Few scientists are more widely beloved by the public than the amiable David Suzuki. His background is in genetics (he was a professor at the University of British Columbia until his 2001 retirement), but the 79-year-old Canadian biologist, broadcaster and environmentalist has spent the past five decades explaining the wonders of nature – and, increasingly, the threats to our survival from climate change – to a popular audience on radio, television, and through his best-selling books; the most recent of which, Letters to my Grandchildren, is a mix of memoir, philosophy text, and urgent call to action.
He's coming to Australia in March for a run of events, including an appearance at WOMADelaide, where he'll be talking about the greatest problems of our age, such as whether or not we'd like to save our species from destroying itself. And as you'll see, he doesn't think it's exactly a slam dunk, although he's more than happy to chat about . . .
1. The election of Justin Trudeau as Canada's Prime Minister
"It's a huge thing! We've had 10 years of a government [led by former PM Stephen Harper] that was so oppressive regarding environmental issues. We had to really carefully control what we said and had to worry about literally being called 'enemies of Canada'. Which I know must sound familiar to you [laughs] – but you didn't kick the party out! I know that [Malcolm] Turnbull is a different animal from [Tony] Abbott, but we got rid of the party as well as the party leader, so I feel ours is a brighter day. I was going to book a one-way ticket to Mars if Harper was re-elected."
2. Giving jail sentences to former Prime Ministers
"I really believe that people like the former Prime Minister of Canada should be thrown in jail for wilful blindness. If you're the CEO of a company and you deliberately avoid or ignore information relevant to the functioning of that company, you can be thrown in jail – and Canada is probably more vulnerable to climate change than any other industrialised country, because we're a northern country and the warming is going on much faster and we have the longest marine coastline of any nation, so sea level rise is going to affect us more. And to have a Prime Minister who for nine years wouldn't even let the term 'climate change' pass his lips! If that isn't wilful blindness, then I don't know what is."
3. Not being an optimist
"Optimists believe good things are going to happen and pessimists believe bad things are going to happen. I'm enough of a realist to see that we're going right down the chute. You know, there's a scientist from the States who says we're all gonna be dead by 2030, and I was just devastated by it, I was helpless for a week. But I pulled out of that, because these climate deniers cherry-pick their data – a little fact here and a little note there – and I realised that this guy has done the same thing and created a story which he then sells. So I still operate on hope. I believe that if we pull back and give nature a chance, she'll be much more generous than we deserve. That's the basis of my hope. It's not just a blind Pollyanna hope: I don't think we know enough to say that it's too late."
4. The biggest problems we currently face
"People ask me, 'Which is the most important crisis: is it climate change? Is it acidification of the ocean? Is it species extinction? Is it toxic pollution?' I don't know! They're all serious. I don't know which one will do us in. But I will tell you that underlying all these problems is the fundamental way that humans look at the world. If we look at it as though it's a resource for us to use as we wish, then we're going to continue our destructive ways. The fundamental issue is that our ecological footprint is way beyond the capacity of the planet to sustain us via this terrible conjunction of technology, consumptive demand and population all coming together. We're undermining the life support systems of the planet."
5. The awesomeness of The Pope
"I'm an atheist, but the Pope's environmental Encyclical [June 2015's 'Laudato Si'] was such a mind-boggling event: I'd kiss his hands, his feet and any other place he'd want me to kiss him, just for publishing that amazing document! He's done something that we don't tend to do: we tend to go, 'Oh, this is an issue of hunger and poverty, that's Oxfam; this is an issue of social justice, that's Amnesty International; this is an issue of environment, that's the Suzuki Foundation' – we act as though these are separate issues. And the Pope doesn't separate them: he says, 'We've spent all our time focused on two relationships: our human relationship with God, and our relationship with each other. But there is a third relationship, and that's our relationship with the rest of Creation.' Thank you, Francis. It's an astounding thing to come out of the Catholic freakin' Church!"
Topics: David Suzuki