By Christopher Orr
David Suzuki has long been doing tours, speaking publicly and advocating for environmental issues. A Canadian icon, but also known on the world stage, David Suzuki is widely respected as a scientist and environmental advocate, as well as someone able to translate science into language that is meaningful to the public. In 2012, he toured the country alongside Jeff Rubin, the former chief economist of CIBC. Their message was simple, but one of the key premises at the heart of the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) project: continued economic growth is not compatible with the ecological limits of our planet. This idea, combined with advances in knowledge about humans and our world, implies the need to completely rethink how we go about life as individuals, but also the ways we work together as a society.
What the David Suzuki Foundation, an E4A partner, is doing illustrates how we might begin to attempt such change. This past year, David Suzuki embarked on what may be his last speaking tour, the Blue Dot Tour. The purpose of the tour is to have the right to a healthy environment legally recognized in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Unlike 110 other countries, the Canadian charter fails to mention citizens’ rights to a healthy environment. The tour aims to change this.
The tour consisted of 34 separate speaking events across Canada in the fall of 2014. On the evening of October 3, 2014 I attended the Blue Dot Tour event in Toronto. The message of the tour reflected the complex challenges of our global environmental predicament and the need for a new way of relating to the world. But what stood out about the tour was that David Suzuki was accompanied by numerous Canadian musicians, poets, activists, and academics who all performed or spoke compellingly in support of the tour and its purpose.
The message from every guest was meaningfully aligned with the ideas David Suzuki was trying to convey. Musicians Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida sang, while Steven Lewis spoke in support of the tour. Poet Shane Koyczan wrote and performed a spoken word poem, moving the audience with imagery that captured the power, beauty, and fragility of our relationship with the Earth. Even the Barenaked Ladies incorporated this way of thinking, coyly adapting their beloved song, “If I had a million dollars,” to reflect the ideals of a less consumer-oriented society. The tour was intended to reach the public and gain their support, and it was clear that the support of numerous widely known personalities had already been gained.
Finally, and much anticipated, David Suzuki ended the night with a speech. His speech echoed the themes in his book, The legacy: An elder’s vision for a sustainable future. Elders have a special role in society. Less driven by self-interest, they are often more oriented towards the common good, but are also more willing to share the insights they have gained throughout their lives. He talked about the human relationship with the Earth, and how his perspective had changed over time, largely influenced by the examples of first nations. Through his example, David Suzuki has long been helping us look at the world with the same interest, passion and care that he himself does. And he has been fighting to help us become not only active thinkers, but also active citizens.
He ended his speech with the hope for change, calling on some of the most influential leaders of social movements in his lifetime: Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Rachel Carson. He pointed to the unprecedented turnout for the climate march in New York in September 2014, and echoed in cities around the world. Using these examples, he hoped to inspire change. David Suzuki has himself become an inspiration for and agent of change throughout his career as a scientist, in public broadcasting, and as an environmental activist. But in that moment, in the place of an icon stood an old man, alone on a stage, asking us to join him.
Standing on stage before us, he was quietly joined by the many guests and organizers that had made the tour possible, and then the entire audience came to their feet in solidarity. Somehow, the evening felt hopeful, but at the same time futile and wanting. Many people, including key Canadian personalities had come to listen to and support David Suzuki and the tour. But as I left, volunteers were trying to get members of the departing audience to support the tour and its mission by asking them to fill out postcards with information for email listserves or to make donations. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would continue to pay attention to the tour or support it beyond attending that night. Would people really advocate the right to a healthy environment in their communities? In what ways could they demonstrate their support and foster change?
Constitutional change in Canada is challenging. To achieve its goal, the tour calls for bottom-up change driven by citizens. It proposes that individuals stand up, come together, and call upon local municipalities to recognize the right to a healthy environment. Provinces could follow suit, passing environmental bills of rights. A critical number of provinces, supported by a majority of Canadian citizens, could then choose to amend the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The task is daunting but possible.
However, top-down mechanisms may be as important for enacting change as bottom-up ones. In this instance, support from and action by individuals in key positions of authority such as those within governments is essential to achieving the tour’s goal. While constitutional change requires broad support from citizens, politicians possess the capacities and legitimacy to make important decisions and implement critical changes. Still other key individuals have the public presence and support to influence politicians and citizens, informing and engaging them. David Suzuki is one of these agents of change, as are the individuals who performed or spoke in support of the tour. Mayors and councillors of cities and municipalities, as well as provincial and federal politicians are other potential agents of change essential to achieving the tour’s purpose.
The David Suzuki Foundation’s approach reflects that, within North America, the uptake of innovative social and environmental policies has often been most rapid and effective at the level of cities, where agency has proven effective. For example, Calgary and New York are well known for adopting innovative environmental and social policies. International examples, such as rapid transformation of public transit by the city of Bogota, Columbia, further demonstrate the potential degree and speed of change possible at the municipal level. These changes have often been attributed to the innovative approaches and bold decisions of mayors.
By two measures, the tour has enjoyed initial success. The tour’s website claims that over 65 000 Canadians support the movement. Moreover, municipalities have indeed begun to officially endorse David Suzuki’s call for the right to a healthy environment. The city of Richmond, BC was the first to adopt a declaration recognizing citizens’ rights to a healthy environment. Eleven more Canadian municipalities have since made similar declarations, including some of Canada’s largest cities, Vancouver and Montreal.
However, by a third measure – recognition of and action on the issue at both the provincial and federal levels – success remains uncertain. Tackling many environmental issues, such as ensuring the right to a healthy environment, requires support from the provincial and federal governments. In this, institutions of governance appear more of a political problem than a solution. For example, in a recent CBC News interview, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, singled out Canada as a country that needed to take increased actions on climate change. Whether political pressure from above, combined with bottom-up activism from below fostered by organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation and their supporters, will be effective remains to be seen.
David Suzuki’s tour is a litmus test for governance as well as a clarion call for active citizenship. E4A partners such as the David Suzuki Foundation are able to translate ideas into real changes through complex and as yet unclear social mechanisms such as active citizenship and agency, helping governance work better in practice. But they are also showing us what is working and what is not. In this way, their work shines light on important questions we may need to ask and issues we may need to explore. In attempting to rethink the foundations of economics and other institutions such as governance, the E4A project has much to learn from partners such as the David Suzuki Foundation. For instance, recognizing that in the Anthropocene humanity is now a significant driver affecting the Earth’s systems, we should ask how and whether governance institutions, which society most relies on to ensure collective wellbeing, are helping to address our problems and meet our needs. And if having a healthy environment isn’t one of those needs, what is?