David Suzuki

(2009, Canada)
Honorary Award

for his lifetime advocacy of the socially responsible use of science, and for his massive contribution to raising awareness about the perils of climate change and building public support for policies to address it.

About

David Suzuki is one of the most brilliant scientists, and communicators about science, of his generation. Through his books and broadcasts, which have touched millions of people around the world, he has stressed the dangers, as well as the benefits, of scientific research and technological development. He has campaigned tirelessly for social responsibility in science. For the past 20 years, he has been informing the world about the grave threat to humanity of climate change and about how it can be reduced. 

Contact Details

David Suzuki Foundation
Suite 219
2211 West 4th Ave.
Vancouver, B.C. V6K 4S2
CANADA

Website

Biography

Life and career choices

David Suzuki was born in Canada in March 1936 to parents of Japanese descent. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, the family was interned, and later, after the war, settled in Ontario. With a PhD in zoology from the University of Chicago, Suzuki went to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1963, where he became Professor of Zoology six years later, specialising in genetics.

During his scientific work, Suzuki became more and more concerned about both the relationship between science and society, and the impacts of human activities on the natural world.

He says:

"After a great deal of soul-searching I concluded that all scientific insight has the potential to be applied for good or bad and the only way to minimise the misapplication of science is an informed public."

While continuing his university professorships until 2001, Suzuki gave up his laboratory research in the late 70s to become one of the most important communicators of natural science in the world and "an environmental icon" as the 2005 Right Livelihood Award Recipient Tony Clarke has described him.

From 1979 until today, Suzuki has been the anchorman of "The Nature of Things with David Suzuki", a prime time science programme on Canadian television, which has been sold to more than 80 countries. He has produced numerous other TV shows and series, and has written 43 books, whereof 17 for children.

The David Suzuki Foundation

In 1988, Suzuki's 5-part radio series about the global ecosystem crisis, It's a Matter of Survival, produced letters from 16,000 listeners asking what could be done. Suzuki's response was to set up, in 1990, with his wife, Dr. Tara Cullis, the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF). Since its inception, DSF has become a nationally recognized and trusted voice on issues of the environment, one that is increasingly asked to speak on matters of critical importance.

In 2008, the David Suzuki Foundation reviewed its progress over the first two decades of its existence, and decided to focus its future efforts on five key areas.

  1. Reconnecting with nature - Helping Canadians to become aware of their profound interdependence with nature.
  2. Protecting natural systems - Working to ensure that systems are in place to protect the diversity and resilience of Canada's marine, freshwater, terrestrial and atmospheric ecosystems.
  3. Transforming the economy - Encouraging a transition of Canada's economy towards increased well-being, fairness and quality of life, while recognizing the finite limits of nature.
  4. Living neighbourhoods - Empowering citizens to live healthier, more fulfilled and just lives.
  5. Protecting our climate - Holding Canada to account for doing its fair share to avoid dangerous climate change.

In 2009, the David Suzuki Foundation had 58 staff members and an annual budget of nearly CND 7 million, which comes from numerous foundations, and tens of thousands of individual supporters.

Climate change

For many years, Suzuki has been at the forefront of the climate debate, informing the public about the extreme urgency to act which follows from the best scientific evidence in the field, and calling on the Canadian Government to take action.

At a speech in 2009 at McGill University, he said: "When you have politicians who are advised by scientists how bad climate change is going to hit, and by economists how bad it is for the economy, and they still do not take action, that is an intergenerational crime." Together with a group of engineers, Suzuki is now working on a study to see if and how Canada can get its energy entirely from renewable sources. 

Suzuki on biotech

In his own discipline of genetics, Suzuki has played a crucial role in informing and warning the public about the weak and risky scientific basis of many of today's commercial applications of genetic engineering. With science writer, Peter Knudtson, he wrote of his concerns in Genethics: The Ethics of Engineering Life.

In an article Biotechnology: Panacea or Hype? he writes: "Every scientist should understand that in any young, revolutionary discipline, most of the current ideas in the area are tentative and will fail to stand up to scrutiny over time. In other words, the bulk of the latest notions are wrong. The rush to exploit new products will be based on inaccurate hypotheses and questionable benefits and could be downright dangerous. The discipline is far from mature enough to leave the lab or find a niche in the market. The problem is that those pushing its benefits stand to gain enormously from it." 

Suzuki's role in Canadian society

An important aspect of Suzuki's and DSF's work is his relationship with Canada's First Nations. He used many of his broadcasts to campaign for their rights of decision over their ancestral resources, and has been formally adopted by three tribes, and made an honorary chieftain of one.

In a 2009 poll on 'Who does Canada Trust Most?' in the Canadian Readers' Digest, Suzuki was ranked no. 1. Suzuki holds a large number of honorary doctorates and has received Canada's highest honour, Companion to the Order of Canada.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by David Suzuki

December 4th, 2009

I'd like to begin by thanking the Right Livelihood Foundation for the great honour you have bestowed on me. Thanks too, to Stephen Lewis who put the effort into nominating me.

I would not have been able to do what I have in my life without the efforts of my wife, the brains and the looks beside me, Dr. Tara Cullis.

A lot of people at The Nature of Things and the David Suzuki Foundation, have worked very hard on programs and projects, yet people give me a lot of the credit for their efforts. And the Canadian public by watching my programs in substantial numbers, kept me on air as host of The Nature of Things for thirty years. So I accept this award with gratitude on behalf of all the people who have made me look good.

In a few days, delegates will gather in Copenhagen to try to come to some kind of agreement on how to tackle the challenge of human-induced climate change. Vested interest groups - the fossil fuel and auto industries - and a few dissident petro-states like Canada, will attempt to water down any hard targets and I fear we will not be able to respond adequately to the urgent threats from human activity.

Now it is true, ever since life appeared on the planet some 3.8 billion years ago, living organisms have interacted with and changed the physical and chemical properties of the planet: weathering rock and mountains; absorbing carbon and sequestering it as limestone; creating the oxygen rich atmosphere by photosynthesis; making soil; filtering water; and so on. But those processes took millions of years and involved tens of thousands of species.

Now, we are suddenly and singlehandedly altering the physical, chemical and biological features of the planet on a massive scale. From a plane 10 kilometers above the earth, you can see our impact - immense lakes behind dams, clearcut patches of forest, huge farms and cities. We have become a geological force.

Not long ago, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, forest fires and earthquakes were referred to as "natural disasters" or "acts of God". Not any more. We have joined god as a major force causing these events.

Human use of fossil fuels is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere; oceans are polluted and depleted of fish; 80% of Earth's forests are heavily impacted or gone yet their destruction continues. An estimated 50,000 species are driven to extinction each year. We dump millions of tonnes of chemicals, most untested for their biological effects, and many highly toxic, into air, water and soil.  

We have created an ecological holocaust. Our very health and survival are at stake, yet we act as if we have plenty of time to respond.

When our species appeared in Africa 150,000 years ago, we were not very impressive. Our advantage over all other species was the human brain that endowed us with a massive memory, curiosity and creativity.

That brain imagined a future and recognized that we could influence that future by using our experience and knowledge to see danger and opportunity. Foresight, the ability to look ahead, was our unique advantage and enabled us to spread across the planet and occupy every continent. We are now the most numerous mammal in the world, and with technology, consumption and a global economy, we are undermining the very things that keep us alive and healthy.

But we have increased our ability to look ahead with scientists, supercomputers and telecommunications. And for over 40 years, leading scientists of the world have been telling us we are on a dangerous path, that there are opportunities if we shift direction. Yet now we turn our backs on the very survival strategy of our species - look ahead to avoid the dangers and exploit the opportunities.

Instead, we complain about the cost of changing our ways. The Prime Minister of Canada has refused to honour the Kyoto protocol and opposes a binding agreement with hard targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. He tells us: "Canada is a northern country so we need to use more fossil fuels. Besides, it will cost too much to reduce emissions". And to that I say, "thank god for Sweden." Like Canada, Sweden is a northern country, yet by enacting a carbon tax, you have reduced emissions beyond the Kyoto target while the economy has grown by 44%. So thank you for putting the lie to my Prime Minister's claims.

For most of human existence, we have been local tribal animals. Now we have to ask, "What is the collective impact of all 6.8 billion people in the world?" But there is no mechanism to act as a single species in our common interests.

Instead, we fiercely defend our boundaries around property, cities, provinces or countries. But human borders mean nothing to air, water, windblown soil or seeds or migrating fish, birds or mammals.  

My Prime Minister regards the economy as our highest priority and forgets that economics and ecology are derived from the same Greek word, oikos, meaning household or domain. Ecology is the study of home, while economics is its management. Ecologists try to define the conditions and principles that enable a species to survive and flourish. Yet in elevating the economy above those principles, we seem to think we are immune to the laws of nature. We have to put the "eco" back into economics.

The current economic system is fundamentally flawed and inevitably destructive.  Nature performs "services" that keep the planet habitable for animals like us: photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide and generates oxygen. Nature filters water, creates soil, sequesters carbon, and so on. Yet economists call such ecosystem services "externalities". They are not considered a part of our economic system.

Now there are some things in the world we can`t change - gravity, entropy, the speed of light, the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die.

Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature, we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere, for example.

Economists think the critical part of our economy is us. We are so clever, creative and productive. And since there is no limit to human imagination and creativity, economists believe the economy can and must grow forever which is an impossibility. Growth is not an end or goal, it's just a description of a state of a system. Yet if you ask a politician or business executive how well they did last year, they will point to growth in market share, profit or GDP.  

If we think growth is progress, well no one wants to impede progress, so we fail to ask the important questions like "What is an economy for?" "Are we happier with all this stuff?" "How much is enough?" "Why does a global economy act as if a Mongolian horseman, a farmer on the Andes and a Papua New Guinean highlander have the same aspirations and needs?"

If we continue to set human borders and the economy as our highest priorities, we will never come to grips with the destructiveness of our activities and institutions. 

When our species was born, we looked out at a chaotic world and the human brain imposed order and meaning in myriad ways, looking ahead and imagining the world into being. That was our great gift. So now the challenge is to imagine a different world where our wealth is in human relations and the things we do together, and we learn to live in balance with the rest of nature. By imagining a future, we know where we want to go and then we can marshall our creative abilities to make it happen as we always have.

  Pictures
 Videos

Declaration of interdependence

Interviews

Interview with David Suzuki conducted by WWF Australia in 2007

Publications

Biotechnology: Panacea or Hype?
An article (pdf)

For a list of articles and books written by David Suzuki please go to
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/david/

Links

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

E-mail: