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Our Fundamental Needs: An Interview with David Suzuki
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
In May 2013, Maitripa College hosted the Dalai Lama Environmental Summit in Portland, Oregon, U.S. During the summit, Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist Dr. David Suzuki took part in a panel discussion “Universal Responsibility and the Global Environment” with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Oregon environmental leader Andrea Durbin.
A few weeks before the summit in April 2013, Mandala interviewed David over the phone from his office in Vancouver, Canada. We started the conversation by talking about David’s first encounter with His Holiness.
David Suzuki: A few years ago, I was asked by His Holiness if I would be one of the scientists teaching his chosen monks. He really believes that his monks have to know about modern, Western science. Apparently, he periodically invites scientists to come and teach in Dharamsala. I was asked and I first turned it down. I said, “Gee, I really have got too much going on.” And my family, when they found out that I had turned it down, got so mad that they made me call them back and say, “OK, I’ll do it,” because they wanted to go with me.
We went and stayed in Dharamsala for two weeks and I taught a group of monks. It was an amazing thing to teach in a room where I was dressed up with down jackets like a Michelin man and these guys were sitting in their robes with bare shoulders. They were long sessions: two-hour sessions with me twice a day. They sat there just completely locked into what I was saying; it was really remarkable. And they got it. They got what I was saying immediately, and they could see it through the perspective of their own world view, the spiritual aspects of what I was saying. It was a very, very exciting exchange. I got to meet the Dalai Lama before I started to teach a class for half-an-hour in Delhi. That was a wonderful experience for the family.
Mandala: What kinds of things did you talk to the monks about? What were your topics?
David: Our fundamental needs are defined by our biological nature, by our social nature, and by our spiritual nature. Now, I don’t have any expertise in terms of the spiritual aspects, except for my long experience with First Nations in Canada. But when I begin to talk about our fundamental biological needs beginning with a breath of air, the monks got it right away.
We’ve got such a screwed up system; we put the economy above everything. It just boggles my mind that we can put the economy above the very air that we need from the moment of our birth to the last breath we take before we die. That necessary exchange of air connects us with each other and every other terrestrial animal and plant on the planet. And it is a very, very profound connection. My whole point is: there is no environment “out there” that we have to regulate our interaction with. We literally are embedded in the air through the hydrologic cycle with water, with the earth through the food we eat, and through the energy in our bodies that comes from the Sun. We are literally made up of what aboriginal people call Mother Earth.
Mandala: I was looking at the David Suzuki Foundation website today and I saw a post titled “Strong Environmental Policy is the Best Economic Policy for British Columbia” And since you brought up the economy right away, I was wondering if you would talk about the benefits and draw backs of looking at the environment through economic measures and policy.
David: My position is that we live in a world that is shaped by laws of nature. In physics we understand that we can’t exceed the speed of light. Nobody sets out to build a rocket that can travel faster than the speed of light. We know the laws of gravity say there’s no anti-gravity possibility here on Earth. And the first and second laws of thermodynamics say you can’t build a perpetual motion machine. These are limits that shape the kind of world that we live in. And nobody objects to them. That’s reality. It’s the same in chemistry. There are laws that regulate diffusion, constants, reaction rates, the kinds of molecules you can synthesize. Those are all dictated by chemical principles. In biology we know that we have absolute need for air, water, soil and sunlight. These are dictated by biology. We have to live within that world.
But other things like the borders we draw around our property, our cities, our states, our countries; concepts of economics, corporations, and markets – these are human-created things, they are not principles that emerge from nature. Yet we elevate corporations and economies and boundaries above the very natural world that we depend on for our survival. This is, as far as I’m concerned, suicidal.
At our foundation, we’ve heard many times, “You always criticize, but you don’t offer solutions.” But we’ve actually spent a lot of time offering all kinds of ways that corporations and our governments can save money by becoming more efficient and reducing throughput of raw materials and all this stuff, but it still buys into the economic system that itself is destroying the biosphere.
You see, the economic system that we bought into acts as if unlimited growth forever is the goal. No one ever says, “Wait a minute now! We live in a finite world, the biosphere. Nothing can grow within that world indefinitely.” Growth becomes cancerous. Instead, we’ve got to have steady-state economics [a system that does not exceed ecological limits]. So that’s the number one problem: the insane notion that we have a system — that everyone bows down before — that we believe can grow forever. It’s just not possible.
Another aspect is that this economic system is based on the incredible productivity and creativity of human beings yet doesn’t acknowledge that everything we do exists within the biosphere and that it is nature itself that provides the raw materials and absorbs the waste from our industrial activity. None of that is really factored into the economic equation that we live with. They are considered externalities.
When I fight for a forest, and try to prevent clear-cut logging, I have to try to argue that there are economics benefits of maintaining that forest: maybe there are few nuts or berries that we can pick, maybe we’re going to find a cure for cancer. Meanwhile, the forest companies argue there are jobs to be created, pulp we can make for paper, lumber. It’s a totally unequal argument. Yet the real reason we want to protect that forest is because it’s exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen – not a bad service for an animal like us. That forest is holding the soil so it doesn’t run into the spawning grounds of the salmon; it’s pumping water out of the soil and transpiring it into the air and modulating weather and climate; it’s providing habitat for countless other organisms. None of that can be argued in an economic way because they are considered externalities.
We are, I believe, buying into a system that is inevitably destructive because it doesn’t account for the services nature performs for us. It’s built on an absolutely unsustainable concept of steady growth forever.
Mandala: How do we shift these priorities? And how do we not make our decisions based on this economic model but instead value our biological needs and the way nature works?
David: There is a line of ecology today called “ecological economics” and people like Robert Costanza have tried to put a price on nature’s services. For example, Vancouver, Canada, gets all of its water from three watersheds surrounded by old-growth forests. There is this constant pressure to cut down the trees and build a filtration plant, but we can show the value of just leaving the trees and allowing nature to filter that water. So we can try to put a dollar value on the cost of replacing nature by our own creations.
Most things nature does, we can’t possibly duplicate, like, for example, the pollination of flowering plants. Without pollination, we’re screwed. We couldn’t exist as a species because terrestrial ecosystems would collapse. There’s no technology we have to do what insects, bats, mice and wind do in pollinating things. I worry about ecological economics in that a lot of stuff nature does we will never be able to replace. And I believe that much of nature is sacred. How do you put a price on things that are sacred? They are priceless.
We’re running right now, especially in North America – Canada and the United States – on an agenda that is being set by corporations. Corporations are not people! Yet the American courts have decided that corporations are people and therefore have all the rights of people. Well, corporations can put massive amounts of money into supporting political candidates for office, and so when they are elected, who gets first in line to see those politicians? Those corporations. But the corporate agenda is not a human agenda because corporate agenda is based solely on the drive to maximize profit – that is the only reason they exist. They may produce things that we need or want, but the only reason they exist is to make money. I just think that as long as corporations continue to set the agenda, then you’re going to see the kind of dysfunction that we have in the U.S. government. … We have to find ways of getting corporations back out into their place.
Mandala: Getting back to the Environmental Summit and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was wondering if you have thoughts about where you might see interest in maintaining a healthy environment overlapping with Buddhist practice.
David: I’ve just come back from 10 days in Bhutan and I’ve never been in such a strongly Buddhist country. They’ve really electrified the world by offering a different paradigm for development. I was just astounded when I first heard about their presentation at the United Nations last year. And there’s a huge amount of interest and support for this. I think the reality is that we know the current economic paradigm is broken and it’s fundamentally destructive. Short of total economic meltdown (which I’d hoped 2008 would be), people are saying, “What’s the alternative? We’re stuck with this system, can’t we just improve it?” But I think it’s got to be completely thrown out. What Bhutan is offering is a radically different perspective on the meaning of our existence and the purpose of governments and economies.
Here’s a country that was basically isolated from the rest of the world for 300 years. The third king [Jigme Dorji Wangchuck] in the mid-1900s decided that Bhutan couldn’t remain isolated any longer and he had to find out what was going on in the world outside. In 1961 they began to send a hundred students out to schools in India to be educated. From there, many of them went on to Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge. As these students began to come back to Bhutan, they said, “You’re not going to believe what the West thinks development is. They think development is about money and material goods.”
In 1972, the fourth king [Jigma Singye Wangchuck] was asked by a reporter about Bhutan’s GNP and he said, “In Bhutan we’re not interested in the GNP, we’re interested in GNH – Gross National Happiness.” The Bhutanese have really embraced that notion of happiness and well-being of the rest of life as the goal of governments. The economy should be there to serve the people and that goal will be happiness and well-being. A very, very different message from what we say in the United States or Canada. We say, “Well, the key to our well-being in Canada is economic growth.” Economy and money are seen as the very measure of the success of our government; and it’s fundamentally wrong.
I’ve been involved in the environmental movement ever since I read Rachel Carson [who wrote Silent Spring] in 1962. I’ve been telling people now for years that the environmental movement has fundamentally failed. In Canada we saw that the Americans were proposing to bring supertankers with oil from the North Slope down along our coast down into Seattle. We fought that and we stopped it. We stopped dams that the World Bank was funding in the Amazon. We stopped a dam on the Peace River in Northern British Columbia. We’re realizing now – despite these successes – we’re fighting the same bloody battles over and over again.
I did three programs on the Porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. These are the calving grounds of the herd. I’ve done three shows on that herd trying to show the incredible abundance and importance of this great wildlife phenomenon. But the pressure to drill ANWR is every bit as great today as it was 40 years ago. So what does that mean? In focusing on these battles to stop clear-cut logging, or drilling for oil, or supertankers, or big dams, we kind of acted as if winning – stopping the dams or the supertankers – somehow represented a victory, an environmental victory. But these are just symptoms of our underlying value system that shapes the way that we react and treat the environment. They were really just Pyrrhic victories. We didn’t win anything because we didn’t change the perspective through which we see ourselves in this world. What Bhutan does is offer us a very different perspective. It’s very exciting.
Mandala: What do you think can be gained by having His Holiness the Dalai Lama involved in this conversation on the environment? What does he bring to an environmental summit?
David: Of course he brings an incredible credibility when you talk about issues of spirit. There ain’t none better than him. He has an enormous following and wide admiration. So if there is a coming together of values that can be shaped within his community, I think that’s a huge opportunity.
Mandala: I’ve always seen environmental issues relating to spirituality. I feel like my experiences in wilderness as a child and teenager in the North American West gave me my first spiritual experiences, if you will. And it’s been 25 years since I’ve been concerned with environmental issues. But I feel like I’ve seen so many losses and not that many gains. I honestly have come to feel quite discouraged and cynical at times. How do you keep on working to protect the environment given our grim state of affairs?
David: Because what’s the alternative?
The alternative is simply despair. There are many of my colleagues, people I have enormous respect for, who are saying it is too late. James Lovelock, who coined this idea of “Gaia” to explain the web of life on Earth, says in his latest book that 90 percent of humanity will be gone by the end of the century. I’ve interviewed him a number of times. When I say, “Well, what do we do?” He’s basically saying, “Head north and head for the hills.” He favors nuclear energy as one of the options. Basically he’s saying it’s too late; it’s survival of our skins. That’s it.
Martin Rees, a very distinguished astronomer, the Astronomer Royal in the United Kingdom, was asked recently on BBC what are the chance our species will survive by the end of this century? His answer was 50/50. That was a real shock to me. Clive Hamilton, a very respected eco-philosopher in Australia, his second to last book was called Requiem for a Species, and guess what species it’s a requiem for? It’s us. Now, I’ve read Clive’s book from cover to cover, I don’t disagree with anything he says. When you look at the history of our inability to really act in a serious way over the last 40 years about major issues, we’ve passed a lot of points of no return.
We’ve already set in motion the experiment with the planet’s climate. There’s nothing we can do about the fact that we’re well over a level of atmospheric carbon content that will zip us way past an average global increase of 2° C [3.6° F] in this century, and that’s catastrophic as far as I’m concerned. But what’s the alternative then? Do we say, “Well, it’s too late” so we give up and just party until we all go down?
That’s not acceptable as far as I’m concerned, not when you have grandchildren as I do. That’s what pushes us on. I’m in the last part of my life. What happens or doesn’t happen is going to have very little real impact on my life, but it will reverberate through the lives of my grandchildren. I have no choice but to say my generation and the Boomers that followed, have done a very, very irresponsible job. I believe that these generations have committed crimes, inter-generational crimes; it’s been criminal what we’ve done. The only way I can try to make up for it is do the best I can to at least minimize whatever is lying ahead in the future. The answer to the enormous carbon output is not to just carry on and try to geo-engineer the planet, which a lot of scientists are now saying we’ve got to do. We’ve got to stop producing so much carbon.
Mandala: It seems to me that we can anticipate there will be increased suffering because this, extreme weather, sea levels rising, warming and so on. So there is this spiritual component: how do we as a people handle suffering? How do we respond to each other? Are we going to help each other? From a Buddhist point of view, you are also concerned about all the other living beings on the planet as well. I was wondering if you had more thoughts this.
David: I think that as a species we haven’t demonstrated much concern about our fellow human beings. Look at the level of poverty in the richest nation on the planet. I don’t know what the statistics are in the U.S., but in Canada, it’s one out of five children goes hungry. We vowed as a species at the United Nations to eradicate poverty long ago. We haven’t even done that in the richest countries in the world. We don’t care about the inequities and the lack of social justice in many parts of our country, and we certainly couldn’t care less about the Inuit in the Arctic whose ice is melting; or people in Vanuatu or the South Pacific islands whose homes are going to be sunk by sea-level rise; or the people in the Horn of Africa who are going to suffer tremendous consequences. We don’t give a shit. Let’s face it. We’re going to look out for our own skins and we only look out for the skins of a certain sector of our own population. We certainly could use some good Christianity. I’m not a Christian, but I know the story of the Good Samaritan, and we could certainly use the Buddhist perspective that respects all life on Earth, but we’re a far cry from that, even in our own country.
Mandala: What do you suggest to people that say, “What do I do now?”
David: In the 1960s and ’70s we used to run around saying “think globally, act locally” and in many ways that was completely wrong because when people began to think globally, in terms of issues like species extinction or climate change or ocean acidification, it was so immense that people said, “Well, what the hell? There’s over 7 billion people. What difference does it make what I do?” It imposed a sense of helplessness.
I think we have to think locally and act locally in order to have a hope of being effective globally. I find that where you get that real sense that we can do something is when you get involved at the local level. Of course, one’s eye is always on the collective impact of communities around the world. But at the community level, we can really see the consequences of what we do. It’s very uplifting.
If you go the David Suzuki Foundation website there all kinds of thing one can do, like the “10 Most Effective Things that Reduce Your Carbon Footprint” and all that kind of stuff. The most important thing right now is to become very, very involved in our political process. If we believe in democracy, and if we realize we have to make some big changes that can only be made at a level of governments, then we have no choice but to engage ourselves in the political process.
Mandala: Did you have anything you’d like to add?
David: May I just say that I agree with you that nature is a profound spiritual connector. We’ve now got a huge outreach program trying to reach ordinary Canadians, but especially kids, who aren’t spending any time outside. When you ask their parents or grandparents, “Did you have a special place when you were young?” Almost always it’s something out in nature. “Well I had a ditch I used to play in” or “I had this little group of trees where I had a branch I could hang out on.” We have these magic places and they’re really spiritual touchstones of nature. Our kids are losing that because they’re spending more and more time in front of computer screens and inside houses. I think the message the Dalai Lama is spreading, hooked together with the environmentalists, is a very, very powerful one.
David Suzuki is a Canadian geneticist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. He hosted the long-running CBC TV series “The Nature of Things” as well as taught at the University of British Columbia, where he is a professor emeritus. He has published over 40 books and is widely recognized as a world leader in sustainable ecology. For more, visit the website of the David Suzuki Foundation.
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