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Has environmentalism failed?

David Suzuki in conversation with Graeme Wynn

The writer Amitav Ghosh diagnosed it as a “great derangement”—the failure of imagination evident in humanity’s collective reluctance to address the looming and very real problem of global climate change. As protests rage both for and against pipelines in Canada, and debates about carbon taxes continue to roil, the bigger challenge endures, and along with it questions of what environmentalism has (and hasn’t) accomplished in shifting thought and provoking action.

To explore some of these issues, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), based in Montreal, brought together two pre-eminent thinkers in the discipline two years ago as part of a research project into the modern environment of Canada, which presented the country’s recent history as a sequence of environmental disasters. A subsequent exhibition and book were titled It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment. David Suzuki is a scientist, environmentalist, and broadcaster. He developed the CBC Radio program Quirks and Quarks in 1974 and has been host of CBC Television’s The Nature of Things since 1979. Graeme Wynn is professor emeritus of historical geography at the University of British Columbia, and president of the American Society for Environmental History. Their conversation was moderated by architect and CCA director Mirko Zardini, and Lev Bratishenko, a writer, critic, and the CCA’s public curator.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation originally published in It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment (CCA + Jap Sam Books, 2016).

Mirko Zardini: David, you recently made a comment that environmentalism has failed. This could be the starting point of this discussion.

David Suzuki: My environmentalism begins with Rachel Carson in 1962. When her book [Silent Spring] came out, there was no department of the environment in any government in the world. She put it on the agenda, and as a result we have departments of the environment in all levels of government, and we have laws to protect air and endangered species, and we have millions of hectares of land protected in parks and reserves around the world.

The problem is how many of our victories that we celebrated in the 1970s turned out to be pyrrhic victories. We stopped the proposal to bring supertankers from Alaska down to Seattle through British Columbia waters, and now our government wants to have our own tankers coming into Prince Rupert. We stopped the dam at Site C, and Site C is now back on the agenda. We stopped a proposal to drill for oil in Hecate Strait, and now they want to drill there and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We raised a lot of money to stop dams in Brazil, and the very dam we stopped is being built right now.

So what kind of victories are they if they are only temporary? We have not changed the way we see our relationship with nature.

Graeme Wynn: I agree with almost everything you say, except that I think that calling environmentalism a failure gives carte blanche to people to wash their hands of any future concern. To me, environmentalism is not a discrete thing, it is an ongoing project—it is a way of life.

It is something we have to commit to in an ongoing sense, so all of the victories that you ­mentioned were not false victories, they were victories at the time, and I think we can learn from the aftermath. You are absolutely right that what has not occurred is a change in the public attitude towards stewardship over the Earth, and that is of course the hardest thing to achieve.

How do you change public attitudes when powerful people have drunk from the well of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman?

Suzuki: That is the ultimate challenge. Economics and ecology are companion disciplines. Oikos is the Greek word for household, and ecology is the study of the household, and economics is its management. Our domain is the biosphere, and in principle, ecologists discover the regulations or the laws of nature under which we live, and economics should take those rules and operate under them.

Wynn: It is the hardest thing to change because people always look at their pocketbooks.

Suzuki: I got a call three years ago from the CEO of one of the biggest energy companies operating in the tar sands. He said, “Can I come down to talk to you?” I said, “Sure, I don’t want to fight. We have got to work together.” He showed up the next day, and when he got to the door I said, “I’m honoured. Thank you for coming.” But I said, “Before you come through the door, I want you to leave your identity as a CEO of a company outside. I want to meet you man to man, as a human being, because I want to start with a foundation of agreement.”

He was very reluctant to come in, because he had come to negotiate something, but he came in. And I said, “I know this is difficult, but you would agree that we live in a world that is shaped and constrained by laws of nature. We can’t build a rocket faster than the speed of light and we can’t build a perpetual-motion machine. That is all dictated by physics and we live with it. Chemistry is the same. The atomic properties of the elements, reaction rates, and diffusion constants all determine what we can synthesize in a test tube. And we live with that. Biology? The same—carrying capacity of ecosystems, our habitat is the biosphere, and we are animals.”

And I could see him stiffen up when I said that we are animals. I said, “What do you think is the most important thing we need as animals?” I could see him think, “Money. A job.” And I said, “If you have no air for three minutes, you’re dead.”

Most people do not realize what a fine line we walk between life and death. If you breathe polluted air, you are sick. So I said, “Mr. CEO, can you agree with me that clean air has got to be the highest priority of every human being on the planet? We depend on it for life, we have got to protect it above all else.” Then I said, “You and I are 60 to 70 percent water by weight, but our bodies leak, so we have to keep drinking water.” I said, “If you have no water for four to six days, you’re dead. And if you drink contaminated water, you’re sick. So can we add clean water to the list?” And then I said, “Food. Four to six weeks and you’re dead. Polluted food makes you sick. And most of our food comes from the soil. Let’s put soil up there.”

All of the energy in our bodies that we need to move and grow and reproduce was in sunlight, captured by plants in photosynthesis, which we get by eating the plants. I said, “If you could agree with me that this has got to be the foundation of the way all human beings on Earth live, then I will work with you. I will work with you to do everything I can to help you have a business and make a living.” I said, “I want you to shake hands with me as a human being and agree.”

He could not do it and he left. He was not angry. He left very unhappy, and I never heard from him again. I heard that he resigned or retired about a year later.

That is the crisis. That is our failure. We have not reset the bottom line with those fundamental things.

Wynn: We have a Sisyphean task. We struggle to move forward and then we slip back. Clean air is essential to survival, of course. When Stanley Burke and Larry Gosnell put out their [1967] film, which really aroused Canadian anxiety about pollution, they called it The Air of Death. Today we have cleaner air than we did in 1967. So there is an example of an effort in the past that was not a failure.

Today it is very hard to see that we are actually gaining ground. Executives are reluctant to listen to this message because of the corporate structures that they work within; they have a legally determined responsibility to generate profits for their shareholders, and so taking steps that potentially reduce profit would make them culpable of failing to serve the fiduciary interest of the companies. Still, those things can be changed. I think there are more reasons for hope now than there were five years ago, when we had a different set of politicians running the country.

The oil need not come from the oil sands, but we are not going to win the longer battle against economic interests by robbing them overnight of their prospects.

Suzuki: Another indication to me of our failure is that we have got a Green Party. If the environment was at the heart of the way we lived, why would one party say, “We represent the environment.” And then the Conservatives can say, “Well, then we are interested in the economy.” Every party should care about the environment above anything else and build their political or economic strategies on that. That is a failure.

Wynn: Neil Evernden came to the conclusion that the very term “environment” was inappropriate because environment is an envelope of something, and so it is an anthropocentric view. He asked: “Why do we not talk about nature instead of the environment?” The idea that nature is our environment to use has been a long-standing view of Western society.

The ecology seemed boundless for so long, and one could just keep chopping down trees without concern. That needs to be redressed, but we have moved forward from Harper to Trudeau. And Trudeau is in a real bind because he is—as politicians used to do in the days before the internet—promising free trade to people who want to sell apples in Nova Scotia and promising protection to people in Ontario. You cannot walk both sides of the street.

Suzuki: I was so proud of Canada when we stepped up for [the Paris climate agreements]. That was huge. The problem is that as a politician, economics still trumps everything else, so he cannot do what has to be done: to shut down the tar sands. The Fort McMurray fire was an opportunity to do that and transition those workers into renewable energy. No more pipelines, no more train expansion, and no more coal ports.

Wynn: I think if we start talking about the need to shut down the oil sands completely and immediately, the opposition flares up. We still need some oil for some time, so we need a transitional period. The oil need not necessarily come from the oil sands at all, but we are not going to win the longer battle, it seems to me, against big business and economic interests by robbing them overnight of their prospects.

Zardini: I feel that what you’re talking about is the necessity of a different strategy. Local battles are okay, but the sum of all of that has not produced the radical change that we needed. So a cultural shift is required before there can be a political one.

Suzuki: That’s right. I think the gap has appeared very recently. My parents were married during the Great Depression. People suffered and they learned how to live under trying economic times, and when I was growing up my parents told me, “Live within your means. Save some for tomorrow. Share and don’t be greedy. Help your neighbours, you may need their help.” These things became part of who I am. But after the Second World War, everything opened up. We had a war economy and everything was roaring, so what happens when we transition to peace? The solution was consumption. In the past forty years the average size of a Canadian family has dropped by half while the average size of a Canadian house has doubled. Why? We have fewer people living in there, but we have more stuff to keep. I think it is a recent phenomenon—we have bought into this idea that the economy delivers our happiness.

Wynn: In some ways, a reflection of the idea that the environment is important is that people think they are being mindful of the environment through things like composting, recycling, bicycling, and so on. And all of these are good things, but they do not address the larger, structural issues.

By moving in these directions, which I would never say are bad things to do, we have allowed people to salve their consciences by tiny individual actions. Plant a tree. Ride a bike. Save the planet.

But it does not work that way. Action is needed on other levels.

Lev Bratishenko: And perhaps coming from other sources of experience. How do you think environmentalism has engaged with Indigenous ideas?

Suzuki: When we started our foundation, my wife and I were deeply embedded in Indigenous issues. We were students learning about other relationships with our surroundings. Evernden’s idea that “environment” is an inappropriate word is absolutely right. They really think of the Earth as our mother, and not in a poetic or a metaphoric way…I think the future of environmentalism is going to be led by First Nations, because their fight is about—of course, about their way of life, but it comes from a deep attachment to place.

Wynn: I think that’s right. It seems to me that the Canadian and other environmental movements assumed a kind of joint interest between First Nations people and environmentalists, but the record shows that although there was a lot of common ground, it was never an entirely congruent commitment. First Nations people had other interests than what environmentalists might have thought they had, and which First Nations worked to support. Many of the coalitions that emerged to save an island or to stop logging in this particular forest—even that most celebrated of coalitions in Clayoquot Sound—eventually fell apart. Sometimes they fell apart rancorously and other times they just diverged.

Canadians tell stories about who we are and how we belong in this place, and our relations to it, and a large number of Canadians tell a frontier story about Canada. From Jacques Cartier on, if you will. This is a place full of resources. The resources are here for us to use so let us do it and be happy with what they return. Followed by the gloss of consumerism after the Second World War, that has been a really powerful force for environmental exploitation.

What I see as really important in Canada, which makes this country unique in many respects, and quite distinct from the United States, is that we also have vast areas that other people tell different stories about. Environmentalists tell a story about those vast territories as wildernesses and places to make into national parks, First Nations tell a story about these places as homelands. When the environmentalists want to create parks and move Indigenous inhabitants out of them because that is how some of them think of parks, these two stories come into conflict.

Zardini: I like this idea of a homeland. If I take your point further, environmentalism created a kind of oasis inside a landscape that was managed in a totally different way, but introducing the idea of a homeland means that you take over the entire territory. You are no longer dealing with one specific area.

Suzuki: Using DNA we can now trace the origin of people in different places, and all of the trails lead back to Africa 150,000 years ago. That is our home. It is still not clear why we moved, but we began to move and we were an invasive species. You can trace a wave of extinctions that follows humans moving into new territories. Our history is that we were constantly moving and searching for new resources. But some people stayed, and they had to learn to live differently. Over thousands of years, the people who stay learn through the mistakes and successes of their ancestors. That is called indigenous knowledge; it is profoundly based on place and is critical for the survival of people. You depend on that knowledge in order to sustain yourself.

It is not accidental that the Slow Food movement started in Italy or the leading fights against GMOs have been in France. European people have their indigenous values, as well.

All over the planet, we have got indigenous people paying the price for the mistakes of their ancestors. In fact, we modified the Earth. Indigenous people changed the ecology of Australia by burning—there used to be forests all over the continent, but people changed the ecology of Australia. And then we learned to live the way that Australia evolved.

What we thought was a pristine forest in the Amazon, we now realize that the natives have already modified for hundreds of years. The Indigenous people are profoundly based in their homelands, and I learned that when we did a film about logging in Haida Gwaii. I remember asking one Haida, “Why are you fighting the logging? Your people have over 50 percent unemployment and a lot of the loggers are Haida. The non-Haida shop in your stores and your communities. They contribute to your economy.” And he said, “When the trees are gone, we will still be here. But then we will not be Haida anymore.”

He was saying that the trees and the fish and the water and the rocks are what make him Haida. So we have got to indigenize ourselves. The American poet Gary Snyder says the most revolutionary words you can say are “I am staying.”

It is not only First Nations. I do not think it is accidental that the Slow Food movement started in Italy, or that the leading fights against GMOs have been in France, because there are different and long-term relationships with food in these places. European people have their indigenous values, as well. We have got to rediscover that idea of place.

I do not have that. My parents were born and raised in Canada. They had no grandparents. They had no elders, because their parents came from Japan. They had no roots. And that is the way it is with colonization—we are rootless.

Zardini: Do you mean that is impossible to have an environmental strategy and at the same time accept the contemporary idea of mobility? How is it possible to reconcile the idea of a cultural mix and the idea of place?

Suzuki: That is a very interesting question because we have two very different experiments on this continent. Canada, officially since the 1970s, has called our model a “cultural mosaic.” And as a biologist, I really love this idea.

When I was in graduate school in 1958, geneticists were just starting to use chemical techniques to look at single genes in fruit flies—checking if one gene was the same in all of the individuals of fruit flies. And to our shock, they were very different. There was a tremendous diversity even at the genetic level. We now call this genetic polymorphism, and it is a characteristic of a healthy species.

The risk of small populations and inbreeding is that you reduce genetic diversity and you become vulnerable. Diversity at the genetic level is critical because conditions on the planet change, and as long you have genetic diversity, you can always draw on that genetic diversity to meet new ­conditions.

You find the same if you look at an ecosystem. Those ecosystems that are strongest have a tremendous number of different species, so species diversity gives an ecosystem its resilience. Ecosystem diversity on the planet allows you to have jungles in the tropics, and life in the Arctic and tundra. Humans have added another level of diversity called culture. And though we live in the biosphere, there is also what Wade Davis calls the ethnosphere. The ethnosphere is all of the cultures on the planet, and the diversity of the ethnosphere allows us to live in the Arctic, and allows us to live in the Amazon. We can live in many different ecosystems because of cultural diversity. I believe that resilience and adaptability are related to the degree of diversity. The challenge for humans is to allow diversity while respecting each other.

Zardini: So how do you combine diversity with an attachment to place?

Wynn: Although I share David’s sense of the importance of indigenous attachment to place, I do think that there is a challenge in arguing that we should all become indigenous, if that means we have to commit to spending successive long generations in the same place. We need to find a way of building an attachment to place for people who have not had generations of family in that location.

I think there have been useful pointers in this direction. Stan Rowe was a Canadian who worked for many years with the Canadian Forest Service. He was trained as an ecologist, and in his later years he wrote a series of really important essays that have been substantially neglected.

In his very first work in ecology, Rowe argued that we should scrap an anthropocentric view and commit to a conception of the biosphere as somewhat like a set of nested Russian dolls, with the most important and sustaining part of those nested dolls being the largest—Earth or the biosphere. There were different levels within, and humans were but a very small part. In Rowe’s terminology, we should think of ourselves as Earthlings and as part of a much larger ecosystem and dependent on it.

What Rowe suggests is the importance of developing a sense of one’s connections to one’s immediate surroundings. That the air we breathe and the water we drink are essential to our survival, and if we acknowledged that, then we would take more care. It does not require generations in the same place to achieve that understanding. I think there is a shift in consciousness that sees humans not as dominant beings, but as insignificant in the larger system, and that if we make that shift then we would be more attentive to our surroundings.

Suzuki: I agree absolutely with Rowe, and our failure is that we have not made that shift. We are not going to give up, but we cannot keep fighting the same way that we have been, because it becomes political and economic. When people have gone through university, they get a job, they buy a house, they get married, they have kids—and when environmentalists come knocking to say, “You have to change your ways,” they get angry because they have invested a lot of time and effort to get to where they are. So my foundation has been focusing more on children. Not because we can wait until they replace us—we do not have the time—but because they are one vulnerable spot for adults.

If you love your children, then you have got no choice.

Some years ago, the Lytton First Nation [in B.C.] asked me to join them against logging in the Stein Valley. The Lytton people regard this as a sacred valley, and British Columbia had issued a logging licence to Fletcher Challenge, a New Zealand ­company.

I went camping in the valley; I wanted to see what it was like. Coming up with my family at the head of the trail, I see there were about twenty other people. The women are in dresses and high heels, and the men are in suits, so I know these are not campers, but when you are on a trail, you say hello. That was when I realized, “It’s the CEO of Fletcher Challenge.” And I think he went, “It’s that shit-disturber Suzuki.”

So we start arguing and it gets quite heated. Finally he says, “Listen, Suzuki! Are tree-huggers like you willing to pay for those trees? Because if you are not willing to pay for those trees, they have no value till someone cuts them down.”

That was my epiphany. The trees are pumping water out of the ground, affecting weather and climate; the trees are holding on to the soil so it does not run into the spawning ground for the salmon; the trees are taking carbon out of the air and putting oxygen back in. Economists call these things externalities.

They are so crazy that they think the economy can grow forever. That’s what cancer cells believe, too.

Bratishenko: There is a mismatch between Canadians’ positive self-image and the fact that we are actually especially harmful humans. David, do you think your international prominence as a Canadian and an environmentalist has contributed to this?

Zardini: Are you the justification for Canadian bad behaviour?

Suzuki: That’s interesting, but I don’t think I have an international reputation. In Canada, people come up and say, “Thanks for what you’re doing.” This has always been shocking to me, because we are failing big-time. I say, “Look, I am just one person. You have to get involved.” But people seem to feel that Suzuki is up there hammering away, so everything is fine.

If you enjoyed this interview, we invite you to read another excerpt from It’s All Happening So Fast: a conversation between Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, general counsel for the Haida nation, and David R. Boyd, an environmental lawyer and adjunct professor in resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University.