David Suzuki paid Toronto a visit Saturday night, April 2, speaking to 1,700 in a sold-out Convocation Hall under the auspices of an NDP get-together. Jack Layton came in smiling like a cherub amidst the hair-primping teens and graduate students. The banners overhead advertised his name above Suzuki's slogan, "Sustainability in a generation." The only thing missing was the press.
In the lacklustre media scrum preceding his talk, I ask the geneticist about the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released last week by the UN. While scientific predictions of environmental apocalypse come as no surprise these days, this one took the unique step of calculating the financial worth of distinct "ecosystem services": the erosion-prevention services of an uncut forest, say, or the free-seeming pollination of flowering plants by bees.
Until now, environmental activism has relied largely on emotional petition, and I wonder what Suzuki, who describes economics as "a value set masquerading as a science," thinks about such quantification.
"Part of me wants to ask, 'Is nothing sacred?'" he says, but he goes on to downplay his reservations about the tyranny of pragmatism. "It's important to do this because most economists externalize the problem and completely ignore the ecosystems on which their theories depend. Maybe this will bring them into the dialogue."
Later, in his public address, Suzuki reverts to his customary narrative, reducing to absurdity the notion of measuring nature in dollar bills. He talks the audience through humanity's progression from African savannah to global self-imperilment, decorating the tale with digressions into the chemical composition of our atmosphere and children's physical need for love.
The easy fatalism that colours our attitudes is something Suzuki takes personally. At one point during his speech he calls himself a failure.
The question-and-answer period afterward is no less revealing. A high school student at the back of the hall clutches the microphone angrily and stares Layton (who'd joined Suzuki onstage) resolutely in the eye. Was it really necessary to distribute 1,500 NDP donation forms? she wants to know. Think of all those trees. "At least you could use recycled paper," she says. Layton invites her to join his fundraising committee.
A morose middle-aged man commandeers the mike to deliver a speech of his own on the evils of oil. Soon he surfaces with a question, "What can we do to precipitate an oil crisis?" provoking the night's only easy answer. "Peak oil is already on us," notes Suzuki, referring to the point at which the world begins to run out of oil and prices go up exponentially. "Gas hit a dollar per litre in Vancouver today, and believe me, that's nuthin'. "
Finally, a girl no more than eight years old wonders, "I'd just like to know how to get people interested in the environment. At my school we have a green club, and for a while it was really popular, but nobody's coming any more because there's another group that meets on the same day. It's called the chess club."