About 250 Campbell River residents attended a local presentation by the David Suzuki Foundation tour Connecting B.C. Coastal Communities last week.

The tour’s purpose is to “celebrate, inspire and connect.” Dr. Tara Cullis, co-founder of the foundation and Dr. Suzuki’s wife, noted that Campbell River is a homecoming of sorts for them, as they have lived part-time on nearby Quadra Island for over thirty years.

Addressing the audience gathered at the Thunderbird Hall of the Campbell River First Nation, Suzuki conveyed a simple proposition: people need air, water and food to survive. Without air, we survive three minutes. Without water, four or five days. Without food, three to six weeks.

The source of food energy is soil and photosynthesis. Indigenous people hold these elements sacred: earth, air, water, fire. If they are polluted or we don’t have access to them, we get sick or we die.

“Let us agree on that,” Suzuki proposed, “as a starting point for all discussions.”

He described two kinds of cultures: invaders and Indigenous people. After they run out of resources where they are, invaders move on in search of better opportunities. Indigenous people learn from their mistakes and stay put.

“Indigenous people don’t have an instinctive respect for nature,” said Suzuki. “They learned to live in balance with their resources because that knowledge was critical for their survival.”

Now that the species as a whole has reached the limits of what the biosphere can provide, he explained, the invader cultures need to study the lesson book of the indigenous people.

“What we do or do not do in the next few years could very well determine if we, as a species, survive."

Some of his Suzuki's fellow scientists think we have already passed too many tipping points. UK astronomer Sir Martin Rees gives our species a 50/50 chance of survival. James Lovelock expects that 90 per cent of humans will be gone by the end of the century.

“These are shocking statements by eminent scientists,” Suzuki told the crowd. “But no one can say ‘It’s too late,’ because we don’t know enough to be able to say that. We must be impelled by a sense of hope.”

He recalled thinking the Fraser River sockeye run, the largest left in the world, was essentially gone after the disastrous run 2009. The next year had the biggest sockeye run in the last 100 years. No one can say why, for sure. “I don’t tell this story to show how stupid I am,” he said. “I tell it show that nature can surprise us. If we give her a chance, she will be far more generous than we deserve.”

The audience was primed for Suzuki’s message by a preview of Ian Mauro’s new film on climate change impacts in British Columbia. Attendees also had the opportunity to express their personal concerns by writing on posters, or preserving their stories on tape and video.

The chilling effects of a warming world

Mauro’s film removed any sense that climate change exists somewhere else— or in a distant future.

Outside of the Arctic, BC is the epicenter of climate change in Canada. The film captured footage of First Nations members and other B.C. residents marking the changes. Long-time residents reminisced about being able to skate on ponds or drive across lakes, but it wasn't only older citizens noting such changes: a young snowboarder also mourned not being able to celebrate New Year’s Eve on the slope. (Glaciers have receded by more than half in the past century, and the huge Comox glacier visible from Campbell River has just a couple of decades left before it disappears entirely.)

A cherry farmer showed how intense summer rains sandwiched by drought splits his cherries and makes them unmarketable. Low lake levels result in blue-green algae blooms. Forests have been devastated by the pine beetle because for twenty years there hasn’t been a freeze to kill them. Many salmon streams already don’t receive enough water, or water that is cold enough, for the fish to spawn. Oolichan in the Naess River have mites in their gills from migrating through warm water.

Kelp and sea grasses, which produce seventy percent of the planet’s oxygen, bleach out before they reach their reproductive stage. Ocean acidification has resulted in massive die-offs in the shellfish industry. Oil super tankers threaten to destroy the seafood Coastal First Nations rely on for subsistence.

“Why do we have to continue to move this economic development that is cutting our own throats?” asked a man from Bella Bella in the film. “We won’t allow the natural capital of our territory to be bankrupted.”

A Heiltsuk man added, “You can’t eat money. It won’t sustain you. It won’t fill you up if you take it. When everything is gone, you can’t eat it.”

One climatologist noted that the oil and LNG pipelines proposed for British Columbia are “pipelines of fossil fuels into the air.”

This is a statement of special interest to residents of Campbell River, where an LNG facility is proposed for an old pulp mill site.

The film ended on a positive note: we have all the alternative energy solutions we need, and they are becoming mainstream. Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani First Nation called for unity, that we become “one heart and one mind and stand side by side.”

A challenge of psychology, not technology

In his presentation, Suzuki also emphasized the opportunities presented by the combined crises of climate, population and consumption. “These things have made us a dominant force on the planet, changing its physical and biological properties, undermining the air, water, soil and biodiversity that keep us alive. How the hell will we deal with this?”

He sees the problem as psychological. “The challenge is not a limit of technology. We need to understand we have a problem and then focus on bringing about change. The perspective of First Nations is the lens of values through which we need to look at what we face.”

“We can’t change the laws of nature, but the economy isn’t a force of nature,” he said. “We created it. We can change the things that we create. That is the challenge. We need to change our behavior, our institutions, and our concepts. The partnership between First Nations and environmentalists is a powerful focus for change.”

Suzuki discussed his Blue Dot tour to pass a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the right to a healthy environment in the constitution. He asked the audience to pressure their municipalities to pass a declaration for a healthy environment. The municipalities will then ask the province to pass legislation.

With seven provinces and over half the population on board, the federal constitution can be amended. Fifty-three communities have signed on so far, representing over five million citizens.

“We can’t get sucked into need to serve the economy first,” Suzuki said. "We have to make this fundamental agreement first. If politics and economics constrain the discussion, we will never solve it.”

After clarifying that he no longer speaks on behalf of the foundation, Suzuki told the audience that the most important thing is to take the fall election very seriously.

“We’ve come through ten years of the most hostile government ever toward the environment, First Nations and social justice,” he said. “If you were CEO and ignored information material to the well-being of your company, you could be thrown in jail for that. Our prime minister shows such a willful blindness. If we are to have a democracy, we have to get out there and ask our leaders to state their position on these issues and make them tell us. That is our most important priority today.”

Filmmaker Ian Mauro emphasized the importance of the UN Climate talks scheduled this December in Paris. “There are international implications of who gets elected. We are going to have one of the biggest negotiations ever conducted by our species, one that could curtail and deal with excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Harper withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. This time, Canada has to get this right.”

Jay Ritchlin, the David Suzuki Foundation's Director General for Western Canada, ended with a reminder of the importance of unity with First Nations. “These relationships are beginning to blossom,” he said. “Traditional knowledge and traditional territories are the bulwark of what we have to deal with."