Natural Life Magazine

A Conversation with David Suzuki
About Children and the Environment
by Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr

Interview with David SuzukiRuth Bradley-St-Cyr: Could you tell me a bit of the background behind your project, Amazing Journey? I was interested in the fact that you were using music to reach kids about science.

David Suzuki: I've always tried to be open to any kind of idea that could get through to people. So I've done tapes in the past, I've done videos obviously, I've done different kinds of records, radio, television. I mean, I've just tried any medium that I could get.

I met [lyricist] Denise [Duncan] when we were doing a series of shows for kids on CBC and the songs that her husband [Bill Iveniuk] had written were just wonderful. She approached me then and said, “Would you be interested in getting involved in this?” I said immediately “Great!” because music is something that is just so universal. And if it's done well children respond to it so powerfully. I don't see it as a way of educating children in the traditional sense about science but if you look at the lyrics there are some very profound ideas there.

Ruth: Yes, I noticed a little dig at politicians there, in the one about the whales.

David: Oh, yeah. That's the one that has the heaviest message, I think. But we didn't want to be ham-fisted and say, “Look kids you've gotta do this and you've got to recycle.” We wanted it to be uplifting and a celebration of things, even spiders. My whole idea was to show children how connected we are.

The tape we did before this one, in fact, was called Connections. We've done three together now; Amazing Journey is the third. The first was called Space Child and I loved it. We had people like the MacKenzie brothers singing different cuts. There were some wonderful songs. I keep telling Bill, “You've got to reissue Space Child.” It was done on a record, an actual vinyl record. Space Child was done totally independently. I put money into it and a record company was very excited about it. They produced them and immediately went out of business so I have about 200 of these things.

Then we did Connections, which I love, my children love. It came out through my [book] publisher, Stoddart Press. I think Stoddart had a hard time dealing with a product that wasn't a book. They sold 10,000, which to them was great because if you sell 10,000 books it's great, but record-wise it's not that great.

Denise and Bill just kept plugging away and I kept putting money into it and they came up with this one, Amazing Journey. So we've been together a long time and for me it's just been something I've done on spec. When I was still taking government grants, I put grant money into it to make sure it kept going. But the long-term hope is that it will generate revenue, which will go to my foundation.

Ruth: Why bother with children, though? They're not the ones who need to be told to clean up the environment.

David: Well, the thing I've found over the years – I've been doing television since 1962 and my great conceit as a young man had been that I was going to raise the level of public awareness and people would take responsibility for things that were affecting their lives – is that, after 30 some odd years, I've done nothing, basically.

The lesson to me is that adults don't want to change. People – especially people in positions of power – have invested a tremendous amount of effort and time to get to where they are. They really don't want to hear that we're on the wrong path, that we've got to shift gears and start thinking differently. And I understand that. After you've worked for a little nest egg, you don't want to change.

Children haven't invested time or effort into the status quo. They're completely open. Now the problem is that children are going to take another 20 or 30 years to replace us and we don't have 20 or 30 years. But I feel the one vulnerability adults have is their children. Even the most rabid right-wing conservative bastard loves his children and if you love your children you are vulnerable. If a child says, “Dad (or Mom), I'm really worried. What kind of a future am I going to have? What are you doing to help my future?”, parents have to respond. You have no choice. So the hope in this kind of endeavour is that children singing it around the house are going to effect mom and dad.

Ruth: Do you think it's the job of parents to educate kids about the environment or the other way around?

David: I don't see how kids can be any different. They're going to grow up the way mum and dad are acting and behaving and thinking. I think the change is going to come the other way around.

Ruth: From kids?

David: Yeah, because parents are already set in that slot. The one thing I feel is very hopeful, however, is the overwhelming participation of women in the movement for change. Because it's women – often very young women who have just had their first child and have suddenly begun to think seriously about that child and have gotten very worried about the environment because they see it's tied in.

Ruth: When I was a kid in the 1960s there was a big environmental movement as well but the world doesn't seem to have changed very much even though all those children are now grown up.

David: I'd say things have gotten much worse than when you were a child because it's all accelerated. That makes the message all the more urgent. I feel the groups that are going to have the biggest effect now are the ones that don't have a stake in the power structure. Men who dominate the business and political agendas are not going to be where change will come from.

To me, women are by far the most important group. But I also think that elders are extremely important. I keep saying, “Talk to people 70 or 80 years old. Ask them what was Winnipeg like when you were a kid? What were the forests in B.C. like when they were logging 50 years ago? Or what were the cod like in Labrador or Newfoundland?” What you find is that grandma and granddad tell you that it's changed beyond description. An older Manitoba farmer can tell you about flocks of waterfowl that used to come over into the pothole country. We haven't seen the likes of that in 30 years.

I can remember as a child we used to drink out of Lake Ontario with a cup. I remember going into Lake Erie. Hatches of mayflies off the lake would literally pile up four feet on the beaches. Can you imagine? And the fish would just be out there gorging themselves. I used to go fishing and pull the fish in one after another. It was all gone by the 1970s. Now it's coming back.

"The one thing I feel is very hopeful is the overwhelming participation of women in the movement for change. It's women – often very young women who have just had their first child and have suddenly begun to think seriously about that child who have gotten very worried about the environment."

Ruth: Even I can remember more butterflies when I was a kid. If you see a butterfly now you grab your three-year- old and say, “Look there's a butterfly,” because you might not see one tomorrow.

David: One of the most frightening things is to hear young people like you who say, “Oh yeah, there used to be a creek here. There used to be minnows down here. There used to be woods over there.” That just sends shivers up my back. What the hell are we going to leave for our kids? What are they going to remember? And when you think of what grandma and granddad remember and when you think of what mum and dad remember and then you ask, “What are they going to have when they get to be adults?” It's pretty terrifying.

I feel that women are going to be key because they think long-term about children. I think elders are absolutely essential to tell us what's happened in their lifetimes. I think children are key. So our Foundation, for example, has a program where children are brought in constantly to talk to our board to tell us what their perceptions and concerns are.

Aboriginal people are key because they have a different sense of where we belong and how we interact with nature. And the fifth group is that whole other world of developing countries whose underdevelopment is caused by us taking a lot of their stuff. So we have a responsibility to them.

Ruth: The other thing is that developing countries are going through the same problems with industrial pollution that we're just starting to try to clean up.

David: Absolutely.

Ruth: One theory behind why men are polluting is that ever since they were babies they've had someone to pick up after them – whether it's their mother or their wife or the cleaning staff at the office – and that basic behavior just extends to the environment – to Mother Nature – as well. They feel no responsibility for anything to do with cleaning up or, better yet, not making a mess in the first place.

David: My wife says girls learn very early that if someone spills something someone's got to pick it up and it's always girls. I've just bought this book If Women Counted by Marilyn Waring. She was a politician in New Zealand and became the minister of finance. She was very young; she was 22 when she was elected. She started going to international conferences and everywhere she went, whether it was in India, whether it was in America, she'd find a woman who was about her age and get to know her. She would then spend a day with her. From the time the woman woke up to the time she went to sleep she would just watch. What she found is that women work their asses off from the time they get up to the time they go to bed and that time is called leisure – unproductive time – because it doesn't generate goods and services.

Ruth: [Toronto Star columnist] Michelle Landsberg wrote about that book in her column a few years ago and she uses four examples of productive and unproductive labor according to the way the GNP is currently calculated. The two productive men are a drug dealer and a soldier whose job is to wait for the signal to release the missiles. And the two unproductive women are a young girl living a subsistence life in Africa, spending all day gathering wood and water, and the other is a housewife, spending her time taking care of kids and wiping noses and doing laundry. According to the GNP, the men are contributing to the ecomomy and the women are not.

Yes, there's something wrong with that paradigm. It hits you very hard when you're on maternity leave. What do you do all day? Well, I take care of my baby and play with her. It's just play right? She's learning to talk, going coo and making eye contact. And we spend lots of time breastfeeding, which is unproductive time, right? It has no impact on the economy at all, unless you consider it a negative impact from lost formula sales.

David: I think this is a very powerful perspective, which has to be imposed because the current economic paradigm, which is generated by men, is the cause of the destruction of the planet. I think this whole approach – the Marilyn Warings and the Michelle Landsbergs of the world – has got to be listened to.

Ruth: Do schools have a role to play, in science class for example, in getting kids thinking about the environment?

David: A lot of children who are worried about recycling are getting it from their schools so the schools have been very quick to pick up the issue. The problem with the schools is they've gone absolutely whole hog on the wrong thing – computers – which is just siphoning money away from more teachers, more buses so the children can go somewhere and experience nature or have field trips. Instead it's all going to this high tech thing, which is total bullshit as far as I'm concerned. It's become an incredible waste of time and ultimately destructive educationally. That's my own bias.

It's very difficult to bring about really deep curricular changes. What you depend on are the few teachers who are pushing the environmental message. I think what we need is really a profound curricular change and that's going to take a lot of time.

I sat for three years on the Science Council of Canada committee that looked at science education in elementary and secondary schools.

What we said was that we should be aiming for one hour of science per day, every day of a school child's life, from kindergarten on. That was the goal. Well we are so far away from that it's not even funny. We outlined a whole series of changes that could be done at very little extra expense to reach that goal.

The major problem is that most of the teachers in primary school are women who've had virtually no science at all in their university career and are afraid of science. So if you say science they get really freaked out and uptight about it because they have barriers. They associate science with math and all kinds of things. I won't say they're hostile but they're nervous about it. Also the curricular people think that science is this very math driven, high tech, do-experiments-and-write-it-up-a-certain-way kind of thing. To me that's not what science is.

First of all, that's not how scientists do experiments. The essence of science is curiosity and wonder and I feel that the critical years are K to 4. I'm just rabidly against computers in elementary schools as a teaching device. I don't think you can learn science through computers; it has to be through nature. If you talk to John Polanyi or Michael Smith – our Nobel prize winners – or any outstanding scientists and ask them, “What got you interested in science?” my bet is that 90 percent of them will say they were interested in astronomy or got turned on by plants or loved fish. It's nature.

Ruth: Interacting with the planet, not the machine.

"Our kids don't even know where food comes from. Our kids don't even know that hamburger comes from an animal. If you ask them, 'When you put the garbage on the curb where does it go?' they have no idea. 'When you turn on the tap where does the water come from?' No idea.”

David: Exactly. And so what we should be doing is spending lots of time, not calling it science, but just giving children an opportunity to encounter nature, especially since 80 percent of us live in cities now.

Whether it's going to farms, actually milking cows, collecting eggs...Our kids don't even know where food comes from. Our kids don't even know that hamburger comes from an animal. I mean, they're literally that ignorant about it. If you ask them, “When you put the garbage on the curb where does it go?” they have no idea. “When you turn on the tap where does the water come from?” No idea. I mean they just don't know. There is a wonder and an excitement when children make these great discoveries.

For those of us concerned about the planet, the spin-off would be children who would grow up much more aware of the environmental issues. A secondary effect would be that the number of kids who would go into science would skyrocket. The focus really has to be on K to 4 and it has to be those women teachers reading teacher-friendly and user-friendly ideas. Let's not call it science at all, let's just call it nature study or earth discovery or whatever.

You know, my kids had one teacher in Grade Two who was wonderful. She did very simple things. She gathered a bunch of milkweeds and had butterfly caterpillars on there that actually pupated and hatched. My daughter still talks about what an incredible thing it was to watch. That's all it takes. It's very simple.

Ruth: Yeah and cheaper than computers.

David: 'Way cheaper than computers, that's right.

Ruth: Well for saving the planet though, what about food sharing? Food has become a commodity rather than a right like air and water. The necessities of life are being turned into commodities rather than necessities.

Cuba, for example, has returned to more labour intensive farms, trying to get people to move back to the country by providing the jobs there rather than in the city, using natural pesticides because they can't get the fuel and chemicals that they used to import. What is it that's going to turn us around from our current path of bigger is better and growth is everything?

David: My fear is that we're not going to do anything radical or drastic until we hit the wall. I keep saying that I feel like we're in a car heading to a brick wall at 100 miles and hour and everybody in the car is arguing about wanting to drive and nobody is saying, “Turn the steering wheel and put on the brakes!”

Our effort at the David Suzuki Foundation is trying to find a way of putting on the brakes and steering so we don't hit the wall.

Now, in many parts of the world they already have hit the wall. If you go to Rwanda, if you go to Haiti, they've hit it. They know what it's about. Here we're buffered because we've accumulated this illusion of wealth.

I did a radio show years ago called It's a Matter of Survival and the response was astounding. We got 17,000 letters. We've never had any response like that to a radio series on CBC. Almost all of them said, “You scared the hell out of me. I agree with what you're saying but what can I do?”

That's when we formed the foundation because my wife said, “Look, there are enough people out there who know something's wrong, who know that we have to change. But they're terrified because they don't know what the options are. So someone's got to start designing a future and then giving people a choice of how to get to that future.” So that's what we're doing.

My own feeling is if we can avoid hitting the wall it's going to come through people realizing that we've bought the wrong idea. We think that if we have more things we're happier but it's become very, very clear that people are working longer and harder, but they're not as well off in terms of quality of life as their parents were.

Ruth: Emotionally, certainly.

David: All this running around! You know that people actually think having a career and leaving a child from the time they're two in a daycare centre and then coming home and often working on the computer at night while the kid's in a crib...I mean this is quality of life? People tell me it's quality time not quantity time.

I say that's wrong. Children do not wait until six o'clock to have quality time with dad and mum. Children need time all the time. Some parents know that this is just not the way to live.

It's crazy, it's absolutely crazy. So how about using quality of life as an index of progress rather than quantity? We use the GDP now as the index of progress. What a bullshit notion that is. Women who stay at home full time don't register on the GDP but if you use a nanny or a daycare or a babysitter all of that adds to the GDP.

Now I can't imagine a more nutty way of evaluating progress than saying a full time homemaker doesn't register but if you pay someone else to take care of your kids that registers as progress. So what we need to do is to start talking about quality indicators and start demanding more quality.

The first thing I can say to someone is, “Look, if we design the way we live right you will have two or three hours that you never had before to do whatever you want.” We only have 24 hours a day. You have to sleep for seven or eight of those. How do you get two to three hours that you never had before? Well you live where you work; you don't drive there. If people are interested in quality time that two or three hours is very, very precious. Those are the things that we've got to start emphasizing now. It's not owning two cars or having a brand new car or the latest designer clothes. That's not what life is all about.

Ruth: Backtracking to more self-reliance....

David: I don't regard it as backtracking. I regard it as progress. I think we've been backtracking.

Ruth: Not backtracking in a pejorative sense. Keeping more of the basics of life in the family as in the pre-Industrial Revolution model of the self-sufficient family farm.

David: It's rediscovering values that did exist that have been fragmented in modern progressive society. When I was a kid we were very poor. My parents bought clothes with the notion that I would wear them first and then they would be handed down, so that a coat was something that was worn by every one of the children.

So I remember them bragging, “Yes, you know, we bought this jacket five years ago and David and Geraldine and Marsha were all able to use it.” You were proud of that. And now it's designer clothes that will last for six months and then we've gotta get a new fad. It's a different value system that we have to go back to – or rather go forward to.

Ruth: So what does your foundation do then? Is it a kind of think tank for imagining the future?

David: Well, I don't like the idea of it being a futuristic thing, but what we're trying to do first of all is decide what is the bottom line. What are the things that any society should have anywhere in the world? We've done that study and it's going to come out as a book called The Real Bottom Line and it's saying, basically, that we're biological creatures. Whatever you do you have to make sure your air, your water, and your soil are pure and productive. Those you can't mess around with. They're almost sacred because they're key to all life on earth.

But we are also social animals, as well as just biological beings, and we believe that any society should have the opportunity for family, for community, for full employment, for justice, for security. These must be built into whatever society we have.

Ruth: Sounds sort of like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Things that we want for children we've lost sight of for society as a whole.

David: If you're going to say these are inalienable rights for children, society's got to be built on those rights.

And then the final category is that we're spiritual beings as well and there must be the opportunity for spiritual values, which for me means wilderness. So, based on that foundation, we're trying to redesign an idea of how we can live in a way that sustains communities and ecosystems – whether it's fisheries, forests, cities, agriculture.

We're not doing research. We're pulling together what people have done at the grassroots level all over the world and trying to create a comprehensive picture of how we can pull it off. We hope to have that done in three years.

I call this the Manual for Change. We've got a vision of where we have to go, we've got the foundation of it, and we've got concrete steps to get there. Then we're going to take it out and sell it. We go to Orillia, we go to Victoria, we go to Toronto, and we say, “Look here's an idea of what we might do. Let's transform this into a living, working document right here.”

The Foundation takes no money from government, no money from big corporations. We are a grassroots organization, which is a lot of work because it's $15, $20 donations and each donation has to be given a receipt and all, but we feel that that way our constituency is the public. We'll go to Orillia and say, “Look, you live in Orillia. You supported us. Now can you help us try to make this into something that will work for your community?”

Ruth: Selling back to the grassroots level rather than going to the federal government?

David: I feel that my efforts, having been in this business now for over 30 years, have been pretty well wasted in that arena and it's really at the level of grassroots that change has to happen.

Ruth: What's the critical mass that would be needed to change politicians?

David: I don't know. The executive director of our Foundation is Jim Fulton who was an NDP Member of Parliament for Skeena for 16 years. He was deeply loved by people on all sides of the political spectrum. What he says is that if you can get 20 percent of people on any issue you can change policies and all kinds of things are possible. I think he's right. Social change comes about by having a very strong, committed and vocal group that is persuasive.

Ruth: Smoking then, might be a good example of how change happens.

David: Yes. The Foundation is having a social change conference, which is trying to determine what it is that causes people to change their behavior and their attitudes. So we've got speakers coming from the Non-smokers Rights Association, from the advertising business, from the political area, an expert on South Africa. We're asking, “How do you target groups? How do you begin to mobilize people so that you bring about profound change?”

We're a very small organization. We can't waste our time on all kinds of things that are not going to work. But that's the big question. What is it that causes people to change? We know that a crisis causes people to change. Pearl Harbor, no question, we were at war. When people are threatened with jail or death they change. The question is, if you don't want war or jail or death, what is it that brings about change?

Ruth: Yes, it's very hard to shift peoples' opinions.

David: Twenty-five years ago my son started tormenting me because I smoked. He used to pull the cigarettes out of my mouth and break them and he would take packs of cigarettes out of my shirt and flush them down the toilet. I was really pissed off with him until I thought, “My son loves me and he's terrified that I'm killing myself.” I immediately gave up smoking because I thought, “Why should I make him suffer because he loves me? I love him. There's no way I'm going to continue his agony.”

Ruth: So your child was the prime motivation behind that change in your life?

David: Yes, and it's the same thing with the environment. If you love your children you have no choice but to care about the sustainability of life on this planet because that means your children and their children. It doesn't mean countless generations from now because we don't have that long. Now is the time for change.

David Suzuki is a Canadian scientist, environmentalist, broadcaster. Ruth Bradley-St. Cyr is a Toronto mother who was publisher and editor of the now-defunct Growth Spurts magazine. This interview was published in Natural Life Magazine in 1995.


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