Reuters | 5 February 1991
On a tour of Australia, Canadian geneticist and science broadcaster David Suzuki, frets for the future of the planet. He talks with Wilson da Silva.
SYDNEY: One thing drives Dr David Suzuki on his constant environmental crusade around the world – fear for the future of his two children.
The bushy-haired, bespectacled geneticist, whose television science programmes and 15 books have made him popular in much of the English-speaking world, is obsessed with stopping what he believes is humanity’s head-long plunge into environmental catastrophe.
“My wife and I often hug each other at night and cry for the future of our children,” Suzuki said. “But I can’t give in to total pessimism, I have an investment in the future.”
A professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, he believes humanity has less than a decade to prevent a collapse of the planet’s ecology.
“If you project all of the curves into the future it looks very, very bleak,” he said. “Population explosion, loss of ocean resources, topsoil degradation...ozone depletion, acid rain, massive pollution of the air and water – when you look at it in that global perspective it just tells you the planet is dying.
“We’re losing 40 hectares of rainforest every minute and 20,000 species a year become extinct. World food production peaked in 1984 and has been declining ever since [due to soil degradation].”
Suzuki, a Canadian of Japanese descent, completed a lecture tour of Australia this week. He launched a conservation programme involving young unemployed people, and promoted his new book, It’s a Matter of Survival, co-authored with Anita Gordon. He has been called an environmental fundamentalist, a neo-Luddite after the 19th century English machine wreckers who opposed technological change, and has been accused of being opposed to progress.
“All of our politicians and business people from the left to the right proclaim economic growth is vital to our survival. But it is a system that places no value on clean air and water, no value on an endangered species”
A forceful speaker who mesmerises crowds, Suzuki ignores the labels and believes humanity’s problems are rooted in its obsession with economics and growth.
“All of our politicians and business people from the left to the right proclaim economic growth is vital to our survival. But it is a system that places no value on clean air and water, no value on an endangered species. What the hell kind of system is it that regards the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a plus? It brought US$2 billion to the Alaskan economy,” Suzuki said.
“If the nuclear reactor near Toronto melted down, Ontario’s gross domestic product would go up as people used hospitals more and medical companies profited. If we care about future generations we have got to get rid of this obsession with growth and progress,” he said.
It may be too late to stop the global warming believed to be caused by a build-up of man-made gases in the upper atmosphere, Suzuki said. Some scientists speculate that trapped heat is turning the earth into a planetary pressure cooker, and will melt icecaps, raise ocean levels and turn forests into deserts.
“If the six hottest years on record were all in the 1980s, and 1990 is looking like it’ll be the hottest, at what point do you say ‘hey guys, something is seriously wrong’? Are we going to wait another 10 years and then say, ‘holy cow, we’re in deep trouble’? By then it will be too late. Weather patterns are going to change radically and become unpredictable.”
He recounted reports from 200 years ago of squirrels leaping across a continuous forest from Maine on the U.S. east coast to California in the west, explorers of eastern Canada describing codfish so plentiful one could walk on them across estuaries.
“It’s estimated that 60 million bison thundered across the plains of North America before the arrival of Europeans, and six billion pigeons darkened the skies for days when they migrated. That’s all gone.”
Alone among the species, humans can visualise a future by foreseeing the consequences of their actions. Suzuki argues that man has lost that ability, that man’s perception of the world is clouded by economic dogma leaving him incapable of seeing the catastrophe all around.
“When I compare what I grew up with in the 1940s and my children today, their quality of life has got worse,” Suzuki said. “My children can see videos in the classroom but they can’t go down to the beach and catch clams to eat because they’re poisoned. Is economic growth worth this?”
Wilson da Silva is a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Sydney, Australia.