David Suzuki is calling for political and economic revolution.
The acclaimed scientist, broadcaster, and Great Canadian has seen it all. But he’s disillusioned with politics like never before. He says for B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, “politics comes before principle.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “would be a wonderful Governor-General,” in his view. The democratic system is “completely broke.”
At age 81, in his self-described “death zone,” Suzuki is forcefully advocating for a paradigm shift that is nothing short of revolutionary: political leaders drawn by lot, an empowered Senate of Canada, and a sustainable “doughnut economy.”
On the sidelines of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Charged Up program launch in Vancouver, National Observer caught up with the man himself for a wide-ranging, unfiltered conversation. Below is the uncensored transcript, edited for brevity and clarity.
“We’re not going to make it”
Q: It seems like we’ve passed the high point of the environmental movement. Big victories like the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols happened decades ago. What’s the state of environmentalism in the Trump era?
DS: We celebrated the signing of Kyoto. Canada didn’t sign until 2001 but [then-Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien sent us a letter and thanked us for making it possible for him to sign Kyoto. But the reality is Chrétien signed Kyoto but didn’t do a thing. Paul Martin succeeded him. Paul understood what climate was about, and he said, 'We’re going to try.' But they were pretty weak measures that he started: some money for making houses more energy efficient, stuff like that. [Stephen] Harper, when he got in, threw out everything that Paul Martin had done. And as you know, he really did everything he could to keep even the words climate change from being discussed.
Paris was an incredible achievement. The Canadian ambassador asked to meet us when they were planning for the conference, I said, ‘Look, this is the 21st [climate] conference. What have you accomplished in 21 meetings? If all Paris is going to do is continuing on what was done in Copenhagen and all these other places, forget it!’ And he said, ‘No, Paris is going to be different.’ And to his credit, he was right.
Paris really did set a target, a very strong target, and the means for everyone to get there, and they got the whole world to sign on. Except for Yemen and Grenada, but they have now signed on. So the United States under Trump is the only country that has threatened to pull out.
But the reality is that hundreds of mayors of cities, Governor Jerry Brown in California, they’re saying, “We’re going to hit the Paris targets. To hell with Trump.”
David Suzuki is pissed: B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, “politics comes before principle,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “would be a wonderful Governor-General,” and that our entire political system is “completely broke.” #cdnpoli
Q: And you think we’ll make it?
DS: No, we’re not going to make it. Trudeau was like, the sun came out and we praised him to the skies. He was fantastic in Paris. Not only did he say, ‘Canada is back,’ but he said, ‘We aspire to keeping it as close to 1.5 as we can, rather than 2 [degrees].’ He set a very hard target.
Trudeau’s “trade off” is “such a crock of shit!”
Q: Do you talk at all to the Prime Minister?
DS: I emailed him after he signed and asked, ‘Are you serious about what you just signed?’ And he emailed back and said, ‘I am very serious.’ We celebrated, we praised him, but the easiest thing to do is sign a document, especially when the end isn’t for years and years. He knows bloody well that he’s not going to be around in 2030. That’s what all politicians do. You can make a flourish and sign and claim but you’re not held accountable. And that’s a problem. We don’t have a way of holding people accountable.
So when Trudeau approved the pipelines, Kinder Morgan and [Enbridge's] Line 3, I emailed him and said, ‘You know, you set a hard target of 1.5 degrees. That’s your target. To meet that you know 80 to 85 per cent of those reserves have to be left in the ground. We can’t burn them. Why the hell are you investing in a project that is going to cost billions dollars and then, in order to get your return, that it has to be used for 25 to 30 years? This doesn’t make any sense!’ I said, ‘Why did you run for office? You’re in a position now to do something that is going to affect the future for your children. You’re a father first.’
And you know what his answer was? He didn’t answer. Up to that point he always answered my emails but he stopped answering them. The problem is, he’s a politician, and he’s a father, but If he wants to play the political game, being a father is irrelevant.
DS: That’s such a lot of bullshit! this is just political doublespeak: ‘We’ve got to keep burning more oil, more fossil fuels, in order to meet our reduction targets.’ What are you talking about? That’s such a crock of shit!
Q: But Trudeau has to consider what the oil industry looks like right now, doesn’t he? What about the people working on the oil rigs right now?
DS: The problem is, he’s got a way out! He’s not shutting Notley down. She’s already getting her bitumen out through the Kinder Morgan line, so what the hell! He’s not putting people out of work, but he’s got to acknowledge that he’s got to make a transition of those workers.
The Canadian Labour Congress proposed to create 1 million jobs in the next five years through the support of renewable energy. The will is there to make the transition, the problem is, that, as Andrew Nikiforuk pointed out, when you become a petrostate, you no longer have a democracy. Because the fossil fuel industry then sets the agenda.
On democracy, dictatorship, and almost running for the B.C. NDP
Q: So how can citizens hold our democratic leaders accountable?
DS: I was asked to give a talk to the Senate last year on the 150th anniversary of Canada. What I said is, ‘We elect people to run government, but their problem is they only look to the next election.’ They can’t look down and say, ‘Jesus, we have to spend $50 billion a year for the next fifteen years to deal with climate change,’ because they know someone else will take credit for it. They won’t be in office then. So that kind of view is not in their thinking.
So I said, ‘You guys are the Senate. You’re not elected. You’re appointed for life! You’re the ones to think of sober second thought, and think in terms of one generation, two generations from now. You’re the guys who should be doing that.’
They didn’t do a goddamn thing. But I really think that would be a huge opportunity, if we’ve got that bicameral system.
Q: They say longer-term planning is one of the best features of autocratic societies, like China. And China has done a great job cutting down on dirty energy, like coal.
DS: Well the reason why they’re shutting down coal plants is because they’re killing six thousand Chinese a day. They’ve followed the Western model, and that’s developed industry, but a very inefficient, polluting industry. It’s because of health issues that China has recognized they need to get on the green economy. And they’re leading the world. Nine out of ten solar panels are made in China. Windmills, they joined long after other countries but have quickly become world leaders, no question.
But as Evo Morales, President of Bolivia says, ‘It’s still a green economy.” It’s still about growth, it’s just being green. We need the green, but you can’t have a system that still aspires to endless growth.
Q: Does the political will exists for such a major economic paradigm shift? Did you ever think of running for office yourself?
DS: I really think the political system is completely broke. We haven’t seen a politician whose highest priority after being elected was doing things since Dave Barrett. He was the first NDP premier of B.C. He passed a new law, on average, every 3 days. And he got booted in the next election, but boy, he came as close to getting me to run for office as I’ve ever been.
He came to my house and said, ‘I need you to run.’ He brought [then-MLA] Mike Harcourt… We went around, and I was like, ‘Aw, I don’t know.’
Then [Barrett] got mad. ‘You fucking academics, you talk and talk, you think you’re so smart but you see that mountain over there’-- he points at Cypress Mountain-- ‘That’s never going to be developed because I protected that. I got ICBC started. I did agriculture and land reform. What have you ever done? All you’ve done is talk.’
God, I was so embarrassed. I was like, ‘Fuck, I gotta run for office.’ That was like, 1973. But see, I came flat out for the Greens in the last B.C. election.
“That's politics. Principle and ideals don't mean a goddamn thing.”
Q: How have the B.C. Greens done?
DS: Well, it was staggering. You always hope the Greens will hold the balance of power. The Greens had their first big chance with Site C. Two weeks before the decision was coming, [Green Party leader] Andrew Weaver said they wouldn’t bring the government down over Site C.
He wouldn’t even play politics! There’s no way the NDP would’ve wanted another election that soon. He could have taken the government right down and stopped that dam. But his highest priority was proportional representation. That comes before everything else, because he knows in the next election he’s going to get wiped out. It’ll either be a Liberal or NDP majority, so he loses all that power and wants proportional representation. Now politics comes before principle.
So I’m really disillusioned. We have a guy who ran our climate program in the Foundation for 10 years, Gerry Scott. Gerry was a big NDP guy. When the election was coming-- Carole James was leader of the NDP-- Gerry Scott quit and went over to be an NDP advisor.
Their big slogan was ‘Axe the Tax.’ [Former B.C. Premier] Gordon Campbell brought in a carbon tax, which is something we had been pushing for for years, and [Gerry Scott] got into politics and said, ‘Axe the Tax.' That’s politics. Principle and ideals don’t mean a goddamn thing.
Towards sustainable economics and radical politics
Q: How do we fix our political system?
DS: The solution to me is we need a system where politicians are drawn from a hat, the same way we need to set up our juries. People should be charged to serve for six years, they have no political party, their only job is to govern to the best of their ability. There’s no chance in hell of that ever happening. But when you think about it that’s the only system that would work.
The problem with Trudeau is that he takes great selfies. He would be a wonderful Governor-General. But he is not a man that is committed to doing things.
He promised that we would never have another first-past-the-post election. My father and mother couldn’t vote until 1948 because they were Japanese-Canadians. And so I have voted faithfully every election because I take the right to vote as a really important privilege. I have never voted for a parity that has gotten into power. So my vote has been wasted for years and years. So when Trudeau said, ‘Proportional representation,’ I said, ’That’s great.’ He was elected, and after the election, the Liberals dropped it like a rock.
Q: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how liberal democracy and neoliberal economics and have gotten us into a lot of climate trouble. What does a sustainable economy look like?
DS: Have you read Doughnut Economics? [Economist] Kate Raworth... points out two big things that are make the current economic paradigm totally destructive: one, things like the ability of every plant to take carbon out of the air and put oxygen back in it-- that’s a service nature performs, but that the economy totally ignores. It’s considered an externality. So you externalize everything nature does to keep the planet healthy.
I remember when we were battling over logging. Vancouver gets its water from three watersheds surrounded by old growth rainforest. Those trees are big, and each tree is worth tens of thousands of dollars. So the foresters say, ‘We can’t afford to leave those trees, we gotta cut them down!’ God, how many times did I go and say, ‘Look as long as those trees are intact, when it rains you don’t have to do a thing to that goddamn water because all of those plant roots, tree roots, fungi, and bacteria are filtering that bacteria for you.’ But economists don’t factor that in.
The second, most destructive aspect is the feeling that, in order for this economy to progress, you need growth. So growth has become the driving force by which politicians and businesspeople operate. If you ask a businessman or a politician how well did you do last year, within a second, they’ll know: this many jobs, this much profit, this much GDP. Everything is about growth.
I have two friends who started a company called Roots. They have been big supporters of mine, and [co-founder] Michael Budman told me, ‘I agree with everything you say. But if Roots were to submit a proposal to a bank [asking for] a loan and you submit a plan in which you don’t grow, you won’t get a loan!’
Because if you’re not growing you’re considered dying. But the drive for growth is a crate of cancer cells. Cancer cells believe they can grow forever. And they can’t. And it’s the same thing with our economy within the biosphere. It can’t grow forever.
Q: Let’s draw it out. What does our economy look like now, and how does it need to change?
DS: You hear about the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line is the environment, society, and the economy. Usually, it is depicted by three circles of equal size. Usually they’re overlapping, so the areas where they’re overlapping is the sweet spot. That’s where you gotta work and benefit all three.
The reality is you’ve got one big circle, the biosphere: the zone of air, water, and land, where all life exists. Within that there are 10 million little circles of different size. That’s each species. Within the human circle, the economy should be a tiny ring within that. But what we’ve got is one big circle, and one of the rings inside is 40 per cent of the circle. Humans have taken over 40 per cent of the net primary productivity of the planet. And of course when we take that over we drive all the other species to extinction. We’re trying to keep the economy growing so that it will be bigger than society and the environment. This is crazy.
So what [Raworth] comes up with is what she calls a “doughnut economy.” It’s absolutely brilliant. She’s saying there are limits imposed by ecology. Typically, economists like steady growth forever. What she says is we all exist within what she calls the ecological shield. These are all factors that will limit how much we grow. The ozone layer, land conversion, how much the Earth can sustain. We exist within a band underneath that shield. We have now exceeded those boundaries in a number of areas.
Q: Thanks, Dr. Suzuki.
DS: OK... I don’t know what the hell you’re going to write.
-- with files from Ed Ngai
Editor's note: This article was updated on March 13, 2018 to correct an error in a photo credit for an image that was captured by Jocelyn Michel.