David Suzuki

A lifetime of wisdom deserves to be passed along

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The governments of more than 190 nations will gather in Paris later this year to discuss a possible new global agreement on climate change, aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and thus avoiding the threat of dangerous climate change. Meanwhile, ahead of the United Nations climate summit, leaders of the world’s seven largest economies met in Germany this week. Leaders stressed that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions” were required with “a decarbonization of the global economy over the course of this century.”

Strong words, but are words enough?

The aim was to send a clear signal to push other nations taking part in the Paris meeting to commit to reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten to melt ice caps and glaciers, raise sea levels and bring more violent storms and floods. But it may be too little, too late. Climate scientists say we’re already pushed well past the UN’s defining goal of reducing carbon emissions sufficient to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The 2C cap has its roots in an Earth Summit in 1992, which pledged to avoid undefined “dangerous” human interference with the climate system.

Since that pledge, greenhouse gas emissions have reached record highs. And proposed cuts in carbon emissions from 2020 and promises to deepen them in subsequent reviews—offered by governments wary of the economic cost of shifting from fossil fuels—are unlikely to be enough for the 2C goal.

Indeed, the political will to achieve that goal is also dismal—a recent poll found 17 percent of Americans “do not agree to any international agreement that addresses climate change.” It’s a discouraging number, a faction policymakers can cower behind.

“Overall, the science is in: the planet is in terrible shape. And we’re going backwards,” says David Suzuki. For nearly 35 years, Suzuki has brought science into the homes of millions on the Canadian television series, The Nature of Things. He has become a godfather of the environmental movement, and is considered that country’s most admired figure. His outspoken views on climate change and the government’s collusion with the petrochemical industry in developing Canada’s oil-rich tar sands have made him the target of relentless attacks from his nation’s prime minister, corporations and right-wing ideologues.

“Our politicians should be thrown in the slammer for willful blindness,” Suzuki stormed. “I think that we are being willfully blind to the consequences for our children and grandchildren. It’s an intergenerational crime.”

With this in mind, the charismatic thinker set out to write a series of letters to his grandchildren, expressing his hopes for their future against worsening odds. It’s a farewell, of sorts, as Suzuki prepares for a quiet twilight in Vancouver, clear of public life.

“At my age, whatever politicians and corporate executives do or do not do will have little effect on my life, I’m near the end,” the 79-year-old said. “But the effects of those actions and inactions will reverberate through the entire lives of my grandchildren with enormous repercussions.

“If young people care about what lies ahead, they have no choice but to get involved in whatever way they feel they can. I am encouraged by people who are ready to put their bodies on the line, to risk physical harm and jail time. I believe they should enlist the most important people on the planet—their parents—to become eco-warriors prepared to fight for the future of their children.”

The most personal of his many books, Letters to My Grandchildren brushes across many topics and includes stories from Suzuki’s own remarkable life, and his role as a father and grandfather reflected in his own upbringing.

“My father was the great influence of my life when I was growing up. He instilled in me a sense of responsibility to always try to make this country a better place and warned me that if I spoke out for what I believed, there would always be people who would be angry and attack me. He taught me the importance of speaking out,” he said. “My mother was, to me, the kindest, most modest, hard-working person I know. And yet, she will disappear from memory in two generations. Most of the people who have ever lived were like my mother, good, hard-working people who didn’t demand to be recognized and that has always had an immense effect on me—who do I think I am if I want to be more than what my mother was?” he asks.

“I think one of the most obscene descriptions today is the word disposable,” Suzuki remarked. “Instead of bragging about durability, resistance to wear and tear, or lasting a lifetime, we boast of disposability as a convenience, that can be discarded for more modern or ostentatious indicators of wealth, We should cover our ears when someone uses the word disposable,” he advised, “and admonish them for saying a bad word.”

Suzuki believes we are living in a unprecedented moment in human history where our actions are pivotal and have profound global consequences.

“The sudden confluence of explosive growth in human numbers, technological dexterity, and consumptive demand is having a huge impact on the properties of the planet itself,” he writes. “Some of the consequences include an alteration of the biological and chemical composition of the atmosphere, water and soil, and massive geophysical change in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. It means you are heading toward huge changes in weather and climate as well as in the biological productivity of forests, reefs, wetlands and prairies. The scientific warnings of our potential fate have been issued with increasing urgency over decades, but there has been reluctance to meet the challenge on the scale that’s needed.”

The reasons are many, but he cites inertia as a primary cause. “One must make a commitment in confronting a crisis, but that is the hardest thing to do because we all see the world through beliefs and values that are powerfully influenced by politics and economics.”
Though he tries hard to speak as an elder, wisely retiring from the fray, at times the passions of a younger man burst through:

“You know, you can charge people who are at a scene, where someone is being murdered, and if you don’t do anything to try to help that, you can be charged with criminal negligence. If something is going on that you should know about, and you ignore it deliberately, that’s called ‘willful blindness.’ That’s a legal category for taking people to court,” he said in a recent interview. “And I think that what we have to also find is a mechanism to judge people and to make them accountable for the implications of what they do or do not do for future generations. That is, there should be a category of intergenerational crime. You come here 20 years later: how many of the political leaders that were here in 1992 are now here again? Very, very few, if any. So, these guys come, they make a lot of nice words, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we care about this. We’re going to do that.’ Nobody holds them accountable, because they go out of office, they go on to become billionaires or whatever they do. But who’s accountable for the lack of any kind of profound activity?”

Raging at the futility of climate summits, Suzuki observes, “Meetings like this are doomed to fail, because we see ourselves at the center of everything, and our political and our economic priorities have to dominate over everything else. If we don’t come together and say, ‘Look, let’s start with the agreement that we are biological creatures, and if you don’t have air for more than three or four minutes, you’re dead; if you don’t have clean air, you’re sick,’ so, surely, air, the atmosphere that provides us with the seasons, the weather, the climate, that has to be our highest priority. Before anything economic or political, that has to be the highest priority.

“But what you’re getting is a huge gathering, as we saw in Copenhagen, a huge gathering of countries trying to negotiate something that doesn’t belong to anyone, through the lenses of all of the political boundaries and the economic priorities, and we try to shoehorn nature into our agenda. And it’s simply not going to work,” he said. “A meeting like this is doomed to fail, because we haven’t left our vested interests outside the door and come together as a single species and agreed what the fundamental needs are for all of humanity. So we’re going to sacrifice the air, the water, the biodiversity, all in the sake of human political and economic interest.

“Over and over, we are told that solutions to problems are ‘impossible,’ usually on the basis of economic cost, but seldom because of real scientific or engineering barriers, and almost always because the blocks are in our minds,” he writes. “Borders, governments, capitalism, the economy, corporations, markets and currency—these are not forces of nature; they are human constructs that can be modified and regulated to conform to the boundaries dictated by nature. But we react and respond to those global factors by acting as if our creations somehow are inviolable and must be maintained, so we try to shoehorn nature into our priorities and make her conform to our needs.”

His parting advice is to be thoughtful about the way you live.

“We live in a world in which everything is connected to everything else,” Suzuki said. “So whatever we do, from the food we eat, to the products we buy, use and throw away, has repercussions. And so the way we live carries huge responsibilities. Freedom carries with it responsibility and we are not isolated from everything else. We are exquisitely connected.

“People often come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for the work you are doing,’”he said. “But if I ask what they are doing, a typical response is, ‘You’re on television, so you have a big influence. I’m a drop in the bucket.’ I’ve been lucky to have a platform, The Nature of Things, that has enabled me to present important issues to the public. But I’m still just one person, too, a drop in the bucket. If we recruit a lot of drops, however, we can fill any bucket there is.

“This is what a grassroots movement is,” Suzuki observed. “We can all be part of something that can grow into a movement. What matters is, we try.

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