Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Perhaps I was unfair to David Suzuki a week ago. I observed that, in an interview published in the Winnipeg Free Press, both the journalist and Suzuki seemed to be phoning it in. The questions might have been formulated by a starstruck cub reporter, and the answers were lazy and self-satisfied. Thus, when this 74-year-old elder (as the subtitle of his new book casts him) is asked:
So who is going to save the world? Who is your eco-hero right now?
the first name that pops into his head is a long-deceased writer. Is the green movement such a backwater that, in the 46 years since Rachel Carson’s demise, it has produced no one else whom Suzuki considers an inspiring leader? But never mind.
Perhaps I should have acknowledged that, after mentioning Carson, Suzuki added:
If you ask who’s going to bring about the changes (now) — polling indicates that women in their 20s to their 60s, that’s the group listening and ready to act. Women tend to think more in terms of children and futures. They’re not as focused on corporate bottom lines.
Hear that, ladies? He thinks we’re capable of saving the world. I happen to agree. But before we support Suzuki financially and in other ways, shouldn’t we spend a few minutes looking closely at the kind of world he wants us to fight for?
Those of us who’ve gone to the trouble of reading a Suzuki book or two can’t avoid the conclusion that he believes in a lost Eden in which humanity once lived in harmony with nature. In The Sacred Balance, he declares that:
…many early people…constructed a way of life that was truly ecologically sustainable, fulfilling and just. (p. 12)
He doesn’t bother to back up these claims with evidence. He just carries on, as though they’ve been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Unfortunately, many records from anthropology, literature, and history challenge such a view. They indicate that early humans were at the mercy of nature. Freak storms damaged dwellings, wiped out crops, and killed livestock. Drought decimated communities. Floods and tsunamis washed them away. Earthquakes and volcanoes buried them.
Early humans had poor personal hygiene, rudimentary clothing, and few medical, dental, ocular, or educational services. They often died young – from infections, malnutrition, disease, accidents, and wild animal attacks. How Suzuki can believe that such privation and peril added up to lives that were “fulfilling and just” is a mystery to me.
…the value system that has governed our lives for at least the past 2000 years.
But that value system has delivered a great deal worth celebrating. Two thousand years ago slavery (of women and children, as well as men) was normal, women couldn’t vote, privacy and personal freedoms were rare, reliable birth control was a fantasy, and death dying in childbirth was common.
Indeed, as recently as 250 years ago life was harrowing. In 1762 an educated man of no less stature than Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed it was Nature’s law that half of all children should die before reaching their eighth birthday. This was to be expected. It was how the world worked. Why try to contradict it, he asked?
Anyone tempted to time-travel back to a historical period in which life was simpler and humans were allegedly kinder to the environment should consider Rousseau’s advice to parents:
…experience shows that children delicately nurtured are more likely to die…Accustom them therefore to the hardships they will have to face; train them to endure extremes of temperature, climate and condition, hunger, thirst and weariness.
For decades, Suzuki has been sounding the alarm. The introduction to It’s a Matter of Survival, published in 1990, is only four pages long, but all of the following phrases can be found: ecological disasters, ecological destruction, eco-catastrophe, environmental horrors, destruction of civilization, and planetary eco-collapse.
Suzuki may have scientific training, but he has never believed in understatement. And he has often been wrong. That particular 20-year-old book is chock-a-block with dire predictions that never came true. It’s also full of declarations about how short-sighted we humans are – and about how much better off the planet would be if there were fewer of us. A central theme is that fossil fuels are evil.
But here’s the bad news. Powering the world with breezes and sunbeams is a lovely idea. Someday, assuming certain technological breakthroughs, it might even be possible. But at the moment, a modern industrial society in which our food supply is safe and secure, in which premature babies survive rather than perish, in which toddlers no longer succumb to smallpox and polio, in which we no longer talk about training children to endure hunger and thirst for their own good – that society requires cheap, robust, reliable energy. A great deal of that energy currently comes from coal, gas, and oil.
Suzuki believes we should turn our backs on progress, that we should sacrifice our quality of life and our standard of living. He doesn’t advocate merely behaving responsibly toward the natural world – he insists our lives must be radically transformed. Above, he told the newspaper reporter that women “tend to think more in terms of children and futures” and that they are therefore “ready to act.”
But if there are women prepared to bury every second child – and grandchild – in order to reduce humanity’s ecological footprint, I’d like I’ve yet to meet them.