper that we're a Northern country. What about Sweden? They are more north than we are, and they've got this huge carbon tax and their economy has grown very well. [Since the early 1990s, Sweden has taxed carbon emissions by $130/tonne, and their economy has grown 100 per cent in that time, Suzuki mentioned in his talk.] So, we've got to keep hammering them with the fact that we have solutions.  

Do you know about Bhutan? The King of Bhutan said we're not interested in the economy. We are interested in the happiness of the people. So, rather than the GDP, he talks about the GDH, the gross domestic happiness. And he means it. When you go to Bhutan, all the kids there have these things about happiness, and that's what they're being taught. When he talks about happiness, he's not talking about moments like skiing a double diamond mountain and not falling. Conquering a new love interest. He's talking about: Are you well educated, are you getting good medical care, is there good infant survival. All of the criteria of a healthy happy society.

Can it be beneficial for people to put their money with companies that are doing things sustainably?

Too much emphasis has been put on 'you as a consumer has the power'. It's true that we have to change our habits. But it means primarily, not being such consumers. That's not so much about buying the right things as not over-consuming. My parents were married during the Great Depression. And because of that it scarred them. They kept hammering into my sister and me: live within your means. Save some for tomorrow. Share, don't be greedy. You have to work hard for the necessities in life. You don't have to run after money as if having more money means you're a more important person.

The United States deliberately adopted consumption as a way of making a transition from war, World War II, to peacetime. They said a peacetime economy has got to be built on consumption.

What about the three R's? Reduce, reuse, recycle. For me, you buy clothing to cover the naughty bits, and to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But looking good? That's only to push product.

Is there a way that technology can help with sustainability?

Oh yeah. But, it's got to have built into it, biomimicry.

What's happened is that we've gotten so heavily into carbon emissions, from burning fossil fuels. We're not willing to cut back. Our emissions have continued to climb all these years. Rather than saying, we've got to drop that to zero, we're going geo-engineering. We're going to take over the planet and going to engineer the atmosphere. So the idea is that you put huge umbrellas or shades in space, keep reducing the amount of sunlight. Or spray sulphates into the atmosphere to create clouds.

Can you explain biomimicry?

Biomimicry is to say that nature has solved many of the problems that we have. So, for example: Bacteria get viral infections. When you find out how bacteria do that, turns out they have mechanisms to read the DNA, and that provided one of the most valuable tools for genetic engineering. If we look to nature for how they solve problems, the chances are because it's been time tested they will be more sustainable. It's crystal clear what our problem is with our climate. We're putting more carbon in than we can absorb. What we have to do is stop putting in the carbon and re-green the planet. Every surface, when you look out here, should be like a forest. There should be solar panels everywhere. And absorb that energy. And then you've got more than enough energy to power the entire world.

A lot of building design proposals of late include green on balconies, on rooftops, on every surface. Is that going to help?

Absolutely. By itself it won't make a goddamn bit of difference. But if you begin to get – and this is the thing I love about architects and designers – if they get into competing with each other and being green, my god, all of the proliferation. The LEED standard really drove the building business for a long time. And that's what we need, is people to embrace the concept of sustainability and wow, there's no end to the originality. But what we've got to do is look at the whole supply chain. It's one thing to build a great building. But we've got to look at the drywall and the cement, and say, you've got to be greener, too.