David Suzuki’s good old days

Ask someone of a progressive bent to identify annoying mental habits of conservatives and a few points are likely to come up.

There’s the tendency to see simple cartoons instead of complex realities. The disregard of contrary views and evidence. The lack of appreciation for science and technology. And of course there’s the embarrassing nostalgia for a golden age that never was.

Which brings me to David Suzuki.

No one describes Canada’s patron saint of the environment as a conservative. He and his fans certainly don’t. And most conservatives would laugh at the suggestion.

But there is a certain type of environmentalist — green comes in many shades — who typifies the worst qualities of conservative thinking. And David Suzuki typifies that type of environmentalist.

“As I approach my 73rd birthday,” Suzuki wrote recently, “I’ve been thinking about my children and grandchildren and what lies ahead for them. We trumpet the enormous scientific advances and technological innovations of the 20th century, but is the world a better place than when I was born? Reflecting on what we leave to our grandchildren, I have to answer with a resounding no!”

Mostly, Suzuki believes, what has changed is the amount of stuff. “My god, the stuff we can buy. We can choose from more than 200 brands of breakfast cereals, and last year’s cellphones not only seem old-fashioned, they’re designed to be thrown away. Pills not only offer relief from the horror of erectile dysfunction, but they can now be taken daily to make us ready for action at all times. This is progress?”

Perhaps sensing that he sounds like the sort of old guy who gives trick-or-treaters hell for ringing his doorbell, Suzuki admits that science and technology have delivered more than erections. “When I was a teenager in the 1950s, I developed pneumonia and was near death when the doctor gave me a shot of penicillin. The next day I was out of bed and running around.” He also likes his computer.

But then he gets back to the jeremiad.

“Yes, our world now provides a cornucopia of wondrous consumer goods. But at what cost? When I was a child, back doors would open at 5:30 or 6 o’clock as parents called kids for supper. We were out playing in grassy fields, ditches, or creeks. We drank from rivers and lakes and caught and ate fish, all without worrying about what chemicals might be in them. … The population has tripled since then. Each of us now carries dozens of toxic chemicals embedded within us, cancer has become the biggest killer, and we have poisoned our air, water, and soil. …

“Have I become a grumpy old man who sees only the past as wonderful and decries the modern?” Suzuki concludes. “I don’t think so, but I mourn the passing of a time when community and neighbours were a vital part of social and economic life, a time when nature was still rich.”

The first thing to note is what’s not here. For one thing, there’s the internment camp.

In addition to sunny afternoons playing in unspoiled nature, part of David Suzuki’s childhood was spent in an internment camp he and his family were sent to for no reason other than their race. Today, we feel ashamed that this happened — and that shame is evidence that important aspects of community and social life have improved immeasurably over the decades.

Another critical fact Suzuki doesn’t mention is why the world’s population soared over the last 73 years. It’s not because women had more babies. In fact, fertility rates declined rapidly.

It happened because children stopped dying.

At the beginning of the 20th century in the United States, almost one child in five died before the age of five. That figure is now much less than one per cent. Similar gains were made all over the developed world, and in most poor countries. This meant vast numbers of children who would previously have died lived to become adults and have their own children — and so the world’s population soared. Suzuki is right to be concerned by population growth but someone comfortable with complexity would at least acknowledge that the population grew for a wonderful reason.

Or consider Suzuki’s mockery of those “200 brands of breakfast cereals.” He has a point. The variety on our shelves sometimes seems pretty silly.

But Suzuki doesn’t mention that poverty and malnutrition were common in the delightful days of his childhood. Nor does he mention that food today is, relative to the average wage, far cheaper than in 1936. If an average person from that year were put in a modern grocery store aisle filled with 200 brands of cereal, they wouldn’t mock what they saw. They would gaze in astonishment.

There’s something else about that grocery store aisle Suzuki doesn’t mention. Ever heard of pellagra? It’s a deadly disease that used to be a major killer. In 1936, it took the lives of 3,740 Americans. But the year after Suzuki was born, scientists determined that pellagra is a vitamin deficiency disease. In response, foods like those 200 brands of cereal were fortified with vitamins. By the late 1940s, pellagra was all but gone.

I could pile up examples like this but I think the point is clear. Suzuki frets that the world we give to our children and grandchildren is worse than the world we were given but the only reason many of those children and grandchildren are alive to inherit anything is that the world has improved enormously.

But, as Suzuki asked, at what cost? Just look at what we have done to the environment.

Yes, just look at it. “Most people have forgotten how bad the air was 40 or 50 years ago,” writes environmental scientist Seymour Garte in Where We Stand. A bad air day didn’t mean a hazy sky. It meant people dropping dead. In 1952, a toxic cloud that settled over London killed an estimated 4,000 people.

Progress on other fronts has been slower but dead zones like the Thames and Lake Erie have been brought back to life, endangered species like the peregrine falcon have been restored, and “there are more acres of forest now in the United States than there were 100 years ago.”

Of course Suzuki is right that great and terrible environmental problems persist. Many are worsening rapidly. But these facts co-exist with some very good news, producing a reality that is complex and contradictory. What Suzuki offers instead is a cartoon.

Sometimes it’s worse than that. “Each of us now carries dozens of toxic chemicals embedded within us (and) cancer has become the biggest killer,” Suzuki writes. The implication is as clear as it is false. Neither the World Health Organization nor any other institution supports the notion that exposure to trace quantities of chemicals is a major cause of cancer, much less that it’s the reason why cancer is a top killer.

The real reason why cancer is a leading cause of death can be seen by looking at the leading causes of death the year Suzuki was born. There’s diphtheria, measles, pneumonia, and others. And tuberculosis, which sat at the top of the chart. But then science all but wiped out TB and other communicable diseases. And so, today, people aren’t dying of diphtheria at six or tuberculosis at 32. They’re living into old age like never before in history.

Cancer is primarily a disease of aging. And so, with more old people than ever before, there is more cancer than ever before.

But Suzuki sees none of this. For him, it is a “resounding” fact that the world today is so much worse than that of his childhood.

That may not make him “a grumpy old man.” But it does mean he has some of the unfortunate mental habits of those grumpy old conservatives.