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An interview with David Suzuki

Frank Diller

Renowned geneticist and broadcaster David Suzuki is a one-man environmental movement. But the author of more than 30 books, host of the Canadian TV series The Nature of Things, weekly syndicated columnist and founder and chair of his own environmental organization ( knows that one person can do only so much.

David SuzukiClick to Enlarge Image

In 1998, Suzuki wrote The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, a celebration of humanity's essential relationship to the natural world and an end-of-century call to preserve the environment for future generations. He recently returned to the project with a four-part television series (broadcast in September on PBS and now available on DVD); a companion book to that series, The Sacred Balance: A Visual Celebration of Our Place in Nature; and a Web site ( featuring series information and conservation suggestions.

Taking time out from his travels across Canada, Suzuki fielded a set of e-mail questions from the Scientists' Bookshelf in early November.

In The Sacred Balance, you identify seven items that are essential for human beings: earth, air, fire, water, biodiversity, love and spirituality. You transcend the standard definitions of these elements (for example, you describe love in both biological and cultural terms) to offer a more holistic approach to the environment. What led you to this worldview?

In the late 1970s, I did an interview with a young activist named Guujaaw, who is now president of the Haida Nation. Guujaaw had led a battle against clear-cutting in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia) for several years. I knew that the Haida had 80 percent unemployment and that many of the loggers were Haida. So I knew they needed the jobs and asked what difference it made if the trees were all logged. His answer was that if the trees were all cut, then he wouldn't be Haida anymore, he'd just be like everybody else. With that simple reply, he opened a window on a radically different way of looking at the world.

He was telling me that being Haida means being connected to the land in a way very different from the dominant society. In the years that followed, I encountered many indigenous people in North and South America, Africa, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Australia, and always the sense of connectedness to the land was the same. Native people refer to the Earth as our mother and tell us we are made of the four sacred elements: earth, air, fire and water. On reflection, I realized that they are absolutely right and that science corroborates their insights. We are created by the air, water, earth and sunlight. This is not some new scientific breakthrough; it is simply recognition of ancient knowledge.

I wrote that up in my book The Sacred Balance, and as I wrote, I realized that the miracle of life on this planet is that the web of life, biodiversity, is responsible for creating, cleansing or replenishing the four sacred elements. Plants created the oxygen-rich atmosphere and continue to do so; trees, plants, fungi and bacteria filter water and render it potable. All of our food was once alive, and most comes from the soil, which in turn was created by life; and all of our fuel—the energy in our bodies and in flame—was created by photosynthesis. Our biological nature dictates that we have an absolute need for clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and the biodiversity to deliver those elements to us.

Abraham Maslow showed us that we have a nested series of needs. Once we fulfill our immediate basic biological needs, then our social needs emerge, and the most fundamental need we have as social animals is love. Children who are fed, clothed and sheltered but are never hugged, kissed and told they are loved are fundamentally crippled, physically and psychically. They die like flies. We need love to learn how to love, to empathize, to be a part of the human family. To maximize that need, we have to have strong families and communities free of chronic high levels of unemployment, hunger, poverty, injustice, insecurity, terror, war and genocide.

When we have met our social needs, then we need spirit. We need to know that we are not in charge, that we are a part of the natural world and that there are sacred places. I believe that if these needs are not met, we cannot realize our full potential and achieve happy, healthy, meaningful lives.

In your new book, you touch on the problems associated with regulating a product before fully understanding its environmental impact. You cite the risks caused by the pesticide DDT and chlorofluorocarbons before noting that "There is no reason to doubt that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will also have unexpected effects."

As a geneticist, how would you approach the development of genetically modified foods?

I am shocked at how little my colleagues in genetics pay attention to history. They actually forget how ignorant we are—that although we have achieved incredible manipulative powers, we know next to nothing about the real world in which those manipulations will reverberate.

Science does not proceed in a linear fashion the way we write up our grant applications, you know—experiment A leads to experiment B to C to a cure for cancer. So all of the supposed benefits of our manipulations are purely speculative. We don't know how it will all turn out. And then when we create new organisms, new products, and release them in the wild, in our food, in our drugs, we simply don't know enough to anticipate what the consequences will be.

I believe that until the science is mature—that is, until we can take a completely specified sequence of DNA, insert it at exactly a specified sequence in a recipient and predict completely its behavior—the science is not ready to be applied. When we can do that, we won't be able to publish, because we publish papers when we get results that we didn't expect. Last time I looked, the papers and journals in biotech were exploding. To me, it indicates we must not know a helluva lot. In any revolutionary area, most of our current ideas are wrong. That's how science proceeds—by invalidating, altering and discarding our current ideas. What we believed in 1961 when I graduated with a Ph.D. in genetics seems ludicrous today, and so will today's ideas in 20 years.

So what is the rush to apply ideas that will prove to be irrelevant or wrong? Money, of course.

How would you rate the environmental policies of the current U.S. and Canadian governments?

I think the current U.S. government is the most ecologically destructive government we've ever seen. [President George W.] Bush has an agenda that does not allow for the inclusion of scientific advice; his actions are based on ideology. So although fossil fuels are finite, more than half in the United States comes from foreign governments, and there are enormous repercussions for climate change.

Bush has taken the most shortsighted, self-destructive policy going to ensure a continued supply and dependence on foreign oil and exacerbation of climate change. What is egregious is the way information is being twisted to exclude serious scientific discussion.

Canada's record is not that great, but to his credit, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did ratify the Kyoto Protocol despite enormous pressure from the United States not to.

In the new book, you describe how your childhood explorations of a swamp introduced you to biology, and you note that "The endless variety and surprise of nature that enthralled me as a boy have been replaced by the glitter of our own creations—electronic games, shopping malls, and the virtual world of the Internet." Your foundation ( and TV series ( have established their own virtual spaces. What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of this technology for the environmental movement?

If the series can capture excitement that leads to an exploration of the real world, I would be delighted. The problem is that television is a virtual world. Even the best nature programs are not reflections of the real world, they are fabrications. We send a cameraman to remote places to try to get the best shots over a period of months. Those shots are edited together to give an impression of nature on steroids, hopped up with exciting action. But in the real world, nature needs time to reveal herself. Television cannot tolerate that time, so we create a nature for viewers that doesn't exist and expectations that nature cannot deliver.

In the introduction to The Sacred Balance (1998), you write:

[T]his has been the decade in which the media have dismissed environmental issues as matters of minor interest. . . . The media mantra, repeated over and over, is that the real bottom line must be the marketplace, free trade and the global economy. When the media are dominated by wealth and large corporate interests, this economic faith is like religious dogma and is seldom challenged.

Do you think that media coverage of the environment has changed over the last five years?

Yes, programs and articles are fewer and fewer and more superficial.

Folks in media have the attention span of a hummingbird and are bored with what they see as repetitive environmental stories. The problem, too, is that stories are reported as if there is no connection between them. So a drought in southern Alberta, forest fires in northern Alberta, pine beetle outbreaks in British Columbia (winters are too warm to kill them) and smog in Toronto are stories that are reported as if there is no connection.

Are there stories that are being covered effectively?

No. Compare coverage of the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity (November 1992), in which more than half of all Nobel laureates suggested we may have as little as 10 years to avoid an ecological catastrophe, with coverage of O. J. Simpson, Princess Diana and Bill and Monica.

What do you think are some of the most important stories not being covered by the media?

I think there is not enough of a critical analysis of the fact that the way the economists see the world is destructive. Economists "externalize" most of the natural world—biodiversity, ozone layer, fossils, water, topsoil and so on. The "services" performed by nature are not accounted for in our economic system, so that a tree, for example, is seen as having no value until money is spent to watch it (ecotourism) or cut it down. Economics is based on the enormous creativity and productivity of human beings, and so it is assumed that steady growth is possible (which it is not) and necessary! No one asks the important questions, such as what is an economy for, how much is enough, is it providing what people really need.

What do you consider to be the highlights of your various careers as a broadcaster, scientist and writer?

My highlight as a scientist was establishing that temperature-sensitivity is a useful property of mutations in Drosophila, which allowed all kinds of experiments to be done in neurobiology and development.

In broadcasting, A Planet for the Taking and The Sacred Balance are television series of which I am very proud. In radio, It's A Matter of Survival and From Naked Ape to Superspecies were important series, as was Quirks and Quarks, the long-running weekly radio series that I originated and hosted.

As a writer, I am very proud to have been a weekly columnist for 12 years and to have never missed a deadline. The columns became collections that were best-sellers (four in all). I am proud of every book I've ever published.

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