In Blog

An Uncertain Future

By David Suzuki

My parents were born and raised in Canada (Dad 1909, Mom 1911) yet like all people of colour, they couldn’t vote until 1946. First Nations people couldn’t vote until 1961. I have always regarded the ability to vote as the most precious right in a democracy, and anything interfering with that right, such as the recent robocalls, should evoke outrage as an attack on democracy. 

I was privileged to receive a top-notch education in American institutions (1954 – 1962) during the post-Sputnik period when the U.S. took up the challenge of catching up to the USSR, which was leading in space technology at the time. For a budding scientist, it was a glorious time to be in the U.S., even for a foreigner like me. All one had to do was indicate an interest in science and all sorts of scholarships, grants and jobs were offered. Nevertheless, despite offers of three university positions, I chose to return to Canada because its values were different and preferable. To me, Canada meant Tommy Douglas and Medicare, equalization payments between provinces, Quebec, the National Film Board, and the CBC. 

When I returned to Canada in 1962, I was anxious to make my name in science and was shocked to find a level of research support ten to twenty times lower in my area of genetics than my American peers received. (I would have returned to the U.S., but I received a large American grant that I was allowed to use in Canada.) So in 1962 I agreed to do a series of eight programs on science for a local television channel. I wanted to educate Canadians about why science was important and how it impinged on every aspect of their lives. That series ultimately led to a second career in the media.

Since those early programs, I have witnessed an enormous explosion in technological innovation and the expansion of a globalized economy with an immense social, economic and ecological impact. As I began to explore the potential benefits and dangers of new areas such as nuclear power, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and space research, science became more secretive and corporations assumed more and more power over scientific inquiry. In my own area of genetics, new molecular insights and manipulative powers accelerated and biotechnology companies were established to exploit these new abilities. But I was deeply troubled by the intrusion of corporate priorities in genetic engineering because we were playing with the very blueprint of life. I felt that the public had a huge stake in the application of this power and that profit should not be the driving force behind this technology.

My entire career in the media has been predicated on the assumption that the best decisions are based on the best information. But in the absence of reliable scientific information, what do we have to guide us into an increasingly uncertain future? The Koran? The Bible? Right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute? Or do we simply allow ideology to determine the course of action on pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, digital technology and nanotech, and issues like climate change, toxic pollution, ocean acidification, carbon sequestration and species extinction?

I fervently believe in democracy as the best political system yet devised, but none is perfect and we always need more and better. Every citizen’s rights are accompanied by a responsibility to be well-informed and to take part in the political process. When half of the electorate fails to vote, something is wrong. When 35 to 40% of people who take the time to vote can elect a majority government, we need change. 

Of all the countries in the industrialized world, Canada is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. We are a northern nation and we know the warming will be greatest in our Arctic region. Inuit have been telling us for decades that climate is changing. With the longest marine coastline of any nation, Canada is most vulnerable to sea level rise from thermal expansion. And the economy is still heavily dependent on climate-sensitive areas as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, winter sports and tourism, all of which are already reporting negative effects from climate change.

The present government claims the economy is its highest priority, yet major studies done by the Pentagon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the eminent economist, Lord Nicholas Stern, indicate that the economic consequences of not acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are already kicking in and will be catastrophic. The failure of government to develop a strategy to address the risks of climate change from fossil fuel use can only be rationalized by ignoring science.

David Suzuki is an award-winning geneticist, environmentalist, broadcaster, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada, and his 2011 book, The Legacy, won the Nautilus Book Award.