Matters of survival in a ‘shattered world’

Talking about the Earth with David Suzuki and C.W. Nicol


One of the best things about writing a newspaper column is that I get a chance to meet people whose paths I might otherwise never cross. Last weekend, at the Odaiba waterfront launch of Earth Day Tokyo 2005, I had the rare pleasure of meeting and interviewing two environmentalists I have long admired, David Suzuki and C.W. Nicol.

Suzuki is one of our planet’s most passionate advocates, as well as one of Canada’s most respected citizens: his compatriots recently voted him the greatest Canadian alive, for his decades of work on behalf of the environment.

Suzuki, 69 is best known for his ability to articulate scientific and environmental issues in plain language. He is the author of more than 30 books, and has produced award-winning radio and television shows, including “The Nature of Things” and “It’s a Matter of Survival.’

Born and raised in Canada, Suzuki received a doctorate in genetics from the University of Chicago and taught from the early 1960s until his retirement from the University of British Columbia in 2001. He now heads the David Suzuki Foundation, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

If Japan had an election for national heroes, Welsh-born author, naturalist and documentary producer C.W. Nicol’s name may well be on the ballot sheet, since an opinion poll once found he was known to 70 percent of the Japanese public.

Renowned for his impassioned views on nature conservation, for raising the professional capabilities of Japan’s national park rangers, and for his colorful appearances on television commercials, 64-year-old Nicol has authored numerous articles and books in Japanese and English, with some of his most entertaining pieces appearing in his Japan Times column on this page, “Old Nic’s Notebook.’

Born in South Wales, Nicol first came to Japan at the age of 22. Now a naturalized Japanese citizen, he spends much of his time on his forest trust in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture. This year, he is president of Earth Day Tokyo 2005.

The following are excerpts from our conversation last Saturday.

Stephen Hesse: I’m wondering where you sense we humans stand as a species?

David Suzuki: This is the tragedy of our time: The very definition of what it is to be human is that we were unique among all the other animals on the African plain in that we had foresight. Our survival strategy was foresight, and it got us to where we are today. So now we have all the amplified brain power of scientists and computers and engineers, and we know clearly where we’re going, but we’re not even paying attention. So that’s the tragedy, we’ve turned our back on the very thing that was the key to our survival.

C.W. Nicol: Yes, foresight. Another way that I would put it is that we’re able to imagine something. We can imagine an action and its outcome. For instance, when I was young and practicing martial arts very hard, I might get pissed off with somebody and think it would be nice to pummel them, but I didn’t. Not because I had morals about it, but because I could imagine what would happen afterward: the police would come and I would be thrown in jail. We should be able to imagine what will happen if we go on doing what we are doing to the environment. You can also imagine what happens if you plant trees and tend them, you tend an environment and you can see its future.

SH: You remind me of Japan’s cedar-pollen problem. Global climate change and threats to the oceans are beyond many people’s comprehension, but in Japan every spring we have this massive cedar-pollen problem and there are solutions but nothing is being done and everyone waits, assuming it won’t get worse — or that if it does, someone will do something about it.

CWN: Actually, I’ve found that they are still cutting beech woods in the north of Japan and replanting with cedars.

SH: Unbelievable.

DS: But I think the problem with asthma and allergies is far more than pollen. When I was a boy in the 1930s in Canada, my parents had never heard the word asthma, it was a rare medical condition. Today, 1 out of 5 children in Canada grows up with asthma; our own children are becoming the canaries in the coal mine, they’re telling us we’re doing something wrong and we’re not responding.

For most of human history, people knew they were deeply embedded in the biosphere and they prayed about it and promised to do the right things. But today we live in a shattered world and we can’t even see we’re a part of the problem.

SH: With Earth Day here, can we take action to motivate people?

DS: We’re going backwards. After Rachael Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962, the growth of the environmental movement was immense. She put the environment on the agenda to such an extent that by 1972 we had the first World Environmental Conference in Stockholm.

To me, 1988 was the peak: That was the year Margaret Thatcher was filmed picking up litter in Hyde Park in London, saying, “I’m a greenie too.” That was the year a man named George Bush ran for office and said, “If you elect me, I will be an environmental president.” So much for election promises — but that was also the year Canada elevated its minister of the environment into the inner Cabinet. That was the peak, and we’ve been going down ever since.

Now the economy has become everything. We’re told, If the economy is in trouble we can’t afford to protect the environment. People feel helpless, because they know we’re going in the wrong direction, but they feel there’s nothing they can do about the global economy. Ninety-three percent of Canadians believe that nature is absolutely critical to their identity as Canadians, and over 90 percent are willing to have higher taxes in order to protect the environment, and yet our governments dont reflect that.

SH: Don’t you think it’s the same in Japan, Nic?

CWN: I think so. We’ve asked gatherings of people whether, if they could have organic food, they would be prepared to pay an extra 10 percent. Most people said they would. I’ve also asked people whether they would pay 30 percent more for food they knew would do no harm to their children, and would be most unlikely to cause cancer. They have all said yes.

DS: That’s phenomenal!

SH: Do you both feel that governments are failing to act by prioritizing the economy over health and environment?

DS: Yes. I don’t know about Japan, but in Canada it’s because of the enormous power of the private sector, which funds most political campaigns. So the minute someone gets elected, if they have received major funding from a corporation, you can bet that corporation can call that politician anytime and get straight through. An average person trying to get through will not.

SH: The picture looks bleak. It seems we need to warn people but we also want to encourage them. However, if the message is upbeat then people just think someone else is taking care of it; and if the outlook is fearful they simply tune out.

CWN: So why do we go on trying to make things different?

DS: I have no choice, I have grandchildren. I always felt it was our responsibility to pass the Earth on in the condition we received it. It’s not that I believe I’m going to save the world — I’m not. But I want to be able to look at my grandchildren and say with absolute certainty, “Grandpa did the best he could.” That’s all that anyone can do, and it’s a purely selfish thing, I have no choice.

CWN: That’s exactly it. You can’t give up.

SH: I think you are both making a difference, but what is the critical tipping point?

DS: Well, that’s what you hope, that there is a tipping point. But the reality is that this huge juggernaut of a globalized economy and transnational corporations is hugely powerful — it’s just got so much momentum that it’s going to be very, very hard to begin to deflect it.

To me, a hope is that we are going to hit peak oil [when oil resources begin to decline] — and some geologists say we already hit it last year. The business community is now starting to take this very seriously. The first thing to happen would be the big-box stores, like Home Depot and Walmart, collapsing because they are dependent on cheap oil to ship cheap goods. Also, in the suburbs of Canada we have these gigantic homes with two or three people in them, and the heating and cooling bills are enormous, and they depend on cars. But the big thing is food. In Canada, food travels an average of 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from where it’s grown to where it’s eaten. This can’t go on. The impact of [fossil fuel depletion] is going to create enormous suffering, no doubt about it.

CWN: Have you been to China recently? I was there a month ago and the activity was frenetic. You may think Tokyo’s air is bad, but there I got rashes all over my body. And this may be too simple, but this anti-Japanese hysteria is not just about textbooks. It’s about that [contested border on the South China Sea] and who gets the natural gas, who gets the energy.

SH: It seems China is getting to a critical point economically, with people wanting to have all that the Japanese and Americans have.

DS: But as long as we in America and Canada refuse to do anything about our own hyperconsumption, why should they be expected to want any less?

In 1976, I first visited China and at that time it had 30 times Canada’s population and used exactly the same amount of oil and gas as Canada; I wrote an article then saying that if every Chinese wants a motorbike, we’re toast. Now they don’t want a motorbike, they want cars.

As long as we in the industrialized world refuse to do anything about the Kyoto Protocol — and Kyoto is a tiny, tiny target — why the hell should the Chinese? And where China and India go, the planet is going to go.

SH: On what else, particularly in Japan, should people be focusing?

CWN: I think if you watch every life system, like a pond or a human being, it can only take so much abuse. I think we are going to have a terrible increase in skin problems, cancers, asthma and failing health — and food troubles, too, shortages of safe, good food.

DS: I’m astounded that Japan is still so heavily fish-dependent, when the oceans have collapsed. Ninety percent of the major commercial fish in the oceans are gone — bluefin tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, northern cod, they’re all collapsing. . . . I think Japan is going to be hammered when we realize there’s nothing left. We’re also going to have a huge amount of sea-level rise, I think. Thermal expansion is the reason for previous sea-level rises, but now there are very strong indications that whole ice sheets may slide into the oceans, which could mean 5 meter rises, which is huge.

SH: Any last message for Japan, David?

DS: I’ve been saying again and again, Japan had an unbelievable recovery after World War II. It was just flattened and the economic success of this nation has been phenomenal. The fact is Japan is a very powerful economic and technological country. I can’t believe it can’t lead the world in truly sustainable solutions. Just look at the Prius [Toyota’s first hybrid gas-electric car]: when I bought a Prius I doubled my mileage overnight [for the same energy consumption]. I would like to challenge Japan to show the world again what it’s made of. The U.S. sure isn’t doing it. This is a huge opportunity for Japan.

CWN: I agree. Japan is an island country with a tremendous range of habitats. We have never been colonized. We have freedom of speech, religion and travel, and if we don’t do something good, it’s our own bloody fault.

DS: That’s a good point. I think people who live on islands know about limits. In Canada and the U.S., we’ve got this massive continent and still huge amounts of wilderness. We think Canada is this huge country with no people, so we think there’s just endless opportunity. But an island country knows its limits. And you can’t keep sending your problems all over the world, you’ve got to live with them. So I think there’s a real opportunity here for Japan.