Joe Moore: My name is Joe Moore, I’m in the philosophy department here at Amherst College and I’m also chair of the environmental studies major. I’m delighted to be able to talk today with David Suzuki about his most recent book, Everything Under the Sun: Toward a Brighter Future for a Small Blue Planet, which came out earlier this year by Greystone Books. Professor David Suzuki is a prominent biologist at the University of British Columbia and also a well-known broadcaster. Among many other things David has hosted, for more than three decades, the television program, “The Nature of Things”. He’s not only a talented and enthusiastic presenter of science but also a forceful advocate for environmental change, both in Canada and around the world. In fact he’s been described as the godfather of the environmental movement in Canada. Of particular note for us, David got his undergraduate degree here at Amherst College in 1958, where he graduated with honors in Biology. He also received an honorary degree from the college in 1988. So David, I just want to start with two questions about writing. The first is about the structure of your book. Your book covers a wide range of broadly speaking environmental topics. You touch on global issues like the complexities of climate change, the proper use of science but also much more local issues like waste from cruise ships and the virtues of eating sardines, anchovies and other small fish. So the book is structured as a number of small two to four page essays gathered into 10 thematic chapters. I gather that the essays were originally column from your foundation’s website.
David Suzuki: Exactly
JM: But how did you and your co-author, Ian Hanginton, approach the task of assembling these into a book?
DS: Well this is, remember it’s a compilation of weekly columns that I’ve now been writing for over twenty years. This one is I think the fifth or 6th book that has come out as a compilation. And what I’ve found is that it’s quite amazing. You know you write from week to week and each column is an entity in itself. So I may write about a crisis in ocean warming or acidification one week and then the next week write about floods in New Orleans. I mean they are totally disconnected. This is one of the ironies of course is that I feel one of our problems today is that we’ve fragmented the world and we no longer see that we belong to a single entity, called the biosphere, and what we do here in America has repercussions around the world. We don’t see that. And yet the very act of writing weekly columns, exacerbates the fragmentation. So what we do, what I do, is go through, comb through two, three, four years worth of columns and then basically sift out a lot of the ones that are really very local and of very little interest. Some are issues that rise because of a problem right then and pass over, no longer relevant. And pull out the ones that I think are still relevant, well the best ones that we’ve written, raise a lot of information. Then magically they sift themselves out and they fall into categories, I’ve always been astounded at this. You begin to separate them and say okay, well we’ll have the political category and an economic category. They just sift themselves out in a way that makes sense.
JM: And how do you make choices, for example, you start with bio diversity. How do you make choices about what issues to start with? What general themes to start with?
DS: Well gee, that’s a matter of just what you feel at the moment. When I was still an active geneticist, it was usually the genetics stuff, genetic engineering and so on that would the one I would immediately go to and say, this has got to figure prominently. It’s just a got thing that you have. As far as I’m concerned, there is no logical flow to the choice of areas that we cover.
JM: Let me ask you my second question, which is about tone. Your book was a pleasure to read …
JM: … and that’s remarkable because the message it delivers is sometimes hard-hitting and sometimes just bleak …
JM: … and there is this rhetorical problem in that you’re not alone in trying to balance this tough message with the need to engage an audience. How do you do it?
DS: That’s a very interesting point. Way back, when I started with “The Nature of Things”, I began to host it in 1979, I realized that our shows were becoming increasingly depressing. Because at the end, we could document the disappearance of the last elephants in Sri Lanka or the bonobos or chimpanzees in Africa and at the end it was kind of like oh those nasty humans, look at those poor animals, there’s nothing we can do. People began to turn off the show and I’d meet people on the street that was say, “you know I used to love watching “The Nature of Things” but it really got too depressing and I don’t want to watch it anymore”. And that’s when I realized there is no point in delivering a deep message unless you give a life line at the end. Say look it’s not too late, there are things that we can do, bang, bang, bang, this is what was can do. Then people grab onto it and they are motivated to do something. I’ve always been torn in my writing between wanting to say it straight away and let people know how dire it is and constantly try to find something that will give them the hope that it will be worth getting involved in. It’s a very fine balance because quite honestly, more and more of my colleagues are saying it’s too late. That we’ve passed too many tipping points to really be able to recover the kind of biodiversity and the kind of pristine planet that we need to aim for. Sir Martin Rees, one of the eminent scientist in England, the royal astronomer, was asked on BBC a few years ago, “What are the chances that human beings as a species will survive by the end of the century, 2100”? And his answer was absolutely chilling, he said, “50/50”. A friend of mine, a man I admire very much, Clive Hamilton, in Australia who wrote a book years ago called Influenza, has now written a book called Requiem for a Species. And guess what’s species it is a requiem for? It’s us. My response to these kinds of positions is thank you for telling us it’s very very urgent but if you want to say it’s too late than please shut up and go away. There is no point in saying that because what are we supposed to do then? Just party away and say well we’re on the deck of the Titanic so let’s go first class. You’re going to fight to the end anyway and I think if you say, look there’s nothing you can do, it’s too late than it really does diffuse any kind of effort or hope that we can still make a difference.
JM: Well you pulled it off. I didn’t feel like I needed to crawl back in bed.
DS: I’m glad to hear that. I think one thing that I’m detecting now is people are hungry to be told the truth and the truth is not going to be very pleasant but they’re hungry to be told the truth. When you look at the presidential debates over the last few months it’s absolutely astounding to me that in the richest country on the planet the absolute avoidance of any serious ecological issues that confront us. From climate change to loss of forest species, extinctions, desertification, ocean destruction; we’ve got huge problems on this planet that threaten the very survival of our species. Yet, look at the political process in the United States. It’s a joke. It’s an absolute joke. If the economy is such a high priority and I think it’s crazy to put the economy above everything else, then surely the economic repercussions of climate change are absolutely severe. Yet, the United States is still caught up trying to believe the climatologist that climate change is happening. I mean it’s just, what’s going on in the richest, most powerful nation on the planet?
JM: I agree with you and I had a question about that. You talk about the economy and in your book you describe it at times, not just as a cultural construction but almost a cultural obsession that gets in our way. I wonder if you could say more about that?
DS: Well I always take things in an evolutionary sense. The evidence is that human beings evolved in Africa 150 thousand years ago and for 95 percent of human existence since then, we have been nomadic hunter gathers. We followed animals and plants through the seasons and when you are a nomad and you have to carry everything you own on your back and find food and shelter. You know very well that you’re deeply embedded in nature and utterly dependent on nature’s generosity for your survival an well being. In the last 5 percent of our existence, the last 10 percent of human existence, we’ve been totally transformed by the agricultural revolution. In 1900, when there were about a billion and a half people on the planet, most people still lived in rural village communities because most people will still involved in some aspect of farming. Even though farming revolutionized the way that we live. Farmers know very well that we are utterly dependent on weather, climate and the seasons. They know that the amount of snow in the winter is directly related to moisture in the soil in the summer. That some insects are pest but you need insects to pollinate flowering plants. That certain plants species and tree species fix nitrogen as a fertilizer in the soil. So farmers know very well that we are a part of nature. But in the last 100 years we’ve undergone this fundamental shift. By the year 2000 there were 6 billion humans on the planet but there were hundreds and hundreds of cities over a million people and in countries like Canada and the United States, 80-85 percent of us now live in big cities. In a big city, it’s easy to think that we’re different than other creatures. That we’re so smart, we create our own habitat and so long as we have a few parks out there to play and camp in, who needs nature? When you’re in a city, your highest priority is your job. You need the job to make the money to buy the things you want. In so in a city, ones focus automatically shifts to a job and because we no longer see our complete dependence on nature, for clean air, clean water, clean energy—we still are a biological creature—our focus as urban animals is now essentially cut off from the real world, the biosphere that sustains us. So there has been this fundamental shift and now we put the economy—as I saw again, listen to the debates that we have just held in this country for the presidency and you see that everything is about the economy, which is a human construct. We bow down before the economy, whereas for 99 percent of humans existence we bowed down to mother earth. We thanked mother earth for her generosity of making it possible of us to live and survive. But now the economy, we think, is the source of everything that matters. We can’t manage nature, we don’t know enough to manage nature. The only thing we can manage is ourselves and our human constructs like capitalism and corporations and economies and political boundaries. Those are the things that we’ve created and we can change. But if you look, for example, at the conference in Copenhagen 2 years ago. You had 192 nations gathered to deal with the atmosphere that belongs to no one through the perceptional lenses of 192 political boarders and 192 economic agendas. So we try to shoehorn nature into our human constructs, as if somehow this is going to allow us to manage the world around us. This is absolutely suicidal. But as long as we keep the economy up there, that’s what we’re going to do.
JM: Do you see any difference between these views as they play out for a U.S. audience and a Canadian audience?
DS: Absolutely. In Canada, we run shows all the time about evolution. Our shows have been bought by American broadcasters. Whenever we mention evolution, first of all the people that buy our shows try to extirpate the word. They don’t want to use it in shows that are about evolution or biology. But when we run shows in the States that say the word evolution. We are assaulted by all kinds of outraged letters and phone calls. In Canada we’re not. The other thing is that a poll in Canada about a month and a half ago indicated that 98 percent of Canadians believe that climate change is happening and most of those believe that it’s caused by human activity. I guess the 2 percent that don’t believe in it are in the government in Ottawa because our Prime Minister certainly has never mentioned climate change. I was stunned by that figure because of the enormous contrast of what you’re getting in the United States. Although now I gather there is a majority, clear majority, of Americans who do believe that climate change is happening and most of those believe that humans have got a footprint or fingerprint in there. It’s interesting the clear distinction between republicans and democrats. Overwhelmingly democrats believe the climate change is happening and we’ve got to act on it. Republicans overwhelmingly again are in the denial. So the two cultures are so strong in the United States but that’s certainly not what we detect in Canada. I mean there are deniers in Canada but nothing like the proportions you see in the United States.
JM: So let me ask you about something that doesn’t get much play in your book, which is the issue of population and population growth. Many people regard this as a central part of the environmental crisis and you do take this up briefly at the end.
DS: Absolutely true. There have never been so many mammals on the planet. We are the most numerous mammals on the planet. I was I was trying to think have there ever been a billion mammals of one species ever in the history of life on earth. Well, of course, the answer is no. There were a lot of bison at one time or the wildebeest in Africa but nothing approaching a billion. We are the most numerous mammal on earth and just the act of living—now that there are 7 billion of us—means everyone of us has to breath air, drink water, feed, cloth and shelter ourselves. We have an enormous ecological footprint. It takes a lot of air water and land just to keep us alive but then when you add the enormous technological growth in the last 100 years our ability to assault the planet for planet for raw materials, to manufacture goods, to throw our wastes around the world—that amplifies our ecological footprint. And of course we have a North American economy where 70 percent is now based on consumption and all of the materials—what we consume—comes out of the earth and goes back into it when we’re finished. So when you add that all up we have, as a species, an ecological footprint beyond anything that has ever existed on the planet. So it is just that our species take from the planet is simply not sustainable but we don’t pay attention to carrying capacity of the biosphere. So I asked E. O. Wilson, probably one of the great ecologist in the world, a few years ago I said, Ed how many people do you think the planet could sustain forever? That is live sustainably. And this is just off the top of his head, he said well if you want to live like we do in Canada and the United States, 200 million. Last time I heard the United States alone was over 300 million. So when you add all of the industrialized countries, we are the biggest predators on the planet. It’s the profligate exploitation and consumption around the world by the rich countries that is really causing the global crisis and we are setting the example for the rest of the world. Now we know that our reproductive rates are falling, they’re falling for 2 reasons. We’re deliberately limiting the size of our families but also we are now being assaulted by endocrine disrupters that are causing enormous fertility problems in humans. So in the industrialized world populations are dropping. Unfortunately, we think that because of the strong coloration between growth and population and growth in the economy we think we have to keep the population growing. Even though we’re all way over the carrying capacity of the areas that we inhabit. We still insist on keeping our population growing. So in Canada what we’re doing is stimulating that population growth, because we’re not replacing ourselves, with immigration. I find that in Australia, Canada, the United States we love to say the problem of the planet is over population. It’s true. It is over population. But we say it’s the brown, black and yellow people. They’re breeding like flies and that ‘s the problem. Well the reality is that the impact of population is not just a fact of numbers; you have to add per capita consumption to see what our ecological impact is. So if you want to compare us to India or China you may have to multiply by a factor of 20 to get the Indian or Chinese equivalent of our impact of a population. If you want to compare us to Bangladesh or Somali you’d have to multiply us by 40 or 60 and then you realize, yes we are in the industrialized world when you include consumption. We are the vastly overpopulated place on the planet. So we’ve got a two-fold challenge. We can’t go around deliberately killing people. And it seems to me that we in the industrialized world are the greatest predator and we’re exacerbating the problem, so we’ve got to vastly reduce our consumption to free up some resources for the developing world. And we have got to stop setting the example of our profligate ways as if some how the rest of the world should follow us and keep growing their economy while we continue to grow ours. So we’re setting the example on a sure fire way to lead us down an absolutely destructive path.
JM: Let me ask you a bit about bridging this fact value divide, which you’re doing now as you speak. A trained scientist, you’ve had all this experience in science and yet at the end of the day, your book is really a moral argument. That we really need to drastically change the way we behave. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you’ve bridged that gap?
DS: Well I don’t, I’m not a, I’ve never even had a course in philosophy. That’s your area of expertise, you can tell me about that. I just kind of use the layman’s approach to the whole thing. I believe it’s not our right in the rich countries to live the way we do at the expense of the rest of the world because I see the world as a completely interconnected and interdependent entity. And so that gives us certain responsibilities. It seems to me it’s just wrong for us to live as we do at the expense of others or at the expense of other species. So we need a drastically different way of looking at the earth. For me, that has come through my experience. My wife and I have been working with what we all first nations, you call Native Americans for 35 years now. And that is where the great lessons have come for me. I’ve never thought of them as moral issues, they just seem to be simple truths. You know when I first encountered this idea of mother earth, I used to say oh that’s a good way of talking about it, people understand that. And they would say, listen stop patronizing us. We don’t, we’re not speaking metaphorically or poetically. When we say the earth is our mother, we mean it literally. Because the earth gives birth to us, we are created out of the body of the earth, because we are created by the 4 sacred elements: earth, air, fire and water. This sounds like a totally different way of looking at the world but as I began to look at what science is showing. The amazing thing to me is that science corroborates these very ways of looking at the world. I realized when you look at the world through indigenous perspectives then there is no environment out there and we are here. We are so inextricably bound up in our surroundings that there is no separation. So to give you a simple example, the very first thing every one of us needed the moment we left our mother’s body was a breath of air. And that first breath was to inflate our lunges and then to announce with our cries that we had arrived on the planet. From that moment on to the last breath we take before we die, we need air 15 to 40 times a minute and we don’t even think about it. Think about 1 breath of air and it’s [breath noise], so simple. Two-three liters of air deep down into those funny, mushy organs we call our lunges. If anybody has ever heard or felt a new set of lunges, it’s kind of squishy; it’s got a very funny texture because it’s mainly air. In the human lunge we have about 300 million alveoli. These are little capsules that are clustered like grapes around an alveoli duct. We need 300 million of them to give the surface area to come into contact with the air. So if you flattened out all of the alveoli into two dimensions they will cover a tennis court. That’s how much surface area is all wrinkled up in our lunges. And each alveolus is lined with a three-layer membrane called a surfactant. The surfactant reduces surface tension and so when the air touches it, it sticks. And instantly carbon dioxide rushes out of our bodies, oxygen and whatever else is in the air rushes into our bodies and hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells grab onto the oxygen and with each beat of our hearts that oxygen is pumped to every part of our bodies. When you breath out, we don’t’ exhaust all of the air from our lunges—if you did that our lunges would collapse. About half of the air stays in our lunges. So the point is, you can’t draw a line that says air ends here and I begin there. There is no line, it’s in us, it’s stuck to us and it’s circulating throughout our bodies. So the fact is, we are air. And of course the air that does come out of your nose or my nose, quickly mixes in the room and is being breathed by everybody else in the room. And of course it floats outsides and drifts around the world and soon everybody is breathing air that was once in your lunges or my lunges. There is a wonderful thought exercise an American astronomer Harlow Shapley did many many years ago. He said, let’s follow one breath of air. Well, how do you do that? 98 percent of the air is oxygen and nitrogen. You breathe it in, oxygen and nitrogen go into your body, you breathe it out, a lot of the oxygen and some of the nitrogen doesn’t come back out. But one percent of the air is an atom or an element called argon. Argon belongs to the noble gases. It’s so noble it doesn’t react with anything. It’s a chemically inert element. Argon doesn’t react chemically, you breathe it in, it’s one percent of air. You breath it in, argon goes in your body, you breath it out, argon comes right back out. So argon is a good marker or indicator of a breath of air. How many atoms of argon in a breath of air? Shapley calculates 3 times 10 to the 18th. That’s 3 followed by 18 zeros. So if you follow the air, one breath that comes out of your nose, very quickly mixes in the air there, passes outside the building into the air, across Massachusetts, across the United States, and according to Shapley, one year later, wherever you are (because air is a single system)—every breath you take will have about 15 argon atoms from that one original breath you took a year before. So Shapley calculates, every breath we take has millions of argon atoms that were one in the body of Jesus Christ and Joan of Arc. That every breath we take has argon atoms that were in the bodies of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That every breath you take will suffuse life as far as we can see into the future. And that’s why aboriginal people around the world refer to air as a sacred substance. Now I guess there is a moral or some kind of implication of that. It just strikes me as obvious that air is the life-giving element that keeps us alive and gives us our lives and yet we who claim to intelligence, use air as a garbage can. To dump our most toxic chemicals as if somehow it’s going to go away and doesn’t affect us. We are air. Whatever we do to air we do to ourselves. And it’s the same with the four sacred elements: earth, air, fire and water.
JM: So that certainly shows a wonderful example, a wonderful point and it shows that physically there is no set boundary between my body and what isn’t my body and between my body and your body.
JM: In your book you invoke this as a cornerstone of your ethics; this notion of an extended self. And that is helpful to hear all of that as a way of understanding it as a physical point. I wonder whether you could talk about when you think ethically and you invoke this notion of yourself as an extended entity. How does that play out in your own thinking? Is it a matter of including the interest of things other than you body alongside what you might think of your own self-interest?
DS: well it becomes a very self-interested point of view. My well-being depends on the rest, not just of humanity, but of all life on earth. My life depends on the air, the water and the soil. So if I say we’re sharing all of this and we’re all affected. My actions here affect people in Bangladesh or Ethiopia. It’s a purely self-interested point of view. Because what I do affects everyone including myself. We’re a part of a single system so I don’t think of it as some kind of ethical thing. It’s a purely obvious---if we’re interested in our own personal health and well-being—then we have to protect these things and we have to urge others to do the same around the world.
JM: Well let me try to ask my question in a more personal way. Any ethic worth itself is going to put restrictions on our behavior, at least the behavior of those of us who are non-saintly, normal people. We struggle to uphold an ethic. Your book is chalk full of a bunch of specific recommendations that ways in which we might painlessly change the way we behave in order to be more earth friendly. But there is also some calls for changes that might involve some significant self-sacrifice, as least you might have thought of that. I wonder if there is this notion of the extended self as something you ever personally invoke at times when you know what the right thing to do is from the perspective of the planet but have struggled yourself trying to uphold it. Maybe you don’t have those types of conflicts but I certainly do. There’s things we should cut down on and it’s not always easy to do so.
DS: Of course not. We’re living in a certain way, we’ve gotten used to living this way, and we like it; we’re very comfortable. So when you speak of sacrifice does that mean, are you talking about giving up an iPod 7 or an iPod 9—is that a sacrifice? Cause I personally don’t think that’s a sacrifice at all. Some people may feel that but that ain’t no sacrifice.
JM: Is the iPod 7 out? I didn’t realize there was an iPod 7.
DS. No, no. I’m just looking into the future and saying we’re in a society in which we want the next one and the next one and the next one. Each one gives you this wonderful sense of, wow I’ve got the latest one and look at the apps on this one. And then six months later a new one comes out and the one that we loved six months before is just a piece of junk and we want the next one. So giving up the opportunity for yet another one and another one some people may regard as a sacrifice. It certainly will be a change in the kind of economic system we have. But when you talk of sacrifice, I’m not even thinking about that. The questions is what kinds, if we give up material things, yeah, I guess that’s a sacrifice. If we give up freedom, freedom to move, freedom to cut down a tree if we want, yeah, I think that is a serious sacrifice and the kind of sacrifices we’re going to have to make.
JM: And I’m just wondering whether…
DS: I’m not an ethicist, I don’t know about that. First of all I hate being called an environmentalist because I’m not. It’s not an issue about the environment because the environment, as I’ve said, is not something out there separate from us. We’re it. We’re a part of it. So it’s about humans and our surroundings and the way that we live. So hunger and poverty are my issues. Not because it’s an ethical issue but the fact is someone who’s starving and comes across an edible plant or animal is not going to say, oh, get that book of red-listed animals, is this an endangered species—they’re going to kill it and eat it. I would. And so if we don’t deal with hunger and poverty, you can forget about these things that have been called environmental issues. I feel the same about the lack of employment, the lack of social justice, having to live under genocide, terror or war. These are all my issues. Because you can’t talk about living in a sustainable way when you have these other priorities you have to deal with.
DS: Okay, in terms of my personal life. I am living in a way that is simply not sustainable. We do everything we can in terms of our transportation; you know walking, busing, I’ve got a plug-in Prius hybrid and all that stuff. But every time I jump on a plane, you can forget about all of the energy that you’ve saved in pollutants that you’ve kept from going up. Flying is a very, very expensive way of getting around. So then how do I, who spout off the need to reduce our ecological footprint—how do I live with the fact that I’m squandering the atmosphere in this reckless way? And I rationalize it and that’s what humans do best, is just rationalize what we do but right now we don’t have the kinds of commitments and infrastructure to allow us to live the way we’re going to. In order to being that process we have to get people motivated and begin to implement the changes that will allow us to live in a sustainable way. And right now we’re in transition. So while I personally urge others to reduce their footprint as I am trying to do, I have to indulge in taking planes to continue to spread that message. That’s what’s needed right now.
JM: Let me ask you a question about the role of the emotions in these types of debates. There is a scene you describe at the end of your book in which you have a heated confrontation with some loggers on Vancouver island and it’s diffused, according to your account, once the loggers start reflecting on the sustainability of their own practice for their children. There is also a scene, you have a wonderful documentary, Force of Nature, came out two years ago, which I watched and there is a wonderful scene where you’re in a large fish market in Tokyo.
JM: And you’re visibly angry about these beautiful, slaughtered blue fine tunas. And I was struck by your visible anger at that moment. I was wondering how you, and it seemed like sort of a positive thing, to have an emotional response to these, sort of broadly speaking environmental challenges. But it needs to be channeled. I wonder if you could speak a bit about, I don’t know, channeling your own emotions.
DS: You know it’s very strange but I was told by a prominent national broadcaster, on Canadian broadcasting, that I hate interviewing environmentalists because they’re so emotional. And I thought about that and I thought, that’s really, really strange. If you came back from the hospital and someone said, “oh, how’s your mother doing”? And you said, oh well she’s dying and she has all these problems, she sure suffers a lot and it doesn’t seem like there is much they can do but that’s the way it goes. You’d say there is something wrong with that person, if that person didn’t show emotion. And yet, here we are, we’re talking about mother earth. And what we’re doing to mother earth and her ability to sustain us. And it’s not legitimate to show emotions? What the hell is going on? You know, you look at any CEO of a company where environmentalist or other people are attacking him, you’ll see emotion there because his bottom line is being threatened. That’s okay? But it’s not okay to show emotion about the very biosphere that sustains us, that is sacrificing a future for our children? I don’t get it. If we can’t be emotional over that, what the hell are we supposed to get emotional over? Whether our team wins the Superbowl, is that the thing we’re supposed to show emotion over? This is nuts. The very earth that sustains us being altered by our species and the future for our children and grandchildren is being radically compromised. Is that not something to be emotional over?
JM: I think it is. I’m just fascinated by the way emotion plays out in trying to convince people to change because being emotional, in your case, you project it in the right way, so it’s motivating.
DS: Well I think there is a certain thing called passion that comes through. You can’t fake passion and people respond to that. The issue now, it’s about ourselves and our relationship with the earth. And that’s something that we should be feeling passionate about and emotional about. And I think this is kind of an illusion—well, I’m getting into areas that I don’t know much about—but it seems to me that we think that we can manage our way into the future and that we’ve got to be very calm and collected about it and we can’t be emotional. But the emotional is absolutely vital, especially because we need it now to bring the changes about. I find adults are very, very difficult to get to listen to the environmental message, because I understand, people go to school, they go to university to get training, to get a job and they get married, they buy a house, they have children. And then environmentalist come along and say look you’re going to have to change the way you live. They get mad and I can understand that. They’ve invested a huge amount of effort to get to where they are. They just don’t want to change now that they’ve got to that point. And the one vulnerable place adults have, I think, is their children. And too often we’re focused on the bottom line, which is much more how do I get food on the plate next week or how do I pay my next payment on my car. But we’re not really thinking about where are we going, in terms of our children. I feel that it is through our love of our children that we can really bring about great change. And that’s pure emotion there. It’s not straight logic.
DS: The other thing that I am also saying now is I am an elder and—to me it’s a great honor to be in this position—elders have something no other group in society has. That is we’ve lived an entire lifetime and when you’re an elder, you can’t be accused of having a hidden agenda of lusting for more power or fame or money, I mean we’re long past that. So we can speak with a clarity that is more creditable than any other group in society, unless you’re talking about children. And so, I’m urging elders to get on with the most important part of their lives: to sift through a lifetime of experience. I mean I’m sure everybody has made a lot of mistakes, we’ve had a few successes, you know we have a lot of regrets about doing this or that, we’ve failed in this. Surely that’s taught us a lot that’s worth passing onto future generations. So sift through your life for those nuggets of hard won lessons that we’ve got and start passing them one. Get the hell off the golf course, get off the couch and start playing the most important role of your life. The role of being an elder with credibility that comes with just having lived an entire lifetime.
JM: I wonder whether I could—that’s wonderful and a wonderful Segway to my last set of questions—as an elder, if you could reflect back on being younger and particularly here at Amherst College. We launched this environmental studies major about five years ago. It’s very healthy now and it draws all sorts of bright and motivated students, I’m very fortunate to be able to teach in it. I imagine the college was a very different type of place when you were here in the 50s.
JM: So can you tell us a little bit about what it was like? Was the health of the planet even on your radar screen? The name Rachel Carson comes up a few times.
DS: Rachel Carson published in ’62 and I graduated from Amherst in ’58. I mean those were amazing days. Amherst College certainly made me as a scholar and it was an incredible experience. It was all male and fortunately we had Holyoke and Smith reasonably close by so that for most kids that wasn’t much of an impediment. I’ll tell you, I had been scared by having been imprisoned in Canada during the wars as an enemy alien because I was a Japanese-Canadian. So, you know, I was terrified of even thinking of asking a white girl out so if you want to think of it in very personal ways; every year I returned to Amherst, I would rush to try and get a peak at the Smith and Holyoke freshman books, looking for an Asian face because that’s all I could think of as a potential date that I might get. So Amherst at that time, for me as a sexual being, was very, very frustrating. Of course this is long before the birth control pill so sexual moirés back then were very, very different. But it was, of course, a very white school, white upper middle class; I had never met so many people who didn’t work in the summer. I had worked in the summers ever since I was in grade school. And weekends, for me, were an opportunity to work because we’d been whipped out by the war. So to see these very privileged kids at Amherst, who were very well educated, listened to classical music, did stuff that was way out of my worldview, was an amazing experience, for me. I think in my class, there were three African Americans, one of them graduated; I roomed with him, Ed Crocket who became a doctor. I think there were three total that registered as freshman and there must have been maybe four Asians. It was a very, very different place. So I imagine that the diversity now is just a glorious thing to have on campus.
JM: Yes, it is.
DS: But it was a great academic institution.
JM: And what was the sense of any type of environmental issue or global issue at all on the radar screen?
DS: Well back then, of course, there was the beginning concern about radioactive fall out but that was still inchoate. You know it wasn’t a big full-blown thing. The big thing at that time was civil rights. Those were the Eisenhower years, life was very, very good. You know there were freedom rides and all that stuff. That was the exciting thing to us at that time.
JM: Right. Well I wonder whether I could end with a question about optimism. I think you’ve already answered this in a way but are you optimistic that we are going to be able to change?
DS: If you look at Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species, and the reason he feels it’s too late, is he simply records the list of warning that have come from scientists from various issues and then the response of politicians and corporations to those warnings over the years. And when you realize, for example, in 1988 a man ran for president of the United States and said if you elect me I will be an environmental president. Do you have any idea who that was? 1988. It was George Herbert Walker Bush. He didn’t have a green bone in his body. But he said it because American people had put the environment at the absolute top of the agenda and he had to say it. In the same way in Canada in 1988 we re-elected a man named Brian Mulroney to be Prime Minister and to show how committed he was to the environment, he appointed his brightest star to be the Minister of the Environment a Quebecois named Lucien Bouchard and I interviewed Lucien Bouchard three months after he was appointed. I said Mr. Bouchard what have you come to think is the most important environmental issue facing Canadians? 1988. He said global warming and I said woah. I was impressed with that. I said how serious is it? And here are his exact words: it threatens the survival of our species, we have to act now. So it was all there, at that time it was at the absolute top of the agenda and that’s what impelled the greatest meeting of the heads of state ever in human history. In 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio but even by the time we hit Rio in 1992, we were already going into a recession. And a lot of the countries had already begun to say we can’t afford to do anything about this, the economy is in bad shape, we can’t afford to do anything. So as you look at the history of how we’ve responded, every time the economy trumps the environment. So I think the environmental movement has fundamentally failed. Many of the victories that I’ve been involved with as one of many people fighting—we held off the proposal to drill for oil in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife refuge. This is the camping grounds of the porcupine caribou herd and every so often the Alaskans tried to put a rider on a bill to sneak through permission to drill for oil and at “The Nature of Things” we did three programs on ANWR and the porcupine caribou herd and the environmental movement beat back the threat of drilling for oil. But you know, you’ve all heard of Sarah Palin and drill baby, drill. Even though we beat back these drives, it’s still there; we’re still having to fight it. I was very heavily involved with a group of natives in Brazil when they heard about a plan to build a dam in their community on the Xingu River and we fought it and one. We stopped it and now Brazil is building that same dam, 35 years later. You know we fought against the movement of oil down to the north slopes down to the southern United States along the coast of B.C. We said absolutely not. And we stopped it but now there is a proposal to bring oil from the Alberta tar sands and take it out along the British Columbia coast. So over and over again these issues we’ve fought and we thought we one, we’re having to fight over again. And the reason is that we have changed the paradigm. We still let the economy be the driving force and we haven’t recognized that our very health and well-being depends on the health and well being of the biosphere of mother earth. So we’re at a time when we have to recognize the environmental movement has failed and that we need to shift the paradigm if we’re going to get real change. And hear tremendous hope. The hope lies in South America. In South American if you look at Ecuador, if you look at Bolivia where the leaders have said Pachamama —that’s mother earth—Pachamama must determine and shape the kinds of activities we have. Where Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, PhD in economics from the United States has said, Yasuni National Park is one of our greatest treasures. There is 7 billion dollars worth of oil under Yasuni National Park if we dig it up we’ll destroy the park, if we burn it we’ll add to more climate change so we’re going to leave it in the ground. He has enshrined Pachamama in the constitution of Ecuador, which means that trees and fish and rivers have constitutional rights to be healthy and to survive. In Canada, we’re pushing for constitutional amendment to make the right to a healthy environment constitutionally guaranteed. We’re going to have a hell of a fight over this because if you think of what is health. It’s not just human health. It’s about the health of the biosphere. And finally let me say, good old Bhutan, this tiny nation in the Himalayan Mountains that only came out of hiding in 1961. Up until then they tried to keep out of the way of China and India but by hunkering down and not telling anybody anything for hundreds of years. They came out of hiding by sending kids out into the west to be educated and these kids came back said you’re not going to believe what we find out there in that world. They think development is raising the GDP, having more money and buying more stuff. Surely that’s not what development is. And on April 2 of this year, Jigme Thinley, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, introduced a resolution at the United Nations saying we want a new paradigm of development. A paradigm that says the goal of governments is not about economic growth or material wealth, it’s about the well being of life and happiness of people. They now have set up committees to work on how to define happiness, how you measure it and how you develop a strategy to work towards the well being of life and happiness. To me, this is the game shifter. If we can begin to accept this as the notion of development, then it’s not longer the economy that is the end that we’re all trying for. The economy becomes a means to a much higher goal and that is the well being of life and happiness of people. So it’s not that we destroy the economy but put the economy in its place to serve the well being of this higher purpose in governments and corporations.
JM: Well thank you very much. Now that we’re on the topic of well-being, I can say as a philosopher that that’s the topic of a number of future conversations. So I want to thank you for this conversation today, thank you for fighting for the planet and continuing to fight for the planet now.
DS: I’m not fighting for the planet. The planet is not in trouble. The biosphere may be in trouble but the planet is fine. And I’m not fighting for the planet; I’m fighting for my children and my grandchildren. And their future and their future is dependent on the well being of all life on earth. So it’s a very selfish thing that I’m doing.
JM: Well however you describe it. I want to thank you for it and thank you for your book and thank you for talking with us today.
DS: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share a few ideas with you. Thanks a lot.