Suzuki '58 Speaks on Climate Change
Issue   |   Wed, 04/27/2016 - 00:04
Jingwen Zhang '18
David Suzuki ’58, a scientist and host of well-known television programs on science, spoke about his early life, career and the impact of economic growth on the environment in the Cole Assembly Room on April 20.

Renowned scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki ’58 gave a lecture on the effects of economic development on climate change, titled “The Currency of Change: How do We Define and Resolve Our Environmental Crisis?” on April 20 in the Cole Assembly Room. The talk is part of the Questions of Consequence speaker series, which aims to bring influential alumni of color to discuss issues relevant to the college and the world.

Suzuki, who earned a biology degree from the college, is widely known for his radio and television series about science and for hosting the Canadian documentary series, “The Nature of Things.” He started his career in genetics, which he taught at the University of British Columbia until 2001. In addition to authoring 52 books, Suzuki co-founded the David Suzuki Foundation to promote environmental sustainability and has received numerous awards, including the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for Science and the United Nations Environment Program Medal.

Interim director of the Multicultural Resource Center Adrianna Turner ’14 introduced Suzuki with a brief overview of his biography. Suzuki then opened his talk by saying that he was speaking as a “grandfather and elder,” and not for a particular political party or group.

“I am at the stage of my life, the last part of my life, which I call the ‘death zone,’” Suzuki said, “It’s a very important part of my life, because I am no longer worried about playing the game or protecting the status quo. I can speak freely. I don’t have to worry about a job or promotion or raise and I can simply say the truth as I see it.”

Suzuki first spoke about his personal and familial history, explaining that his grandparents had come from Japan to Canada, where very few people of Asian descent resided at the time. His parents were both born in Vancouver and married during the Great Depression. Suzuki was born in 1936. Following Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack on the U.S. in 1941, Suzuki and his family were placed into governmental internment camps in Canada’s interior solely due to their Japanese ancestry.

After the camps were closed, Suzuki said, his family experienced further discrimination by the government of British Columbia which, in an attempt to curb “yellow peril” — the perceived threat posed by people of Asian descent — required his family to relocate east of the Rocky Mountains if they wanted to stay in Canada or else renounce their Canadian citizenship and return to Japan. Having never been to Japan, the family moved east.

When he was of college age, Suzuki had a friend who attended Amherst College and spoke highly of the institution, so he applied to the college and was accepted.

“Amherst likes to get diversity,” Suzuki said. “Not often would an Asian Canadian apply.” He praised the college’s commitment to diversity — in his case, demonstrated through a scholarship worth more than his father’s earnings in a year at the time. “Amherst was willing to pay for a foreigner like me to come to Amherst College to expand the education of Amherst students,” Suzuki said, adding that he was not able to attend college in Canada at the time.

The most important event of his time at the college, Suzuki said, came on Oct. 4, 1957, when he was listening to the radio while sick in the infirmary and heard about the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite.

“It was just an astounding thing to watch, as a foreigner, the response of the United States,” Suzuki said. “America just poured money into science and said, ‘we have to catch up.’ I was a foreigner here [in the United States], and all I had to say was ‘I like science,’ and they threw money at me. It was glorious. And I point this out because of that commitment.”

Suzuki said that, because the U.S. demonstrated its commitment to surpassing the Soviet Union and to advancing the sciences in the 1960s, the country is still known for its scientific innovations and technological impacts today.

Suzuki transitioned into speaking on climate change by contrasting the government’s rapid action then with its current, comparatively muted response to reports of climate change. He said that if the U.S. wanted to commit to solving climate change, it could show a much stronger response, just as it has done with science education in the past.

“It’s un-American to say, ‘we can’t do anything about climate change,’” Suzuki said. “That’s just not the America that I knew when I came down here in the 1950s. America would take it as a challenge and know for sure that all kinds of unexpected benefits would come out of it.”

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” which caused a national environmental movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and “put pesticides into a radically different perspective,” turned Suzuki from his then-goal of becoming a famous geneticist by spurring his interest in environmentalism. Carson’s book rose to prominence at a time when there were no governmental environmental agencies and few restrictions on activities that imparted heavy environmental impacts.

Suzuki said that while the U.S. was innovative, it failed to anticipate the unintended consequences of its innovation, citing biomagnification of toxins from pesticides, lasting effects of radiation from World War II atomic bombs and nuclear experiments and degradation of the ozone layer by the release of chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere. Likewise, genetic engineering is a powerful tool, he said, but it will likely have major consequences that are currently unforeseen.

Fighting pipelines, dams and salmon farms have not led to actual victories for environmental activists, Suzuki said, because they were not accompanied by a shift in the way that people think of the environment. He shared an anecdote of an exchange with the CEO of Fletcher Challenge, a company that plans to log a forest in Canada, and Suzuki quoted the CEO as saying, “If you’re not willing to pay for those trees, they don’t have any value until someone cuts them down.”

Using that example, Suzuki addressed how society values environmental goods only in terms of their economic value, neglecting their spiritual and ecological value.

“By being forced to discuss the fate of the forest in economic terms, so much of nature’s services are left out,” Suzuki said. “It just didn’t make sense to me that we were being constrained by economics. The very word ‘economy’ comes from the Greek word ‘ecos,’ which means household or domain. The word ecology comes from the same root — the study of our household.” He also criticized the previous Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, for “elevating the economy above the very atmosphere that keeps us alive.”

The problem with Canada, Suzuki said, is that the majority of its people live in cities surrounded by man-made creations, where their greatest concerns revolve around their jobs and earning money to obtain the things they want. “There’s no limit as to what people want, but those aren’t the same as necessities,” Suzuki said. “We have to re-insert the conversation into the right context.”

He shared parts of a conversation he had with the CEO of an oil company involved in extraction from the Alberta tar sands. Just as the world is governed by physical and chemical principles such as the laws of motion and thermodynamics, Suzuki had said, humans are likewise limited by absolute constraints due to their needs for air, water, food and shelter.

“If you don’t have air for four minutes, you’re dead,” Suzuki said. “If you breathe polluted air, you’re sick … so can you agree with me, Mr. CEO, that clean water, air and soil are our highest priorities?”

Suzuki criticized the present-day reverence of markets, economic growth and other institutions which he termed “constructs” that seemingly defy natural limits. “We can’t change nature to fit our constructs, but we can change our constructs to be compatible with nature,” Suzuki said.

In particular, he targeted the idea that progress was defined by economic growth.

“Steady growth, as a goal, is suicidal,” Suzuki said. “The only things that believe in steady growth forever in a finite world are cancer and economists. The end result, if you aspire to that, is going to be the same … anything steadily growing over time is exponential growth.”

Suzuki ended his lecture by returning to his discussion of the innovation and problem-solving in the U.S. after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

“What we have to do is rediscover that American know-how,” Suzuki said. “Not the Trump kind, but a real commitment and understanding that once you see the crisis, you make a commitment and pour everything you’ve got into resolving it. That’s what we need — to rediscover what you had in this country in the 1960s.”

After the talk, Suzuki answered questions from the audience, touching on his eventual transition from studying genetics to environmental advocacy, the value of thinking about environmental impacts in terms of the future and the motivation that having children and grandchildren gave him to advocate for the environment.

“I like the message of hope, that there are things that need to be done, but it’s not too late,” Ike Zhang ’16, an international student from Canada who was in attendance, said. “Because if you say it’s too late, it’s kind of this idea that you’re giving up, but it’s not too late. There are things that we as a people, as a community, as students at Amherst can do to make an effect.”

“So many scientists are incapable of talking to people who are not scientists about what they do and conveying the importance of things,” Julia Emerson, the biology department laboratory coordinator who was also in attendance, said. “David Suzuki mentioned how he made the decision in his own career to continue being a geneticist. And if our geneticists are to go more in the realm of science for the public — well, he’s wonderful at doing that.”