I MET David Suzuki 20 years ago, when his heart was captured by a humble Swiss shepherd.
Bruno Manser had left his alpine home to live for seven years in the Borneo jungle, helping the nomadic Penan people in their, as it turned out, hopeless attempt to save their tribal lands from rapacious rainforest logging. When Bruno left the jungle, I invited him to come to Australia for a speaking tour of the capital cities, to raise funds for the Penan. The response this gentle person received from Australian environmentalists, everywhere we went, was astonishing. When the Australian tour finished, I travelled with Bruno to a conference in Hawaii, convened by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Dr David Suzuki was there.
He immediately embraced Bruno, and the cause of the Penan, and flew us both first to a Hollywood conference at Topanga Canyon, near Los Angeles, where we were invited to dinner at home with Olivia Newton-John; and then on to Toronto, to feature Bruno in Dr Suzuki’s CBC television show, The Nature of Things.
During the week we spent with him, I came to appreciate what an extraordinary, dedicated and driven man he is. As he wrote in his 1999 book, Naked Ape to Superspecies: “Like most other people, I would rather spend my time with my family, go to the lab and do research in my field of genetics, or pursue my hobbies. But I have children and grandchildren. I have a profound stake in their future.”
For a long time, geneticist, writer, broadcaster and leading global environmentalist David Suzuki considered Australia to be his second home (he lives in Vancouver, Canada). But now the carbon footprint involved in flying here has become so great a concern that he is calling his current visit a farewell tour. He’ll be on the North Coast this week, speaking at Bangalow tomorrow night at the invitation of the Northern Rivers Writers Centre – all tickets are sold out.
By the time he gets to the Northern Rivers, he will have met up with Australia’s leading environmentalists including Bob Brown and Tim Flannery; one of his first appointments when he arrived in Australia was to meet with Clive Hamilton.
Suzuki is promoting his latest book, The Legacy, subtitled An Elder’s Vision for our Sustainable Future.
Transcribed and edited from a Legacy Lecture Suzuki delivered at the University of British Columbia in December last year, The Legacy, in his own words, “is my version of a last lecture and an attempt to answer the age-old questions: What’s it all about? What have I learned over a lifetime that I’d like to pass on?”
“We have no rules in our society that say we have responsibility for future generations,” he tells me on the phone from Melbourne.
“So there are companies like Exxon who have been able to get away with policies of deliberate deception about their practices, and to confuse the public in the name of profit, while they do untold harm to the environment.
“I’m currently working with a group in Europe interested in finding out whether there is a legal basis for prosecuting corporations for crimes against future generations. Fossil fuel industries need to be held to account for spreading misinformation and promoting their own “scientists” who, for example, deny that climate change is caused by human activity.
“Politicians who ignore the best information from the most eminent scientists are guilty of criminal neglect. They should be held to account, too.”
Dr Suzuki is deeply worried about the way we are using up the legacy we are leaving for our children. As a geneticist, I ask him, does he not have some hope that the human race will adapt to the challenges of climate change and species loss?
“Look,” he says, “in the past, people have been very inventive and able to adapt to varied environments through the normal cycles of change that nature has thrown at them.
“But they’ve always been dependent on the ability of earth to give them stuff they can use.
“Given the speed of changes we are creating for ourselves, the planet may not be able to keep that up, or support our adaptation to new conditions.”
In the book, Dr Suzuki writes that it used to be understood that we have a sacred duty to pass on to future generations a world that is as rich as, or richer than, the one we came into.
“Traditionally,” he writes, “when North American Aboriginals had to make important decisions, they reflected back on their ancestors and then thought ahead to how their decision might affect the seventh generation after them.”
He reminds me of this on the phone, and when I ask how we can get our leaders to make wiser choices, and start looking at the big picture instead of compartmentalising environmental issues into separate departments, Suzuki tells me that it’s a problem with all Western political cultures.
“Here you have elections every three years,” he reminds me. “Any politician is going to think twice before he makes promises that can’t show results in that time – especially when for the planet, he would need to be committing billions of dollars, over decades, to fixing things up. So the politicians just cross their fingers and hope that nothing serious will happen on their watch.
“They are concerned only with people who vote. Children don’t vote, yet the decisions that affect them most seriously get pushed back, to be dealt with by the generations yet to come.”
When I travelled with David Suzuki all those years ago, I used to marvel at how he could encourage an audience to action, and sparkle with positivity, especially when he was around young people, spreading hope and inspiration; yet in his quieter moments away from the spotlight, he seemed sometimes to be deeply pessimistic about the future of life on earth. I ask him to update me about that.
“Seriously, what are we looking at here?” he asks.
“We have an extinction crisis – so many species are vanishing. Do we think we can continue to live on this planet in this way, clinging to the hope that somehow, miraculously, nature will be forgiving?
“Science and technology may hold answers to the future, but it’s also got us into a lot of trouble.”
So does he agree with Tim Flannery, who writes in his new book that it may be human intelligence that gets us out of the trouble we’re in?
“I think it takes more than just intelligence,” he replies, quietly. “I think love and spirit are needed to add to the mix. Love of our children, and love of nature, will help us along the way.”
If The Legacy is a distillation of all that Dr Suzuki is passionate about, his message has changed little over his decades as an environmentalist. Over and over, he returns to what he calls the “sacred elements” – the earth, the water, the fire and the air; and to those he adds a fifth sacred element, called biodiversity – the intricate web of all life on this planet, from the humblest microbe to the greatest tree. And he urges us to consider how we are treating these elements. “These are the things that give us life,” he says. “Why would we want to use them as toxic waste dumps?”
Dr Suzuki is 73, a true elder from the vanguard of the Baby Boomer generation. Among those 10 years younger than himself, I suggest, there is something of a Peter Pan quality; how would he advise them to assume the mantle of “elders”?
“They’d better grow up fast, and start thinking about their grandchildren,” he retorts. “We’ve all been living like kings and queens and now the party’s over. They need to sober up, tidy the house, clean up the mess. Our generation has been unbelievably self-indulgent and now we’ve really got to start thinking about what we are leaving behind for our grandchildren – our legacy.”
For those who will miss out on hearing David Suzuki at Bangalow, his Legacy website tells us that in his talk he will reflect on the massive changes in the world within his living memory, from explosive population growth, to massive technological developments, to the establishment of a global economy.
And ultimately, he will express his faith in human beings’ capacity for innovation, urging us all to dream of a better world and make it happen.