David Suzuki on why the environmental movement ‘failed’

Watch above: In this extended interview, renowned environmentalist David Suzuki spoke with Global News anchor Robin Gill about why he said the environmental movement “failed” and how he plans to change that.

In what seems like a stunning admission from one of the leading environmentalists, David Suzuki said he and others in the environmental movement have “failed.”

Suzuki made that comment in a video for his new effort, the Blue Dot Tour — a plan to encourage millions of Canadians to push for their right to a clean environment to be enshrined in the constitution.

Now 78 years old, Vancouver-born Suzuki is known the world over for promoting the importance of understanding and protecting nature.

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He’s brought the Blue Dot Tour to cities across Canada with the aim of getting citizens in seven of the 10 provinces, who represent more than 50 per cent of the population, to push for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to be amended to include the “right to a healthy environment.”

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Ahead of an appearance in Vancouver on Nov. 9, Suzuki spoke with Global News anchor Robin Gill, for an interview airing on Global National Thursday evening, about why he said the environmental movement “failed” and how he plans to change that.

Robin Gill: One of the things you’re talking about is Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. You want to enshrine it in the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]. How are you going to get that?

David Suzuki: There is a process for doing it. There have been over 20 amendments to the Constitution. But, only one has been done through the way that we’re going to do it.

We have to get seven provinces, with more than 50 per cent of the population of Canada, to agree on supporting this, and then we take it to the feds.

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But we’re starting really at the grassroots. We want to get… people to understand this is not a loony idea. More than 110 countries in the world enshrine the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions.

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Gill: But if we had it today, how would it change things tomorrow?

Suzuki: Well… everything would change, then. It means that when you want to build a pipeline or drill for oil, the first thing that you ask is, “Is this going to compromise the right of people to live in clean air, clean water, clean soil.”

So, it puts the burden now on the developer rather than the developer coming in and saying, “This is what I want to do,” and the environmentalists have to come along and say, “Oh. Well, wait a minute now…”

It’s the other way around.

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But, I think what it does is it makes us realize the things that really matter in our lives. I mean, I tell people, “Look, if you don’t have air for three minutes, you’re dead. If you have to breathe contaminated air, you’re sick.”

So surely in any society, the right to a healthy environment should be one of our most critical things that we guarantee.

Gill: But, you have a government in Ottawa that can’t meet its targets on greenhouse emissions. We have proposals for pipelines. We are very resource-driven economy. How realistic is this?

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Suzuki: Well, I think it’s got to be realistic, in the sense that we use the air, the water, the soil as a garbage can on the assumption that the economy is more important than that. It doesn’t make sense to me.

If you ask Canadians, over 90 per cent will say “Nature is critical to who I am, my identity and my health.”

If you say, “Do you want this enshrined in the Constitution,” a large number will say, “I thought it already was.”

And 85 per cent say, “Of course, it should be a part of the Constitution.”

Gill: You talk about how the environmental movement failed. You talk about how you’ve failed. Are we back to square one?

Suzuki: Well, I don’t think we’re back to square one. The environmental movement was very successful in the first 20 years, in that when it started in ’62 there was no environmental department in any government on the planet.

But because of that environmental movement that started in ’62, we’ve got millions of hectares of land protected as parks. We’ve got laws at different levels protecting endangered species, protecting, supposedly, air and water.

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We accomplished a lot, but we didn’t shift the public’s understanding of what the really important things are, to our health and well-being.

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You can’t use air as a garbage can for the most toxic chemicals, as if it’s going to be somehow diluted away and not affect us.

When I grew up, as a boy, I had never heard the word “asthma.” Asthma was a rare condition. You can’t go into any classroom now, in Canada, and not find kids with asthma.

Well, what do we expect when we use air as a garbage can for toxic chemicals?

And, it’s the same thing with water. Every day in Canada there are more than a thousand boil water alerts. In other words, the water coming out of your tap is too polluted to drink. You’ve got to boil it before you can drink it.

What’s going on? This is Canada, with more fresh water per capita than any other country in the world. Our own government tells us, the federal government, that one out of every two Canadians breathes air that is polluted beyond a healthy level.

Well, we think we’ve got everything backwards. It seems to me that our health and well-being have to be the highest priority we’ve got.

With files from Robin Gill