Constitutionalize our right to a clean environment: David Suzuki

The renowned Canadian scientist and activist speaks with The Independent in advance of what could be his final national tour, which begins tonight in St. John’s

To some it may seem absurd. Others, including Canadian scientist and environmental and human rights activist David Suzuki, say it’s common sense: that the Earth—or Mother Earth as she is called by indigenous peoples around the world since she gives life to all species—be endowed with the same fundamental rights to exist and be healthy as individuals themselves.

The basic idea that water, air and soil deserve the same legal protections from violence and harm as people was a point of focus at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, a conference hosted by Bolivia that brought together tens of thousands of people from around the world in April 2010. The conference was partly a response to what many considered to be failed global climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark the previous December, when world leaders gathered for the annual Conference of Parties (COP) summit to discuss plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert runaway climate change. Out of the gathering in Bolivia came the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, a document largely informed by indigenous values regarding the natural environment, but written into legalese so that it could be adopted by countries ready to welcome environmental protections into their legal frameworks, and eventually to be put forth as a resolution at the United Nations.

This past Sunday, between 300,000 and 400,000 people marched in the streets of New York City to protest the continued failure of world leaders, heavily influenced by the global fossil fuel industry, to develop an adequate strategy to immediately reduce and begin phasing out the extraction and burning of gas, oil and coal, which more than hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists comprising the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have agreed is exacerbating climate change and must be curtailed.

On what may be his final tour across Canada, Suzuki has chosen to campaign for what he recently called “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” The 20-city Blue Dot Tour, which kicks off tonight in St. John’s, will aim to bring together “community leaders and groups, local governments, First Nations, musicians, writers, legal experts…[to work on] local, regional and national initiatives to ensure all Canadians have access to clean water, fresh air and healthy food,” Suzuki wrote in an Aug. 1 statement published by The David Suzuki Foundation, which he and his wife Tara Cullis founded in 1990.

“Ultimately, we’d like to see the right to a healthy environment enshrined in the Canadian Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

At the very least, Suzuki believes, Canadians should have the right to a healthy environment — to clean water, air and soil. And so the Blue Dot Tour was born. The Independent spoke with Suzuki, who is now 78, on Tuesday morning, hours after he landed on a “white knuckle” flight in a windy St. John’s.

Interview with David Suzuki

JUSTIN BRAKE: On the Blue Dot Tour you’re making the argument that we could and should be working to have the right to a healthy environment enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You’ve said this is likely your final national tour, but also that it’s the most important thing you’ve ever done. Why is this tour so important, and what underlies your belief that engaging Canadians—at a time when, in some ways, it seems our political engagement is dismal—in pushing for constitutional reform [will be an effective way to achieve this goal]?

DAVID SUZUKI: I’ve been in this game a long time, and in the last few years what has been discouraging is that many of the issues we thought we won 30 to 35 years ago we’re fighting all over again. For example, David Anderson, who was the federal minister of the environment (1999-2004), was the leader of the Liberal Party in B.C. before that — and he led a battle to stop a proposed supertanker route from the Alaskan north slopes down to Seattle, and we won. They wanted to run them down the coast of B.C. and we stopped it. We stopped a dam on the Peace River in Site C. My wife and I were very heavily involved in raising money to support the Kayapo in Brazil to fight a dam in Altamira, and we got the World Bank to pull back its funding, and we stopped it.

And these issues we celebrated as great successes, only to find 30 years later they’ve come up again. So I’ve been saying as environmentalists we’ve fundamentally failed to shift the way that we see our place on the planet. These battles were just, who’s stronger? Who can marshal the most effective argument? But we didn’t see that what [the battles were] talking about was how we live on this planet. And I think the Blue Dot Tour really focuses in on that frame, saying that our very health and well-being are absolutely tied to the quality of the air, the water and the soil that gives us our food. So those ought to be guaranteed in our legal system, in our Charter, in the same way that we guarantee the rights of gay people, or Asians and African Canadians, and women.

These are all things that at one time weren’t enshrined in our Charter, our constitution. But a lot of people fought for them and got them enshrined. And what they reflect are the values of the society we live in.

JUSTIN BRAKE: There’s an interesting dilemma there, it seems. You’ve expressed the idea time and time again that we, as human beings, are the water, air and earth in the most scientifically profound way. Scientific truths. And it seems that understanding alone might have the power to transform how we think about, and behave toward, nature and the environment, and therefore ourselves. But it hasn’t. It seems we’ve continued to grow increasingly disconnected from the natural environment, so how significant a problem is that? We’re talking about enshrining these rights to a clean environment in the constitution, but if we don’t understand that in a fundamental way, of how we are the air and water and earth, then how sustainable is a constitutional change in the long term?

DAVID SUZUKI: I think that that’s really a key question, and the Blue Dot Tour is simply to begin what we hope will be a large grassroots discussion — it’s going to be a discussion of these issues. And the problem is that Canada is a big country, geographically, but the problem is that most of us live in big cities. Canada — we think it’s this huge empty country, but the reality is that 85 per cent of us live in big cities. What is it, 40 per cent of Newfoundlanders live in St. John’s? We’re an urban people, and when you move into a city your highest priority becomes your job. I need a job to buy the things that I need, and so it’s not surprising then that in a city our priority comes around to the economy. And increasingly, as you pointed out in the question, we are less and less aware of the reality that we still depend on nature for clean air, clean water, clean soil.

I’ve got a friend in Toronto and he lives in a high rise apartment that’s completely air conditioned, goes down into the basement and gets in his air-conditioned car, drives down the Don Valley Freeway downtown into the basement of his air-conditioned office building, and it’s connected to huge shopping areas through tunnels. He said, you know, I don’t have to go outside for weeks. And this is the kind of world that we live in now, and so when our Prime Minister says we can’t afford to do anything about climate change, it’ll destroy the economy — and thereby elevate the economy above the atmosphere that keeps us alive, nobody says a word. Like, we just kind of accept that, because in our minds the economy trumps everything else. So what we’re trying to remind people is that from the moment of our birth to the last death rattle, we need air every minute of our lives. If you don’t have air for three minutes you’re dead. So how can we possibly take that and act as if the economy comes before clean air? It doesn’t make any sense to me. And it’s the same with water and soil that gives us our food, and so on.

JUSTIN BRAKE: This past weekend offered a glimmer of hope. Of course, there’s a climate change summit today in New York called by Ban Ki-moon, and on Sunday upwards of 300,000 people took to the streets in what was likely the largest political protest in U.S. history. There were a lot of Canadians there. It seems the threat of runaway climate change could be the catalyst to break civil society here in North America out of its slumber. Of course we have people like Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, some of your colleagues in the environmental movement, championing the idea that perhaps it’s too late to try to muster up the political will or really push our politicians, and that it’s time for people to take to the streets—

DAVID SUZUKI: —Well they’re not saying it’s too late. They’re simply saying that it’s becoming increasingly urgent; it’s so urgent we actually have to take to the streets and demonstrate that this is not some loonie fringe, that this is a mass movement that’s concerned about the future for our kids and grandchildren. And that was an incredible display. In Vancouver—I didn’t want to fly all the way to New York just to be in that parade. I stayed in Vancouver and there were, I estimate 2,000 people in Vancouver on a very quickly developed rally. I think there were in Toronto and Montreal as well. This is a massive massive demonstration that grassroots people are concerned, and you’ve got 120 heads of state coming to New York to meet with Ban Ki-moon and our Prime Minister is in New York and he’s not even gonna go.

I heard on radio today someone saying we’ve got to educate our Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s intentions and priorities have been very clear since he was leader of the Reform Party: he doesn’t believe in climate change, and he feels that something like Kyoto—an attempt to get the world to begin to meet targets and reduce emissions—is a socialist plot. This is his own words, that he believes that if we start agreeing to these international treaties, then that’s the downward movement to a world government and socialism or something like that. I didn’t know that socialism was such a bad word — socialized medicine, and we have all kinds of regulation on how fast we can go in cars, and I don’t see us being taken over by communists. I don’t get it. But Mr. Harper’s intentions I think are crystal clear. There’s no getting around that and people have to recognize that.

JUSTIN BRAKE: How does the Blue Dot Tour link to that overarching need to reduce carbon emissions in the fight against climate change?

DAVID SUZUKI: Climate is just the most urgent issue, but it’s part of a suite of problems we face. The oceans are an absolute mess, and if any area knows about the state of the oceans it’s Newfoundland. And of course Newfoundland is now developing deep wells in the ocean. Basically the northern cod that we’ve taken advantage of for hundreds of years, are gone. They’re not going to [fully] come back in the lifetimes of our children, and Newfoundlanders ought to know the impact of our environmental practices that have been so destructive. We’ve got to begin that discussion, and again it’s very very urgent.

The Blue Dot Tour is just an attempt to focus on really, one, celebrating our little place on this planet called Canada. We are the envy of the vast majority of people on the planet. We’ve got an incredible country, and yet one out of every two Canadians lives in an atmosphere where the air is considered dangerous to their health. We’ve got dozens of First Nations communities that have to bring in bottled water because their water is not drinkable — it’s dangerous. We’ve got all kinds of problems, with every one of us carrying dozens of toxic chemicals, like flame retardants and PCPs, in our bodies. So, you know, we’re trying to celebrate what we have and then say we have a responsibility to protect that into the future for future generations. That’s what this tour is all about.

JUSTIN BRAKE: How might this unfold practically? If I could just throw two quick examples at you of things that are currently happening in our province, where there’s been some backlash and a fight to maintain a healthy environment. One is the Sandy Pond case where [Brazilian mining company] Vale turned a pond full of trout and other species into a tailings pond, and there was a court case there and the argument by the Sandy Pond Alliance was that the federal Fisheries Act should not be manipulated to allow for the complete destruction of fish habitat. And they lost that case and may appeal. The other case, of course, is Muskrat Falls, the large hydro dam they’re building in Labrador. There’s a Harvard researcher leading a study now on how the methylmercury content in the water, once it goes up, will poison the fish and seals and other animals the Inuit have depended on for thousands of years downstream from where the dam will be built — effectively it will poison their food supply. So these two cases are fresh in the minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. How might having a clean environment enshrined in our constitution impact, or increase our ability to fight against, cases like these?

DAVID SUZUKI: I think that what it does is it reverses everything. Right now we’re left with having to counter a proposal for some kind of development by proving that it is ecologically destructive and then harmful to us.

 It is a reversal of responsibility, and if they abrogate that responsibility then we have a very powerful tool to take them to court and enforce what is a guaranteed right of all Canadians. — David Suzuki

But now the responsibility, if we have this enshrined, would be any proposed development to prove very strongly that they are not going to harm the things that keep us alive: clean air, clean water, clean soil. It is a reversal of responsibility, and if they abrogate that responsibility then we have a very powerful tool to take them to court and enforce what is a guaranteed right of all Canadians.

So let me give you an example. Ecuador has enshrined the rights of Pachamama, which is Mother Earth, in their newly written constitution. And because of that — there’s a river in southern Ecuador called Vilcabamba, and it’s considered by many to have special powers; if you live there and drink that water you live longer, [so] there are a lot of Americans as a result living down there. And this American couple noticed that a road-building company was coming along the valley and dumping all their crap as they were bulldozing the side of a cliff into the river. And so they sued the company and the government on behalf of the Vilcabamba River. Now, a river doesn’t need money so you can’t sue for money. But they sued on behalf of the river that it had a right to exist as it always did, and they won their case and forced the road building company to restore that river to what it originally was.

So when you have that kind of a tool available it really is incumbent on the developers to consider the ecological impact of what they’re doing before they even come in to make their proposals.

JUSTIN BRAKE: This is my last question David. You’re 78 and you’ve had to confront some of the inevitabilities of old age, as has your wife Tara — how is she doing by the way? [Suzuki’s wife Tara Cullis suffered acute heart failure while swimming in the ocean last summer.]

DAVID SUZUKI: Oh she’s great. She’s been working on it very very carefully, and her big test is coming up next month and I think her heart will have come right back quite a long way, so thank you for asking.

JUSTIN BRAKE: Good. I’m glad to hear that. As you head though into this later stage of life you’re forced, as we all are, to slow down and perhaps resign to the fact that we can’t make every single change we set out to accomplish. Your impact on Canada, Canadians, and of course the world, has been quite significant. I know you’re not quite done yet, but with this being potentially your last time travelling across Canada, are you satisfied with what you’ve accomplished and contributed?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, I’m not really interested in being able to say, I did this, I did that.

 I  hope my family will be gathered around and I can look at my grandchildren and say, ‘I did the best I could.’ — David Suzuki

It’s all a part of what it is to be a human being that cares about certain things. And my concern is that I hope I’m on my death bed not in pain, ready to die — and I hope my family will be gathered around and I can look at my grandchildren and say, ‘I did the best I could’.

I’m just one human being, and that’s all you can ask of anyone. And that’s why right now I still feel good. Of course my brain thinks I’m 35 but my body looks into the mirror and says, you’re an old man. [Laughs]. But as long as I have the physical ability, I’m there.

It really has nothing to do with legacy, but just being able to assure my kids and grandchildren I tried, I did the best I could.

JUSTIN BRAKE: And your outlook on what is being left to them?

DAVID SUZUKI: Right now, as an old person I can see the trajectory of the way we’ve gone since I was a kid. And I’m sure anyone in Newfoundland will have had the same experience as me. When I was a boy growing up in Vancouver, I went fishing right in the city limits and we caught sturgeon, we caught salmon, we caught halibut, right in the city. Today my grandchildren beg me to take them fishing, and I’m left fishing for shiners and bullheads, and there ain’t the kind of fish that were there when I was a boy. And it’s the same with forests — I lived right in the city before 1941 and we would go every Christmas and chop a tree down in Vancouver. There were still lots of woods and we chopped our Christmas trees down.

Of course those things change as populations grow. But a lot of things that I took for granted are not available to our kids. Americans always said, well there’s plenty more where that came from. Ask any Newfoundlander whether there’s plenty more northern cod where they came from. And then Americans would say, well that’s the price of progress.

I don’t think it’s progress to use up what should be the rightful legacy of our children and grandchildren.

‘Like’ on Facebook, ‘follow’ @IndependentNL on Twitter, or share or re-tweet this story today to be entered into a draw for a pair of free tickets to David Suzuki’s Blue Dot Tour launch at Holy Heart Auditorium in St. John’s Wednesday evening. A name will be randomly drawn at 3 p.m. and the winner will be notified immediately. The St. John’s event will be hosted by Andy McLean and will feature performances by Amelia Curran, The Secrets and the Miawpukek Children’s Traditional Musical Ensemble. Visit the tour’s website for more information.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.


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