Sunday, 18 November 2012

David Suzuki: Speaking Truth to Power

Whenever I want to describe how the media can bleed away the importance of what people say I always refer to David Suzuki. He's spent a lifetime patiently, often passionately, describing how technological man/woman is destroying nature, and in the process him/herself.  He's said it so well and so often that no one hears him anymore. Those that believe him, and those that don't, know exactly what he's going to say on any issue, there's no mystery, no surprise, and when people stop listening. those doing the talking  lose their power to persuade, and that's a shame. But then for the first time in thirty years I had the opportunity to hear  David Suzuki live, and he's forced me to rethink. I'm a member of his church so I didn't need to be persuaded, but I was certainly moved and inspired.   He spoke to a full house for an hour and a half at the Symons Lecture in Charlottetown with just a few notes. He calls himself an elder now, saying it frees him to say exactly what he thinks, and he did.

The first time I heard David Suzuki speak was in the mid-70's at a conference at Carleton University in Ottawa. I was a sessional lecturer teaching a course on the environment, and surprisingly found myself in deep disagreement with him on one of his talking points.  He was arguing that domestic animals (cows, sheep, pigs, etc) had the wildness bred out of them, and this was another affront to nature.  My position was if we're going to cage, or fence in, and eventually round up and slaughter these animals, then breeding out the desire to be "wild and free" is the right thing to do. We agreed to disagree.

The Symons Lecture is designed to explore the state of the Canadian Confederation, and it's always been provocative. Last year Dr. Ivan Fellegi, long-time head of Statistics Canada, roasted the Harper Government for making Canada's long-form census voluntary rather than mandatory. He said it made Canada an international outlaw when it comes to gathering solid information to make policy decisions. Suzuki blasted the Harper government too for its cuts to scientific research, and weakening environmental regulations, but his most potent comments, while not directed at,  must have been felt by a politician much closer to home,  PEI Premier Robert Ghiz.

The speech began with a retelling of some of Suzuki's family history.  All were born in Canada (including his parents), but because of their Japanese ancestry, they were rounded up and moved to a detention camp for years after Pearl Harbour.  It must have shaped Suzuki's willingness to question authority, to "speak truth to power" which has defined his life as a scientist and broadcaster.

"Plan B" is a highway realignment project just west of Charlottetown that has generated a lot of controversy. More than $20 Million is being spent to straighten out a short section of the Trans Canada highway that's considered unsafe because of steep (for PEI) hills and curves.   It's required clear-cutting including some old-growth hemlock,  and over the next few months thousands of loads of shale and gravel will be dumped to infill a valley.  There have been large protests at the construction site, and in front of the provincial legislature.  Many were hoping Suzuki would add his voice to the protest. He skillfully said that he didn't know enough of the details, but then went right to the bottom line:

"We have to stop forcing nature into our agenda for god's sake... don't tell me that in order for us to drive a little more safely we have to devastate a forest.. it doesn't make sense to me.. we've got to adapt and change our behavior..."   There was thunderous cheering that Robert Ghiz must have felt in his bones.

Listen to it here:

But there was one more unscripted moment that might have touched the premier even more. A woman stood at an audience mic with her child and thanked Suzuki for his speech. She then asked if her daughter could give him a hug. He agreed, the little girl went up to the stage, and they gave each other a great hug. Suzuki then teared up and said that all of his work now is for his two grandchildren, that's who he's most worried about. Robert Ghiz is now a father with two children of his own.  Did he just for a moment feel that same doubt and uncertainty about their future? Did he wonder just for a second  if Plan B was the right thing to do?  

And don't forget that just east of the Confederation Bridge is an old stretch of gravel and pavement that was considered a good idea at the time. It's was built in the 1960's as an approach road for a causeway and tunnel that would link PEI to the mainland. We can all imagine the environmental devastation that would have been caused by a causeway across the Northumberland Strait (just ask what the causeway did to the ocean ecology around Cape Breton), but the project was halted, and the money spent somewhere else.  Could we consider doing that again?   I know, I know... the $8 Million from Ottawa  is tied to a highway project, but maybe a start could be made to straightening out the road through Crapaud? 


  1. Thank you Ian. There were many of us who hoped that having children would change this self-centrered man who is Premier.

  2. Excellent summary but I thought Suzuki had said "to save a few seconds" rather than "to drive a little more safely we have to devastate a forest"