Japanese-Canadian geneticist offers gloomy prognosis of looming catastrophe, and rubbishes the idea that humanity can innovate its way out of its problems
David Suzuki is a force of nature. The Canadian geneticist turned celebrity champion of the environment is operating on severe jet lag, two hours’ sleep and an ever-heightening world-weariness. But he fires off epithets, facts and acerbic quips with a vigour that’s as implausible as the ageless glow of his skin.
“Humans value growth; that’s like cancer cells,” Suzuki, 80, says. We’re overpopulated and live in a finite world but are deluding ourselves that the opposite is true, he says.
“We’re an invasive species,” he adds, forecasting that a Spanish-flu-like epidemic might cut back swelling populations in the near future.
The developing world is a target of his ire for its booming populations, a position he admits is controversial. “We don’t talk about how these populations are growing too fast because we’re told it’s racist to say that.”
Touching down in Hong Kong to deliver a rallying speech at City University that kicks off its inaugural lecture series on sustainability, Suzuki does not mince words on stage nor during interviews, in which he refuses to suffer optimists.
He has a reputation as a fearsome figurehead of Canada’s environmentalists, having, on occasion, responded to detractors in expletives, and proved a slightly scary interviewee. At times, he emanates a grandfatherly warmth; at others, a wry impatience that veers on the grouchy.
“Yeah, humans are just so smart, we’re just so, so smart,” he says, rolling his eyes at the suggestion that humanity might save itself through its own inventiveness. This quality, though marvellous in some respects, is what enabled us to develop in ways that are unsustainable.
“We have the internet, that’ll fix things,” he says sarcastically. He finds effusive optimism of this sort not only deeply distasteful, but also dangerous, as it vindicates inaction in the face of creeping adversity.
That man-made solutions to climate change’s increasingly disastrous impact, by way of geoengineering, or conquering new planets as recently proposed by Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk, might be just around the corner, are beliefs he calls delusional. The answer lies not in new inventions, but in scaling back big time and pushing for others to do the same.
The solution to our problems goes far beyond paltry gestures such as switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, he says, but doesn’t offer any specific suggestions besides a total overhaul of the status quo, and mobilising society to campaign for its rights to clean resources.
“Since I arrived in Hong Kong people keep saying ‘free the market, you gotta free the market’,” Suzuki says, waving his arms flamboyantly. “The market” is a human construct, he adds. It’s not a preternatural force that’s beyond the control of humans – it can be tamed.
Needless to say, Suzuki is no proponent of deregulated capitalism, nor is he hopeful about the future prospects of mankind within the current framework of the global economy. “Corporations don’t give a s*** about us,” he says.
He argues that what’s happened is that we imbue “the market” with an almost transcendental power while relegating the natural world to a position of servitude. This sanctions our plundering of the Earth with ever greater and prospectively more dangerous ingenuity.
On China, he has a nuanced take: “I vowed never to go back because of the air pollution. Now China has invested in green technology because it’s had to – the pollution is killing people. It’s becoming a world leader in green tech.”
On recently elected US President Donald Trump he is far more critical: “We’ve moved from a biocentric point of view to an anthropocentric one. It’s all about me, me, me – and Trump is the cultural expression of that,” he says.
We once respected nature and bowed to its demands. Now we expect it to do our bidding and plunder its resources with an absurd expectation that they are infinite and a grandiose sense of entitlement.
“There’s no limit to what we want,” he says. “You walk down the street and see people in jeans that companies have ripped for them. I think that’s disgusting.”
Suzuki, a Vancouverite and third-generation Japanese-Canadian, rose to prominence as a TV presenter and environmental activist during and after the decades he spent as a research scientist.
His family suffered internment during the second world war, and, in its aftermath, were forced to relocate to the east of the Rocky Mountains after the government sold off their dry-cleaning business.
Suzuki attributes to his parents’ need to scrimp and save his own distaste for the materialist values that flourished after the war.
“My parents taught me not to run after money,” he says.
The fledging scientist earned his PhD in biology from the University of Chicago, and later became professor of a genetics department at the University of British Columbia, specialising in fruit flies.
He went on to host several documentaries, radio and TV shows, among them the internationally popular science programme The Nature of Things, which cemented his place as a household name.
“When I started doing those shows, Canadians were scientifically illiterate,” he recalls. “I had hoped that by helping disseminate information people would get better about making the right decisions.
“I’ve had to alter that belief – now we have the internet and access to so much information, we just read the stuff we want to believe.”
In the late 1970s, during the shooting of The Nature of Things, he interviewed the indigenous people of the Haida Gwaii archipelago on the north coast of British Columbia about protests they were holding against the cutting down of their forest.
These encounters proved life-changing for Suzuki, who has since campaigned tirelessly for the rights of indigenous cultures and has been adopted into one tribe.
“I’ve been welcomed into the eagle tribe – I’m an eagle,” he says. His adoptive tribe sees men and animals as one and the same, an idea Suzuki says is supported by recent research showing that humans and animals share many chromosomes.
He believes they are among the only societies who live sustainably, within their means and with respect for the natural world. He says science now backs many of their conceptions of man’s place in the world as part of an interconnected matrix.
With 55 books under his belt, a foundation in his name, and environmental campaign work spanning decades, Suzuki admits he’s exhausted, angry and prone to moments of despondency.
He has been a particularly active force when it comes to debunking climate deniers and the industry lobby groups that support them. “Companies that put their own profit over the survival of the planet – that’s evil.”
The past year has been a particularly bad one for his ilk. Deadline upon deadline set by climatologists and transnational alliances to offset climate change’s increasingly palpable impact have been flouted.
And what has emerged is an increasingly polarised world, unverifiable information chaos and a climate change denier at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation.
Suzuki remembers the evening of last year’s US elections. A party with his wife and friends in Massachusetts had disbanded early when the results became apparent. “I left that night worried that some of my friends might kill themselves,” he says.
A few weeks later he would find himself reading a particularly dismal report from an environmentalist’s research project that forecast climatological doom in our near future owing to methane being released from the Arctic as the permafrost thaws.
“I couldn’t move for a week after I read that,” he says. “My grandchildren have a very uncertain future.”
A family man with five children – three from his first marriage – he admits that for a proponent of population control his ecological footprint isn’t the most admirable.
“You have one kid, and you think, this is great, let’s have another,” he says. “And grandchildren are even better.”
His daughter, Severn, is like her father. At the age of 12, she travelled to Rio to give a speech at the summit and has since followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a prominent environmental activist. When Suzuki needs to escape he retreats to the Haida Gwaii reservation, where Severn now lives with her husband and two sons.
“My grandchildren keep me from despair,” he says. “My grandchildren are what keep me fighting. Because we’ve got to keep fighting, otherwise – what’s the point?”