Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jun. 1, 1992
Published on: 21C Magazine
14 min read
Canadian geneticist and science broadcaster David Suzuki

By Wilson da Silva

SOME YEARS AGO, an Amazon Indian named Paiakan stayed with David Suzuki, the Canadian geneticist and science broadcaster. One of the first things the proud chief did on arriving at Suzuki’s Vancouver home was insist on new bedsheets and blankets. Suzuki was puzzled and a little peeved, but complied.

“Suddenly a thought struck me and I asked, ‘Are you worried about disease?’” Suzuki’s eyes were alight as he recounted the tale in his Sydney hotel room recently.  “Paiakan said, ‘Of course. In my village 14 people died just a few years ago of measles’.”

At that moment, in Suzuki’s own living room, the gulf between the stone age and Western technology clashed.

Here was Suzuki constantly fretting that human progress was creating an ozone hole, global warming and desertification, while his guest was having a hard time just keeping the 20th Century from killing him.

And yet, contends Suzuki, the painted and feather-crowned Paiakan and the world’s 300 million aboriginal people have more of an answer to the global problems of modern man than most politicians and technocrats. He calls it, like the title of his new book co-written with Peter Knudson, The Wisdom of the Elders.

“Our society is bankrupt of ideas. It is simply indisputable that we are on an unsustainable path. What I tell people over and over is, talk to your elders, talk to someone who has lived in Sydney for 70 years and ask him or her ‘What was Sydney like when you were a child?’.”

They are a living historical record of the enormous changes during the span of a single human life. Take what they tell you and project that into the future – and you will know with absolute certainty that our grandchildren will have nothing like the opportunities we had.

“We’ve always said in the past, ‘Yeah well, that’s progress’. The Americans are very fond of saying ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’. The fact is, there isn’t. And I don’t consider it progress when the very support systems of life are being compromised.”

Before the industrial revolution steamrolled in, human societies lived inside the ecology around them in a sustainable way for thousands of years. 

Paulinho Paiakan, left, is tribal leader of the Kayapo, an indigenous tribe of Brazil

“The modern attitude is that aboriginal knowledge is all superstition. There’s a disbelief that there’s anything in what they have to say that is relevant to the way we live. ‘We can’t go back to the land, what the hell have we got to learn from them?’”

“Yet we accept the collapse of the environment around us without a god-damn whimper.

“Our environment minister in Canada warned [earlier this year] to keep children out of the sun [because of the ozone hole].  My wife looked at that in the national newspaper and wept. Do we just accept that we have to keep children out of the sun now? Is that progress?”

Suzuki is nothing if not provocative. The bushy-haired, bespectacled geneticist of Japanese descent, a professor at the University of British Columbia, is obsessed with halting what he says is humanity’s headlong rush into an environmental catastrophe. His popular science television programs like The Nature of Things, 16 books and constant lecture tours have made him well-known in the English-speaking world, although he has only attained cult-like status in Australia and his native Canada.

He has been called an environmental fundamentalist and a neo-Luddite, an anti-growth zealot trying to make humanity guilty about economic progress. But Suzuki says the very bedrocks of the Western philosophy – economics and science – now threaten humanity. They have been wildly successful but are concepts, not reality. We have been so blinkered by these philosophies while speeding down the highway of progress that we now risk crashing headlong into a wall of reality.

“All of our politicians and businesspeople from the left to the right proclaim economic growth is vital to our survival,” he said. “But it is a system that places no value on clean air and water. What kind of system is it that regards the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a plus? It brought two billion dollars to the Alaskan economy.

“If one of the nuclear reactors near Toronto melted down, [the province of] Ontario’s gross domestic would go up as people used hospitals, and medical companies profited.”

Science has also been a culprit, Suzuki says. But a revolution sweeping the world’s leading scientific thinkers promises to liberate science from the straight jacket that centuries of detachment and reductionist zeal have wrought.

“The ecological destruction of the planet, which is being accelerated by the tools invented by science and technology, is now telling us that we need another dimension to science,” he said. “Science applied without a sense of the planet as an entity is destructive.

“Many of the leading elder states people in science look at the activity of science and realise that its great strength is also a fatal weakness. We learn about nature from an isolated fragment – we bring a small part of it into the laboratory. But in removing it from its context, you lose all sense of how it all fits together. When you objectify the world you look at, you lose any sense of caring about it – you lose the context within which it has meaning.” 

In his new book Suzuki claims as allies some of the biggest names in science, including Freeman Dyson, Stephen J. Gould, Carl Sagan, Ed Wilson, Paul Ehrlich – all who say a sense of the ecological whole must be a part of science.

“Here are scientists saying that we are missing something fundamental that connects us with other organisms ... and all of this sounds very reminiscent of what aboriginal people say all of the time.  Aboriginal people would never see themselves as removed from nature, they totally revel in their connection, whereas we distance ourselves. These (scientists) are people with established scientific reputations, how can you discount that?

“This is an interesting conjunction between science and indigenous knowledge. The lesson is not that we must all become indigenous people – we can’t – but that ultimately we need to have a different attitude towards the planet, the sort aboriginal people have and have had for thousands of years,” Suzuki said.

Suzuki recounts an example of such a too-narrow scientific focus. Shooting a documentary in the Brazilian Amazon, he spent time with herpetologists who were a world expert on frogs, and ventured into the jungle with one of them.

“I was amazed. He could find miniscule frogs in the middle of the jungle in pitch dark. He just knew, he was really good.

“At one point we scared up a bird, it crashed off and I said ‘Oh, what was that?’. I saw a plant on a tree that was a really weird shape and I said, ‘What’s that?’. In both cases he said, ‘Don’t ask me, I’m a herpetologist’.

“Then I went to live for two weeks with stone age people in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and every insect, every bird and every fish I asked them about they had a name for and could tell me a story. I thought, holy cow, what a difference. To aboriginal people the jungle is their very survival and the knowledge they have is very profound. Compare that with the PhDs, who were very expert in their area, but what a narrow tunnel they saw the world in.

“The knowledge base of aboriginal people is deep. Over and over when you talk to anthropologists, ethnobotanists or ethno-zoologists, they tell you that their  knowledge base is absolutely astounding and far more profound than any scientist could ever get. They see the world as a whole.”

He grinned slightly and peered out of the window  before recalling: “My father used to get frustrated with me and call me an educated fool – ‘You just learn a lot of stuff in books but you don’t know the things you need to survive’. In many ways, guys like those herpetologists are ‘educated fools’ because their knowledge is so specialised that they literally cannot see the forest for the trees.”

Suzuki knows he and like-minded colleagues have an almighty battle in their hands in taking on the dominant philosophies of the West. He contends that humanity has less than a decade to change course before it becomes too late to avert the looming environmental crisis.

“If you project all the curves into the future it looks very, very bleak,” he said. “Population explosion, loss of ocean resources, topsoil degradation...ozone depletion, acid rain, massive pollution of the air and water – when you look at it in that global perspective it just tells you the planet is dying.

“We’re losing 40 hectares of rainforest every minute, and 20,000 species a year become extinct. World food production peaked in 1984 and has been declining ever since [due to soil degradation].”

This contrasts sharply with conditions only 200 years ago, when European settlers reported unbroken tree cover stretching from Maine in the northeastern United States to California in the west through which squirrels could skip from tree to tree across  the continent, and explorers of eastern Canada describing codfish so plentiful one could walk on their backs across a river.

“It’s estimated 60 billion bison thundered across the plains of North America before the arrival of Europeans, and six billion pigeons darkened the skies for days when they migrated.

“It just grieves me to hear people say, ‘Gee, the fish don’t come in here anymore. We used to have a lot pheasants out here, we used to have a lot of rabbits and ground hogs. Haven’t seen any now for years’. When I compare what I grew up with in the 1940s and my children today, their quality of life has got worse. Sure, my children can see videos in the classroom but they can’t go down to the beach and catch clams to eat because they’re poisoned.”

But things are changing, though too slowly for Suzuki. He said the environment is now a permanent part of political debate, and only recently have politicians realised the issue will not go away. A sign of this was the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June.

“At the first Earth Summit in Stockholm in 1972...every issue that we’re dealing with [in Rio de Janairo] – overpopulation, global pollution, species extinction – was raised. Nothing’s been done and it’s just got worse,” he said.

“The one big difference is, there were no heads of state in Stockholm. So at least the environment has become a political issue – that’s one small step. 

“Public concern about the environment is not going to go away. If the environmental crisis is not real, then it’s a fad and it will just disappear. But there’s simply no way that any serious scientist today can say the environmental crisis is not real. We’re in the last years of the time when we can do anything about it. Politicians just haven’t got that yet.”

Suzuki, now in his 50s, is an elder himself.

“When I grew up in London, Ontario, where the Thames runs, I took it for granted that I could go down to the river and catch bass, catfish and pike that fed my family. At certain times of the year the river was clogged with fish coming up that river to find spawning grounds. I could walk along the railway track and pick asparagus in the spring. I used to see foxes and skunks in the swamp, and hawks at my grandparents’ farm. That’s where I learnt to be a biologist.

“Today you go to London, the river is almost sterile. If you were to catch a mudsucker and say, ‘Let’s eat it’, Londoners would recoil in horror at the thought of eating something coming out of that river because it’s so polluted. They just go by the river and take it for granted that it’s polluted. They wouldn’t dream of picking asparagus from the railway tracks. The swamp is a major shopping centre, my grandparents’ farm is now a huge condominium complex.

“The population has grown from 75,000 to around 300,000. Children now in London have no opportunity to experience nature as I did, and they spend most of the time in shopping malls and electronic games parlours,” he lamented.

Alone among the species, humans can visualise a future by foreseeing the consequences of their actions, Suzuki said.  But Suzuki argues that modern society has lost the ability to apply this to global problems, that people’s perceptions are so clouded by the dominance of economic dogma that it leaves them incapable of seeing the catastrophe taking place around them.

So, what drives Suzuki?

Fear for the future of his children. “My wife and I often hug each other at night and cry for the future of our children,” Suzuki said. “But I can’t give in to total pessimism, I have an investment in the future.”