David Suzuki Discusses Rio+20, Economics and Survival
Rio +20 (2012 Interview with David Suzuki)
This Democracy Now interview with the great Canadian scientist, David Suzuki, was the best I witnessed from the Rio+20 Conference. I highly recommend clicking on the video below and watching it in it’s entirety. I’ve pulled out some highlights from their transcript.
AMY GOODMAN: I began by asking David Suzuki if anything has changed since his daughter delivered that famous address (at the first UN Earth Summit in Rio) 20 years ago.
DAVID SUZUKI: Absolutely not. We’re going backwards. Certainly from the standpoint of my country, Canada, said that it was playing a leadership role at Rio ’92. Here there’s just been no question, Canada is a laggard. We are a global outlaw, renegade country. But, overall, the science is in, the planet is in terrible shape. The difficulty is that meetings like this are doomed to fail because we see ourselves at the center of everything. And our political and our economic priorities have to dominate over everything else. If we do not come to gather and say, look, let’s start with the agreement that we are biological creatures, and if you do not have air for more than three or four minutes you are dead, if you don’t have clean air you are sick, so surely, air, the atmosphere that provides us with the seasons, the weather, the climate, that has to be our highest priority before anything economic or political. That has to be the highest priority. But what you’re getting is a huge gathering, as we saw in Copenhagen two years ago, a huge gathering of countries trying to negotiate something that does not belong to anyone to through the lenses of all of the political boundaries and economic priorities, and we try to shoehorn nature into our agenda. It simply is not going to work. A meeting like this is doomed to fail because we haven’t left our vested interests outside the door and come together as a single species and agreed what the fundamental needs are for all of humanity. So we’re going to sacrifice the air, the water, the biodiversity all in the sake of human political and economic interest. They’re doomed to.
AMY GOODMAN: David Suzuki, in 2008, you urged McGill University students to speak out against politicians who fail to act on climate change and said “What I would challenge you to do is put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there is a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they’re doing is a criminal act.” Do you still feel the same way today? What exactly are the crimes being committed?
DAVID SUZUKI: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think there are a number of — You can charge people who are at a scene, where someone is being murdered, and if you do not do anything to try to help that, you can be charged with criminal negligence. If something is going on that you should know about and you ignore it deliberately, then that is called willful blindness. That is a legal category for taking people to court. I think what we have to also find is a mechanism to judge people and to make them accountable for the implications of what they do or do not do for future generations. That is, there should be a category of intergenerational crime. You come here 20 years later, how many of the political leaders that were here in 1992 are now here again? Very, very few, if any. So, these guys come, they make a lot of nice words and they say, we care about this, we’re going to do that. Nobody holds them accountable because they go out of office, they go on to become billionaires or whenever they do. But who is accountable for the lack of any kind of profound activity?
DAVID SUZUKI: (On jobs versus the environment)…We have not looked at the real job opportunities that lie from taking a completely different direction. Obama’s statement shows that he is captain of the oil industry as are most governments on this planet. He had an opportunity to really offer Americans the real job creator, which is in renewable, sustainable energy, greater energy efficiency, getting us off the oil addiction that we have. It is going to run out. It’s going to run out. We are going to more and more extreme sources of energy. This is the moment that we should create the opportunity to go down a different path.
I just came back from Japan where they had an absolute disaster that was an opportunity. They have shut down every single one of the 54 nuclear plants they have. They have an opportunity to take a totally different path. Japanese people cut their energy use by 25% immediately after Fukushima. They showed there was huge opportunity there. Instead, the government simply wants to get those plants up and running again. The nuclear industry, the fossil fuel industry have an enormous hammer over our elected representatives and it really is up to civil society.
I think in the U.S., you’re in deep trouble right now because of the huge support for parties that want to take us back to the past, the Tea Party and all of that are taking us away from having an opportunity for civil society to really contribute. I think we are really in a crisis when Sir Martin Rees, one of the leading scientists in Britain, the Royal Astronomer, was asked on BBC, what are the chances that human beings will survive to the end of this century? This is whether we will still be around. His answer was, 50/50. 50/50 that human beings will avoid extinction? I mean, surely to goodness we ought to be on an absolute crisis mode and getting off all of this rhetoric being fostered by the fossil fuel industry and nuclear industry and get on to a truly sustainable path.
(On the green economy) The green economy will simply allow the corporations to make a shift. You can see it in Exxon. Exxon, one of the companies that have spent tens of millions of dollars denying climate change, denying any responsibility, taking government subsidies on a massive scale, now their ads are all about, we want a clean future, we’re looking at clean energy and all that stuff. Sure, the green economy is just about being more efficient, being less polluting, being less energy intensive, but still it’s a system built on the need to continue to expand and grow. The true economy has got to come back into balance with the very biosphere that sustains us. I think a lot of people just see the green economy as a different way of allowing the corporate agenda to continue to flourish.
We have got to change the economy and we have to do what we did in 1944 when governments came to Bretton Woods in Maine, and said we have got to develop an economic system for a post-war world. And they designed, they instituted GATT, the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade. They invented the World Bank, the IMF. They tied world currency to the American greenback. But they left out the environment. It’s time for a Bretton Woods II. We have got to overhaul the economy. You cannot change nature, but you can change our inventions like corporations and the economy. They have got to change. So, greening the economy that is itself a totally destructive system because it is bent on exploiting resources unsustainably and growing forever, that is got to be overhauled, it doesn’t work.
AMY GOODMAN: David Suzuki,…Can you talk about some of the experiences and discoveries that have had the most impact on you? And in these last few minutes, because climate change is so little addressed while weather is increasingly on every channel and is as extreme weather, severe weather, the other two words, global warming, rarely flash, if ever, on the networks. Can you talk about what is at stake for people to even understand — since in the U.S., it’s even a debate given the amount of money oil companies pour into the global warming denier groups — it’s even a debate whether in fact this really is a concern.
DAVID SUZUKI: It’s astonishing to me because I want to remind your viewers that in 1992, an American president had declared himself — well, in 1988, he said, if you vote for me, I promise I will be an environmental President. That was George H.W. Bush. There wasn’t a green bone in his body but the American public had put the environment at the top of its agenda. He had to say that. Many people say, George Bush came to Rio in 1992 so he should be recognized for that. George Bush was not going to come to Rio unless they watered down the climate convention. They were aiming at the original plans, were for a 20% reduction in greenhouse emissions in 15 years. George Bush said, I am not going, until he got a much watered-down target of stabilization of 1990 levels by the year 2000, and he came down and signed that. But, his actions were predicated on American concern about the environment. Since then, of course, we have gone into recessions. But, I think we have not recognized that we’ve got people like the Koch brothers, you got these right-wing think tanks, Competitive Enterprises Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Institute, that are all now pushing a radical right-wing agenda funded by fossil fuel industry and rich people to say, this is not true. Which is undermining scientific credibility.
June 7, this year, Nature is filled with articles from scientists who have looked at the ecosystems of the planet. We are in deep trouble. We are facing an absolute crisis now. But countries like Canada and the United States, which are endowed with huge resources, can float by on the assumption everything is OK. We don’t see the crunch coming as poor countries like [in] Europe are seeing. They do not have the kind of resource plenty that we have in North America. And so they are seeing it and leading the call for change. But, we have the illusion that the economy is the source of everything that matters and we have got to keep that growing at all costs. It’s at all costs to the future for our children and grandchildren.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of children and grandchildren, in 1992, David Suzuki, you were in Rio with your daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki who was then 12, who gave this remarkable address to the Rio summit, the first Earth Summit.
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: You don’t know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal, now extinct. And you can’t bring back the forest that once grew where there is now a desert. If you do not know how to fix it, please, stop breaking it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Severn Suzuki, David, that was your daughter. It is 20 years later and you are now back in Rio with Severn, who is now Severn Cullis-Suzuki, with your grandchildren her two sons. Can you talk about what it meant to you, for her to give that address 20 years ago and where you see we are now?
DAVID SUZUKI: Well, it was a remarkable speech, and at the end of her talk, she got a standing ovation. She went back to sit with us. Al Gore came up and said, that’s the best speech anyone has given at this conference. The power of her speech — which, by the way, she and the other kids together wrote. Her mom and I didn’t have any input. She said, dad, I know what I want to say, I want you to tell me how to say it. But, she wrote that speech, and a child speaks from the heart. You know that there is no hidden agenda. They just speak in that child-like way of innocence. That was the power — her words had power because they came from that kind of innocence.
Now she’s back. She’s brought her youngest son. The only reason I’m here is because I said, Sev, I don’t believe these conferences achieve anything but I will go as your baby sitter and I am here as the baby sitter. You just happened to corral me because I’m here looking after the baby — I’ve got to get back and take care of my grandson. But, I can tell you, she feels unbelievably desperate because she says the problem is that we have got to break down in-governance. Leaders came in 1992. They were moved by a child’s plea, a child’s request to do something for her future, and now those leaders aren’t here and there is no one accountable for the fact they have failed fundamentally. Now there is a new set of leaders and they’re making the same kind of promises without any understanding of the urgency of the crisis we face. So she comes to this with a — from a very dark place. By the disillusionment of her child-like belief that our leaders will truly lead and care about a future for her children. Now she has got an investment into the future in that makes her even more desperate about the lack of governance.
AMY GOODMAN: David, talking about taking care of your grandson. If you were in charge, if he could have anything accomplished right now, what are the steps that you feel are most important to take right now?
DAVID SUZUKI: Well, the thing we hear over and over again is that we need a paradigm shift. It has become a cliche. But, I absolutely believe this is a critical change, that all of the stuff that goes on will not achieve anything unless we ultimately see the world in a different way. You see, our beliefs, our values shape the way we look out at the world and the way we treat it. If we believe that we were here, placed here by God, that all of this creation is for us, it’s for us to go and occupy, dominate, and exploit, then we will proceed to do that. That is the paradigm we now exist within. We’re driven then by that sense that it’s all there for us. We need to shift that to a better understanding that we are part of a vast web of interconnected species, that it is the biosphere, the zone of air, water, and land, where all life exists. It’s a very thin layer around the planet.
Carl Sagan told us that if you shrink the earth to the size of a basketball, the biosphere, the zone of air, water and land where all life exists, would be thinner than a layer of toward the center then a layer of Saran Wrap, and that’s it. That’s our home, but it’s home to ten to thirty millions other species that keep the planet habitable. And if we don’t see the that we are utterly imbedded in the natural world and dependent on nature, not technology, not economics, not science — we are dependent on Mother Nature for our very well being and survival. If we don’t see that, then our priorities will continue to be driven by man-made constructs like national borders, economies, corporations, markets. Those are all human created things. They shouldn’t dominate the way we live. It should be the biosphere. And the leaders in that should be the indigenous people who still have that sense, that the earth is truly are mother, that it gives birth to us. You don’t treat your mother the way we treat the planet or the biosphere today. If we do not make that fundamental shift, then we will just go on, oh we got to be more efficient we got to have a green economy, and all that stuff, but we haven’t fundamentally changed in our relationship with the biosphere.
AMY GOODMAN: And if we do treat it in that way, what needs to happen?
DAVID SUZUKI: Well, I think then we have to reassess everything. I believe we have to start with the fundamental understanding that we are animals. Believe me, I have said that in many parts of the United States, and people get mighty pissed off when I tell children, don’t forget we’re animals. They say, don’t call my daughter an animal, we’re human beings. We don’t even want to accept it our biological nature. But, as animals our absolutely highest need for survival and well being is clean air, clean water, clean soil that gives us our food, and energy from the sun that plants captured by photosynthesis. That’s what we depend on. So, how could we, claiming to be intelligent, use air, water, and soil as a garbage can for our waist and the most toxic chemicals ever known on the planet as if somehow that’s not going to have consequences. The minute you except that we are biological creatures, then our highest priorities become absolutely clear. That means stop all release of any kind of human created material into our surroundings until we learn ways to recycle that in mimic nature in how we create and then degrade those things. Then we have to say we are social animals; and as social animals, what is our most fundamental need? To me, this was shocking when I began to read the scientific literature. The most important thing we need is love.
Children, to grow up to be fully formed and developed human beings, need love at very critical times in our development. If you look at children that grow up under very war torn conditions, in genocide or terrorism, and seeing children deprived of love, are fundamentally crippled physically and psychically. Well that means then that we need to work toward creating strong families and supportive communities. We need full employment, we need equity and justice and freedom from war, terror, and genocide. To me, those are my issues, because if you don’t have that kind of society, you cannot have a sustainable environment. Hunger and poverty are my issues, because a starving person who finds an edible plant or animal, is not going to say, I wonder if this is an endangered species? They kill it and eat it. I would. And you probably you would too.
So we’ve got to deal with these issues and then we say, we’re spiritual beings and as spiritual animals, we need to understand that we’re part of nature. That we emerge from nature and we return to it when we die. That there are forces out there that we will never understand or control. We need sacred places. To me, those are what we construct as a foundation of the way that we live. And then we say, how can we create an economy that will allow these fundamental needs that we have to be protected? How dow we construct a way of living as a species, protecting these values? But if we don’t see what the primary needs are, then I just think that we’re just playing at the edges and we’re not being serious about reaching a truly sustainable future.