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Dr David Suzuki joins Lateline -

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Dr David Suzuki joins Lateline

Broadcast: 15/10/2010

Reporter: Leigh Sales

Scientific and environmental researcher Dr David Suzuki joins lateline to discuss his new book.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Dr David Suzuki has spent a lifetime engaged in scientific and
environmental research and activism. He's one of the best-known nature advocates in the world. In
his new book, 'The Legacy', he's tried to distil all of his experiences into a short volume about
how he sees the state of the planet and its future.

And David Suzuki is with me now in our Sydney studio.

Thank you very much for coming in.


LEIGH SALES: Margaret Attwood writes - the author writes in the foreword to your book that the term
'legacy' has an ominous ring to it - a hint of departure. Are you going somewhere?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well yes, what I say is that at my age you have to admit that you're in the death
zone. I could kick the bucket any time and that puts a certain obligation, I think, on people like

In our society, elders tend to be pushed aside, you know, they're kind of a nuisance; they don't
know how to use a computer or whatever.

But I think that we have a really important role. We're no longer pushed by the need for fame or
money or power, and I think it gives us an ability then to speak out straight from the heart; speak
the truth without any worry about any other pressure.

And so we ought to be sitting back and saying, "What was life all about? What have I learned? Have
I got anything that I want to pass on?"

But yeah, I mean it's at the end of my life.

LEIGH SALES: What pressures - have you felt those pressures in your life that you talk about? Did
you feel that you were constrained in speaking out on what you want?

DAVID SUZUKI: I've been very, very fortunate in having a platform for my ideas with the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation. But there have been a lot of pressures, certainly within the university;
constant pressure from the corporate community on the board of governors saying, "What's this guy
speaking out and criticising the forest industry?" and so on. There has always been that kind of
pressure there.

LEIGH SALES: What about the limitations of getting old that you mentioned? Is that something that
you have felt?

DAVID SUZUKI: Limitations of getting old?

LEIGH SALES: Well, when you say that, you know, people think, "Oh elders, we don't need to hear
from them; their time has passed," and whatever - is that something you've felt at all?

DAVID SUZUKI: No, not really. I've been very impressed. You see, I've worked a lot with what we
call the First Nations people. These are the native Canadians. And what's most impressive is even
in the most difficult communities that, you know, have - beset with poverty and alcohol and so on -
when you come into the community, elders are really the focus and the centre of their community. So
you meet a young person and within minutes they will be saying, "Well the elders tell us," or,
"Gee, I don't know, we'll have to talk to the elders about it." Elders really hold a big central

But in the dominant society, elders tend to be people that you want to shuffle off, you know. The
emphasis is on youth and so if they want to go to retirement homes, the sooner the better.

And I think that this is very, very unfortunate, because elders, especially at this time now,
remember what it was like before we got caught up in this kind of frenzy of disposability and
constant desire for new things and new stuff. Elders should be really kind of centring us on
recognising the enormous changes and the unsustainability of what's going on.

LEIGH SALES: Well you were born in 1936, so of course there have been enormous changes since then.
People talk about the pace of change speeding up. Is that something that you see and what do you
think is the effect of that?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well I think most of the speed up to now has to do with the drive for greater
economic growth. And this is something I talk about a lot in the book - that growth is just the
description of a system. Growth by itself is nothing. And yet we've come to feel that growth is the
very definition of progress. So if you talk to a businessman or someone in government, "How well
did you do last year?" within a few seconds they'll be talking about whether the GDP grew or the
share of market or profits or jobs.

Growth has become the definition of whether or not they did well. And it's very clear that that
growth is now in the industrialised world having an enormous impact on forests, on fish, on the
oceans and certainly on climate, with our skyrocketing rates of use of fossil fuels. Growth has
become a driving part of the destruction of the life support systems of the planet. It just can't

LEIGH SALES: People would argue though - the counter-argument to that would be that growth has
delivered people all around the world a better standard of living.

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, that's always been the promise; that's always been the thought that growth in
the economy is what raises people up. But there comes a certain level, and certainly we've achieved
that long ago in Canada, where growth really isn't improving the quality of your life.

We're not asking the important question: how much is enough? Because with all of this profusion of
stuff, there's certainly no correlation with the improvement in whether we're happy; whether it's
helped the poorest people in our society. There's always been the argument, "Well you've got to
have growth so that the wealth trickles down." This is absolutely not true.

The gap between the wealthy nations and the poor nations has simply increased, so we've had huge
growth in the industrialised world but the poorer nations have remained poor. And even within our
society, the disparity between the very wealthy and the poorest - and the poorest is growing in
proportion - has only increased.

So - and Clive Hamilton, who's a very prominent Australian philosopher, has been pointing out that
we've got a growth fetish, but the benefits certainly have not accrued as is promised.

LEIGH SALES: So you said before that growth should not be the definition of progress. What should
be then, in your view?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well I think it's how - what the quality of our lives will be, and certainly our
relationship with each other. I was very struck - my great hero and mentor was my father, and when
he was 85 he was dying of cancer. He was totally prepared to die - he wasn't afraid of it. And I
moved in to live with him the last month of his life, and actually it was just a wonderful time of
sharing with him. And we laughed and we cried and we went over, you know, scrap books every night.
My wife would come with the children and show slides of trips we took together.

And in all that time he never once said, "Gee, David, you remember that closet full of fancy
clothes I had, or that big 1975 Plymouth car, or the house I bought in London, Ontario?" Our
conversations were filled with discussions about family, friends and neighbours, and the things we
did together. And he was never a wealthy man, but he kept saying, "David, I am going to die a rich
man." And his wealth was really in people and the experiences we had together. And in that, he
truly was, I think, a wealthy man.

And somehow we've got caught up in this idea that having more money and having more stuff is what
makes us happy, and it's clearly not. But we were hung up on that, and in Canada in the last 40
years the size of an average Canadian home has increased by more than 50 per cent. At the same
time, the number of people living in those homes has decreased by almost half. And so we've got
bigger stuff, but I don't see the corresponding increase in happiness with all that stuff.

LEIGH SALES: You mentioned fewer people living in the houses, but if you - in a country like
Canada, but if you look all around the world, of course, over-population is a huge problem. You
point out in 'The Legacy' that it took all of human existence to the 19th century to reach two
billion in population, and then it took less than two centuries to reach seven billion. What is the
effect of that?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well of course all of that is pressure on the planet. You see, there's a rule in
biology that - we call it the inverse law of size and population. And that simply says the smaller
you are the more of you there can be. And so that mice can number in the tens of millions. The
bigger you get - by the time you get to whales or elephants you're numbering in the tens or maybe
hundreds of thousands.

Humans have broken that law in the sense that we are now the most numerous mammal on the planet,
and we've done that because of trade and technology and so on. But it means then with seven billion
people - well we're almost at seven billion - just the act of living - we've got to breathe air,
drink water, eat food, clothe, shelter ourselves - with so many people all of that stuff that we
use comes out of the Earth. And so just the act of living means we have a huge ecological
footprint. Takes a lot of land, space, water and air to support us. But of course we're not like
rats or mice or rabbits. We have a huge amount of technology that delivers our clothes and our cars
and TVs, and all of that comes out of the Earth.

LEIGH SALES: Economists argue though that human enterprise and resourcefulness will allow us to
deal with those challenges. Do you accept that?

DAVID SUZUKI: Absolutely not. I mean we - economists think that we're so bright we're not wedded to
the fact that we live in a finite world. And any organism living within limited boundaries is going
to ultimately hit limits. Economists think, "Oh, we're so bright. When we hit a shortage we're
either going to find an alternative or we're going to invent new ways of doing the same thing." And
we have been unbelievably resourceful in that, you know. But they think, "Well, we could go to the
moon and start mining that and pick up asteroids." I mean this is absolute nonsense.

LEIGH SALES: You write in the book I think about exponential graphs, where you see slow growth then
a really big one and it hits a limit. In terms of talking about population growth now, is the limit
that we're likely to hit shortages in these things you're talking about?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, it's shortages I think in everything, as well as the fact that we've used air,
water and soil as a dump for our most toxic chemicals, so that each of us, even in Australia - each
of us is now carrying dozens of toxic chemicals in our bodies.

In North America it's claimed that we carry over a pound of plastic dissolved in our bodies. So why
are we surprised then that 15 per cent of our kids have asthma; that the rates of breast cancer in
women are sky rocketing? You can't have a healthy population when you're treating the very things
that keep us alive - air, water and the land - as a garbage can. You can't expect that we're going
to be healthy.

So I think that with the huge increase in numbers, I've now said I'll never go back to China or
India. Why? Because every time I've gone I get very, very sick, because the air is - for me is
toxic now.

And I think we're clearly seeing the impact of the limits of the biosphere. We forget that the
biosphere - the zone of air, water and land - it's not infinite. It doesn't go all the way to the
stars. Carl Sagan, the astronomer, used to say, "If you shrink the Earth to the size of basketball,
the biosphere will be thinner than a layer of varnish that you paint on it." And that's it. It
can't grow. And human beings are now hitting limits all over the place. Because we've used the
entire planet as a source of raw materials, we still have the illusion that everything is fine.

LEIGH SALES: We're having quite a row in Australia at the moment about the future of a major river
system - the Murray-Darling. I heard you on the radio today saying that in those sort of disputes
between the environment and the economy, that the environment needs to win. How do you explain that
though to people who feel that their economic livelihood, that their children's future, depends on
being able to continue the way that they have continued?

DAVID SUZUKI: The source of your wealth and your future is that river system - the ecology of it.
And yes, you may have had three or four generations of people using that water, but you're in
crisis. And you've got to focus now on maintaining the health of that water shed. The water is what
keeps you alive and allows you a livelihood. And that has to be the highest priority - is
protecting that system. And then humans are going to have to learn to live within that if they're
going to protect that for future generations.

LEIGH SALES: David Suzuki, I know you flew in from overseas very early this morning, so we thank
you very much for coming in late to speak to us.

DAVID SUZUKI: It's been a pleasure, thank you.