Impact in the 21st Century, Episode 2: David Suzuki

Photo by protectpeel.ca, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A podcast sharing stories of positive impact from the world’s leading innovators

In our second episode, host Aaron Friedland talks with activist and geneticist David Suzuki about the recent spike in alternative facts, how the internet is testing our ability to detect confirmation bias, elevating economies above climate issues, and the need for a return to an eco-centric worldview.

David Suzuki is a climate activist, award-winning biologist, host of CBC’s ‘The Nature of Things’, author of more than 50 titles, and founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, which seeks to protect natural diversity and the wellbeing of all life, now and for the future.

Impact in the 21st Century is streaming on all major podcast platforms. Subscribe for email updates on upcoming episodes, or recommend an impactful individual to become a future guest.

From Simbi Foundation, its Impact in the 21st Century, a show about innovators, activists, entrepreneurs, authors, and the positive impact they make. I’m Aaron Friedland, and on the show today, I’m truly grateful to be speaking with environmental activist and biologist David Suzuki, about climate change, effective environmental activism, and the importance of critical thinking in today’s world of constant media consumption. And thank you to RBC for sponsoring this episode.

Aaron: David, before we jump right in, I’d like to take a moment to share just a brief list of your accomplishments to provide some context for the conversation. First and foremost, a researche r— and we can just keep it to fruit flies for the time being!

David: Yes.

And an educator and professor with over 40 years at UBC alone, a broadcaster in both TV and radio. You’re also an author with over 19 well-known publications and books, and I won’t be addressing all of them, but Letters to My Grandchildren is absolutely one of my all-time favorites.

And, among many other impressive accomplishments, you’re the co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, which has a mission to protect nature’s diversity and the well being of all life now and for the future. Does that sum it up correctly?

More than enough, though you left out the most important title that I have which is grandfather.

And I understand that you partly like that title because you have a great relationship with your grandkids. And they always- grandchildren, as you put it in Letters to my Grandchildren- always idolize, and they don’t live with you to see all of your faults.

Exactly. So I can tell you, I have three grandchild, a five-year-old and two, two-and-a-half year-old twins. And we just went down with their mom and dad to Victoria, yesterday. So for the first time in six months, they aren’t here and I’m feeling completely lost and purposeless. They were great. They gave me a sense that I could actually do something for someone.

I’m sorry to hear they’re not with you at the moment. Something that I want to speak to you about is, you’ve written at spoken at length about how, when TV was introduced—and after you had your first stints on TV at the university—how you were shocked to find out that people were watching you on a Sunday morning. And how you just couldn’t believe that people would spend their time actually consuming information at that time, through that medium. You’ve continued to write and speak about how you see, essentially, in terms of mediums for communication, writing being the most important, auditory or radio being the second, and then TV just being the least effective. And I’d love for you to elaborate on that and to explain in greater detail why it is you feel that way.

I think it’s in direct relation to to the amount of effort that you put into it, to derive the messages or the information being given to you. So when you read- and the thing I that’s lovely about reading, although now I guess you can press pause and go back and forth with television- But with reading you know, you can go back to other pages and look and reread and you can slow down you can take your time with it and- I don’t know- I just feel my brain is most alive.

And there’s the time to absorb what I’m getting with radio. Radio is the medium I love the most as a communicator because you use every listener's brain to create stories. There’s a wonderful spike Jones sequence—you’re too young to know this—in which he shows how powerful it is by invoking, you know, this unbelievable armada of airplanes and dropping bombs. And all of it is just with words but you’re creating the whole thing in your brain and I find that with radio there, it’s that you can take the time.

It’s funny, television to me is the most overwhelming medium because you sit there and you just get overwhelmed with the images, but they’re total fabrications, they’re creations, each second is expensive. You know, it used to be film that was expensive to set up. And what you do is you create a reality through the medium of visuals that is very, very different, I think, from the spoken word and print. It’s just a different medium. It’s very powerful, but very superficial—superficial as far as I’m concerned.

But you know, the important thing is that, I began a career as a broadcaster because I had spent eight years studying in the United States. And those were- it was an amazing period to be in the United States. I went to a college, an undergraduate college in 1954 that gave me an education that I couldn’t get in Canada at that time. There was no real sense of an ‘elite group’ of scholars and it made me what I am as a scholar. And then in my last year in a senior year at Amherst, on October 4 1957- I’ll bet you don’t know what happened then?

1957. So I’m starting my last year in college, and the Soviet Union announces Sputnik. It was a shock. Like, nobody realized that there was even a space program. And then you know, every hour and a half that satellite came overhead, and beep beep beep It was like thumbing its nose at you saying, ‘hey, look at me.’ And the Americans cranked up: they had three different, you know, Army, Air Force Navy, they all had their own rockets. They launched theirs, everyone blew up. Meanwhile, the Russians launched the first animal in space and dog Laika; the first man, Yuri Gagarinl; the first team of cosmonauts; the first spacewalk’ the first woman Valentina Tereshkova.

The Americans, they didn’t blink. They just said, ‘we got to catch up to these guys. They’re really far ahead.’ And of course, in 1961, Kennedy announced we’re going to get American astronauts to the moon back in less than a decade. That was the big challenge. Now, so this was an amazing time after Sputnik, you know, the Americans poured billions of dollars in. They set up NASA. They started pouring money into creating science departments. I mean, here I am: a foreign student, and all I had to do was say, ‘Oh, I like science.’ And rhey threw money at you. It was a glorious time.

I my PhD, I did a postdoc. And I went to a fruit fly meeting, you know, and I wasn’t looking for a job. And I got when I got back to my office is in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I got a job offer from Stanford, a job offer from San Diego State, and a job offer from the University of California Davis. Like, I hadn’t even been looking for a job! It was a glorious time, yet I left. Why did I leave?

Well, there were a lot of opportunities, but there was something about America. It was this kind of glorification of money that seemed to be what people really admired. And I felt Canada was different. And you know, not better, but different. Like, to me Canada meant the at the time it was the CCF, a Socialist Party, which was a legitimate party. In the States, the CCF would have been called outright communist. In Canada, Tommy Douglas was a national icon and national treasure. He would have been hated in the United States. But I admired and we had Medicare. We had the CBC, we had the National Film Board, we had equalization payments between the provinces. These are, to me, distinguishing parts of what made Canada preferable to me.

And so I turned down all these jobs. And while I got heavily involved in the civil rights movement—I was the only non-black member of the NAACP in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. And I finally decided I didn’t want to live in this in the United States and I came home to Canada.

When I got back to Canada in 1962, I was stunned. I got my first grant, and it was for $4200. And they said ‘normally we’d give afirst-year Assistant Professor $3500, but you got you have a year of postdoc, so we’re giving you $4200.’ The guys that I graduated with, in Chicago, were all getting $60 to $80,000 grants. And I got a $4200 grant.

I said, ‘Jesus, you know, science is not highly regarded in Canada.’ And that’s when I was given an opportunity to do this television program in Edmonton. When I got my first job at the University of Alberta, that’s when I realized what a powerful tool television was, if people are watching television at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, holy shit, that’s really a way of really reaching an audience. So that began my television career. And I was driven by the belief that people in order to make important decisions in their lives, people needed information.

Now, if you look at newspapers or television programs, you would swear that Canadians obsessions are with politics, with business, with celebrity, and sports, those are the big areas. And they ignore the reality that by far, the most powerful force shaping our lives today is science—science when applied by industry, medicine, and the military. So I went into television thinking, my programs are going to glisten like jewels. Even back then, in the early 60s, we referred to television as the boob tube. You know, we knew that it was kind of pretty superficial. I used to call it a cesspool. But my programs were going to glean like jewels in a cesspool, and people would pluck them up and savor them.

But I didn’t realize that, when you jump into a cesspool, you look like a turd like everybody else. That’s a whole ‘nother speech. But that got me going in television. I wanted to give people information so they could make meaningful decisions, that were informed by how science was interacting with their lives. I never dreamt of a period when anybody with a cell phone would have access to more information than people have ever had in history- that you can’t get in the Library of Congress. And yet the degree of ignorance today is breathtaking. If you look at what’s happening with all of these conspiracy theories, Q-anon all of these crazy [conspiracies]. The Flat Earth Society is flourishing. If you want to find that climate change is a hoax, dozens of websites will tell you that. I mean, what the hell has happened?

My dream was to give people information, to make informed decisions. I never realized that information would be primarily pornography, would be about buying stuff, would be bullshit being promulgated by corporations. So it’s a sad position today.

It’s interesting you bring that up, because, well, first of all, you’ve spoken at length about how, when you first found YouTube, you were excited. I think you were looking for a hagfish-

God, you’ve been doing your research!

And you enter these holes, you absolutely enter these YouTube holes. These incredible algorithms digging you deeper and deeper into the echo chamber that you already believe in.

It’s staggering, because what I find is, people don’t really want to change their minds. If you want to think, ‘Oh God, climate change—God would never allow that to happen,’ then you can just scroll through the internet till you find something that confirms what you already believe. And that’s the frightening thing, because we are absolutely uncritical; we just look for people that agree with us, and away you go. It’s staggering.

I watched- what was it, the other day? Interviews with pro-Trumpers. You know, these are just ordinary people. ‘Yeah, but he lies.’ ‘Yes, we agree. He lies.’ ‘Yeah, but look at how he treats women.’ ‘Yeah, he treats women badly.’ ‘Look what he’s saying about people who are serving, you know, in Vietnam and so on.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, we heard all that. But I’m with Trump all the way because he’s wrecking the goddamn system.’ That is what’s, you know, it’s just a staggering level of uncritical thinking and behavior today. Okay, sorry. I know sidetracked you.

This is perfect. So what I’m wondering about is, so we know that we’re becoming a society that doesn’t read as an active activity; we listen as a secondary as a passive activity. It’s too difficult to actually read an full article, so we’ll read a snippet of what it’s about, gaining our news from Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. And then we’ll think we have the entire story. And we’ll start to make decisions and share ideas based on that. As an educator, which I believe first and foremost are, what advice, what wisdom, can you share with the next generation to start to change the way that we do consume this information? So that we don’t elect individuals like who you’re alluding to?

Well, I think it really has to do with being critical. The first thing you ask is ‘Where or who is saying this? Where are they getting paid? What is their purpose?’ I mean, if you don’t ask those simple questions, then I don’t see any way out of the mess that we’re in. We have to be far more critical about the source.

This is why I’ve really valued the CBC. The CBC is beholden to the Canadian taxpayer. It’s a public broadcaster, and God Damnit, you know, it represents something in terms of its credibility, different from any of the commercial networks. And so I’ve always valued it very highly. The CBC is something that has to be held in very high esteem, in the sense that we’ve always had to compete with the big corporations—ABC, NBC, CBS, those were our competitors, not PBS. PBS is an elite broadcaster, but it services a tiny fraction of the American public. But CBC has been up there and people better appreciate what they’ve got.

Now, just to shift gears a little bit. In Letters to My Grandchildren, you talk about Easter Island, off the Chilean coast, in which the inhabitants essentially saw that their trees and the resources were depleting and didn’t really do anything about it until it was ultimately too late. And I’m wondering, what if Easter Island is a microcosm of planet Earth? What do we need to start seeing to really wake up, because we can know the earth is changing its pH levels, and we can know that it’s getting warmer, but when we’re not able to see no more trees, it’s a slightly different reality. What has to start happening for us to wake up?

Well, I personally think the fundamental challenge is not climate change, or species extinction, although these two issues are probably going to do us in. But I think the underlying root cause, the problem, is the hardest thing of all to change. And that is the shift for 99% of our existence. We were fundamentally aware that we lived in a complex web of relationships—relationships with other species, with air, water, sunlight, soil—we understood that we were a part of nature and dependent on it for our existence.

We were nomadic hunter-gatherers. We lived in a world in which we had to navigate from nature’s generosity and abundance, carrying everything we had on our back. So you know, damn well, that’s the way that we lived for most of our time as a species. And we understood very much how dependent we were on the natural world. 10,000 years ago, you get this fundamental huge shift. And that is agriculture. And farmers still understand that weather climates, the seasons—they’re critical to the way you farm. You know, farmers know that the amount of snow in the winter is directly related to moisture in the soil. In the summer, they know that certain insects will be predators and others pests. They understand that certain plants fix nitrogen as fertilizer.

Farmers know that we are a part of, and dependent on, nature. It’s been a fundamental shift and there’s a whole sequence I think, you know, with the Industrial Revolution, and you have thinkers like Newton and Descartes. Descartes is saying, you know, ‘I think, therefore I am, elevating the human mind, as if somehow it’s separate, the highest thing. And ultimately, I believe when you get the Industrial Revolution, you begin to get the feeling, ‘Oh, we’re not like any other creature. We’re smart. We’re so smart. We aren’t bound by the laws of nature. We can travel faster than any other biological being. We can create things that will work 24 hours a day without having to take a pee break, or eat a meal. We can see to the very edge of the universe, we can discover a world in a drop of water. We are this amazing creature.

And you begin to think, ‘Oh, we’re special. We’re outside of nature. We’re only limited by our imagination,’ And so I think the fundamental shift has been from an eco-centric worldview to an anthropocentric one, and the anthropocentric worldview where everything is about us. And I have to admit, when I started working with the nature of things, I really had an anthropocentric view. I was an environmentalist, but I was a very shallow environmentalist. ‘Oh, we got to stop polluting, got to stop clear-cutting and all that.’

But I remember having an argument with my boss, and you know, he was like ‘Why should we bother fighting for, you know, 100 Whooping Cranes? If they disappear, it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference.’ And I said the problem with that is, the loss of those Whooping Cranes diminishes me, that I can look out in my world and be enriched by those Whooping Cranes, and to see those Whooping Cranes go diminishes me. I mean, it’s such an anthropocentric worldview. And I learned thatthrough my boss, Jim Murray, and I learned from working in the Nature of Things and meeting all kinds of people. It’s a much deeper sense, and that is a shift away from the egocentric and anthropocentric. That’s the challenge.

Now, the shift is very, very simple. It’s to acknowledge that earth, air, fire, and water are absolutely critical to our survival and well being. So I tell the story. I got a call four years ago from the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the tar sands of Alberta. ‘Could I come and talk to you?’ He said. Of course, I’m not into fighting, come and talk to me. The next day, he showed up. And I thanked him and said how honored I was and all that. And I said was, ‘Before you come to my office, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to leave your identity as a CEO of an oil company outside come in as a human being.’

I said, ‘What’s the point about talking about pipelines or carbon taxes, carbon emissions, or any of that stuff, till you and I begin from a platform of complete agreement on our fundamental needs, then we can build from that and see how we can work our way out.’ This is not why he came down to talk. But he was a decent man. So reluctantly, I can see he came in. So I thanked him. I said, ‘I know this isn’t what you expected. But we live in a world that is shaped by the laws of nature. And there’s nothing we can do about those laws.’ I said ‘Physics dictates you can build a rocket that will travel faster than the speed of light. First and Second Law of Thermodynamics tell you, you can build a perpetual motion machine, the law of gravity—if I trip I’m going to hit my head.’ I mean, we live with that. That’s the law of physics. Chemistry, it’s the same the atomic property of the elements determines the melting point, freezing point, boiling point—diffusion constants, reaction rates, all of that is set by the atomic properties of the elements. We know what we can and cannot do.

And finally, I said ‘In biology, it’s the same. Every species has a maximum number that can be attained and maintained indefinitely. And that’s determined by the carrying capacity of an ecosystem or habitat. Exceed that number, and your population will fall. Humans are not bound to a single ecosystem or habitat. But our home is the biosphere, the zone of air, water, and land where all life exists. That’s our home. And there are limits determined by how much we consume, and how many of us there are.’

I said, ‘You know, you and I are animals.’ And I could see right away he did not like to be called an animal, which is such an amazing thing…

…Aaron and David’s conversation continues in the podcast. Listen here.

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Education means a brighter future. simbifoundation.org.

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