David Suzuki’s Ecocidal Role

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This post is the second in a series of three that explores how the old have abandoned the young to a grim ecological fate, and how the young might respond in order to salvage both their future and that of the biosphere. In my previous post I said that the quality of life will soon plummet due to environmental degradation, profoundly affecting the young and their children. I also stated that the old are complicit in this tragedy because they refuse to act according to their capacities and moral obligations. In this post I examine why so many of the old are behaving in this reprehensible manner, and why the young have not exploded in anger at their dreadful prospects.


One of my repeated themes is that the ecological crisis and its potential solution are conceptually straightforward. The problem is the concurrent violation of multiple environmental impact limits. The cause is excessive economic activities and low efficiencies. The rational response is to drastically curtail these activities and to sharply increase their efficiencies. This will require systemic change: an economic shift beyond growth-dependent capitalism and the removal of any associated political obstacles. At a high level of generality, that’s it.

David Suzuki

David Suzuki

Given its stark simplicity, the question is why the environmentally concerned have not adopted the above chain of reasoning and taken decisive steps on this basis. My broad answer is that the environmental movement, the progressive movement, and the academic field of ecological economics have diverted the concerned away from the required systemic change and towards purely defensive initiatives. Given the perilous state of the environment, this diversion is ecocidal. To explore the details I will focus on a well-known environmentalist, David Suzuki, and the organization he co-founded in 1991, the David Suzuki Foundation.

The main reason for this choice is that Suzuki’s ideas and the Foundation’s approach are fully consistent with the two movements and with ecological economics, and can therefore be considered representative.[1] I also have two personal connections that explain my focus. First, it was Suzuki’s scathing (and correct) criticism of standard economics in the late 1980s that motivated me to study the subject and to develop a theory for sustainable well-being – the Economics of Needs and Limits, or ENL. Second, in 2009 I delivered a presentation to the Foundation’s CEO and research staff that outlined ENL’s basic concepts. The Foundation has thus been directly exposed to an alternative economics of the kind that Suzuki was implicitly demanding.[2]

 

TWO TASKS

To understand how the environmentally concerned have been so disastrously diverted, one must first realize that responding to a crisis frequently entails two distinct tasks. Take the recent Ebola crisis in West Africa as an example. When this started in Guinea in 2013, the first task was to contain the outbreak – to prevent its spread to other parts of Africa and the rest of the world. Concurrent with this heroic fieldwork, laboratory scientists were busy developing a vaccine. This succeeded, at least to the experimental level, when the Zmapp vaccine cured several American health workers in 2014. Thus, the Ebola crisis was addressed through containment and cure – the first an immediate response to limit the damage, and the second a longer-term response to remove the underlying threat.

Ebola's Two Pronged Approach: Containment & Research

Ebola’s two-pronged approach: containment and cure

Similarly, the ecological crisis has spawned two separate tasks. The first is analogous to Ebola containment: purely defensive actions that seek to restrict environmental damage. These actions include resistance to clear-cut logging and other destructive practices, legal reforms such as those that prohibit dangerous pesticides or institute carbon taxes, and various innovations that reduce environmental impact. The second task is analogous to an Ebola cure: address the economic irrationality that makes such defensive actions necessary. This entails systemic change – the fundamental transformation of the economy and the power structure that undergirds it.

The difference between these two cases is that with Ebola there was never any confusion between the tasks. Both were recognized as necessary, but no-one pretended that containing the outbreak amounted to a cure for the disease. Suzuki’s approach to the ecological crisis is a different matter entirely. In his writings he never makes the critical distinction between defensive actions and systemic change. On the contrary, he makes every effort to highlight the first while downplaying the second.

One example is that the Foundation’s innovations are called “solutions”. Although these innovations may well offer environmental improvements, they cannot conceivably solve the crisis itself. Another is that relatively minor reforms are characterized as systemic change, despite the fact that they leave the present economy and its political foundation fully intact. As well, the essential term “capitalism” is carefully avoided, and true political power is never acknowledged, let alone discussed. In other words, the honesty and clarity that characterized the Ebola response are completely absent from Suzuki’s treatment of our existential ecological predicament.

 

GOOD COP, BAD COP

The above describes how Suzuki has merged two discrete tasks into a single one that excludes systemic change. The next question is: why do the environmentally concerned, many of whom are highly intelligent and deeply informed, embrace this distortion? The answer is an approach that has proven to be extremely effective in swaying public opinion on environmental issues: good cop, bad cop.

Good Cop Bad CopAccording to the Wikipedia entry for this interrogation technique, “The ‘bad cop’ takes an aggressive, negative stance towards the subject, making blatant accusations, derogatory comments, threats, and in general creating antipathy between the subject and himself. This sets the stage for the ‘good cop’ to act sympathetically, appearing supportive and understanding, and in general showing sympathy for the subject.” The central feature of this technique is that the interests of the subject are ignored, and attention is instead focused on the choice between the two cops. Because the latter are working cooperatively, they will almost certainly prevail unless a lawyer arrives to break up the game and objectively represent the subject’s interests.

In the environmental arena, Suzuki plays the good cop while the polluting corporations and climate change deniers play the bad cop. There is no “lawyer” to inform people that this is a restricted choice that omits the option of systemic change. The concerned therefore pick Suzuki and believe passionately that they’re doing the right thing. Very few ever step back to scrutinize the broader context and realize that they’ve been misled. This very likely includes Suzuki himself, who presumably has no idea that he is party to a false choice that has devastating implications for the biosphere.

A concrete example of this stratagem is currently playing out. Investigative journalists in the U.S. have revealed that Exxon’s scientists informed senior management in the 1970s that climate change is real, human-caused, and would raise global temperatures by 2-3ºC this century. The company responded with campaigns to instill uncertainty about global warming, using the tobacco industry tactics described in Merchants of Doubt[3]. Bill McKibben expressed his outrage by calling this, “the most consequential lie in human history”[4] and adding that, “No corporation has ever done anything this big and this bad.”[5]

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

McKibben’s anger is understandable, but a simple question reveals that he is playing the good cop. The question is this: what is his alternative to Exxon’s abysmal behavior? Is it a good-cop stance that diverts attention away from systemic change, or is it an independent, lawyer-like stance that could potentially solve the ecological crisis? McKibben provides the answer by telling us that, if Exxon had told the truth years ago, “humanity would have gotten to work”[6] on the “single-minded job”[7] of “finding alternatives to hydrocarbons”[8]. This is an extremely narrow approach that fixates on energy efficiency and renewables while ignoring the need to sharply curtail economic activities. It avoids systemic change, cannot solve the crisis, and is thus a good-cop stance. The fact that Exxon was a truly horrible cop rather than just a bad one doesn’t alter this conclusion.

 

POWER AND CAPITALISM

To this point I have made only general comments regarding Suzuki’s methods for avoiding or mystifying systemic change. Let me now be more specific. His methods are numerous, but two are particularly significant and serve as the basis for many others: his claims that governments hold political power and that economic growth is the result of policy decisions rather than being an intrinsic part of capitalism.[9] Those wishing to escape from Suzuki’s false choice will find it necessary to overcome these misconceptions.

Before proceeding, let me acknowledge that most people are uncomfortable in addressing sensitive issues such as power and capitalism. Under normal circumstances this would in fact be unnecessary. Political power and the economy are stable features of a society, and for most purposes can be safely taken for granted. Today’s circumstances, however, are anything but normal. Humankind is facing a crisis that is unprecedented, urgent, and existential. Given these extreme conditions, critically examining these longstanding social features is an inescapable necessity.

The idea that government holds political power is of course widely accepted, and it is sacrosanct for Suzuki. It is nevertheless incorrect. When feudalism gave way to capitalism several centuries ago in Europe, power was transferred from the landowners to the capitalists, not to the populace. The latter gained parliamentary representation only when this was convenient for the new rulers,[10] and it gave the populace only a modest influence on society’s affairs. This power structure was transferred to much of the globe during the period of European colonization.

Exposing the illusion of government power is now indispensable because virtually all environmental efforts are directed at governments. They are called on to change laws, regulations, and policies, and they are urged to muster the “political will” to alter the economy’s ecological trajectory. This focus extends to the international level, where the IPCC – a collection of governments – is expected to propose workable solutions to global warming. Given that governments are limited to popular representation, efforts to initiate systemic change must be directed at the true locus of power – the capitalist class. This is central to my youth revolt strategy, and will therefore be addressed in more detail in my next post.

The second idea – that economic growth is a policy choice – is a desperate ploy that should be an embarrassment to all concerned. Historians may one day determine precisely how this nonsense arose, but based on my understanding, the blame lies with ecological economics. This field has always had a touchy problem. It correctly recognizes that growth has become “uneconomic” and must cease. This clearly implies that capitalism, which is growth-dependent, must be historically superseded. However, the field has pledged allegiance to the system in order to gain academic respectability, so it cannot draw this conclusion. It is thus forced to contort itself into various ludicrous positions.

A common contortion is to implicitly deny that the current system is capitalism by avoiding the term and by using misleading alternatives like “market economy” and “industrialized society”. For some adherents this subterfuge is a bit cheap, so the policy dodge was invented. This admits that the system is indeed capitalism, but insists that its growth orientation arose from government decisions made after World War II. Peter Victor makes this claim in Managing without Growth.[11]. Suffice it to say that capitalism has been growth-oriented since its inception – this, after all, is why it replaced its predecessor – and that government policies simply encouraged growth in order to minimize unemployment, thereby blunting the appeal of Soviet socialism and fostering social stability.


 

In this post I asked why the concerned – both young and old – have been so shockingly passive in the face of an unprecedented catastrophe. My answer is that they have been diverted from an effective response by a false choice – defensive actions or environmental denialism – that omits true systemic change.  This diversion has been heavily promoted by the environmental movement, the progressive movement, and ecological economics. David Suzuki typifies this initiative, and this constitutes his ecocidal role.

Climate ProtestWhatever the motivations driving this behavior, environmental organizations have repeatedly shown that they are incapable of adopting a more enlightened posture. Given the gravity and urgency of our ecological situation, I therefore suggest that they be abandoned. Withdraw your financial and moral support, and then take a hard look at the real requirements for a sustainable future. My own conclusion is that the young, who have the most to lose from ecological decline, must compel the old to shift rapidly from expansionary capitalism to a contractionary economy. This youth revolt will be the subject of my next post.

Frank Rotering
November, 2015

David Suzuki’s Ecocidal Role


Notes

[1] To mention a few of the many connections: Bill McKibben wrote the foreword to The David Suzuki Reader, Naomi Klein appeared with Suzuki when the Leap Manifesto was introduced, ecological economist Peter Victor is on the Foundation’s Board of Directors, and these people – along with Gus Speth – frequently blurb each other’s books.

[2] Although Suzuki did not attend, he requested and received a one-page summary. I should add that the research staff appeared enthusiastic about my presentation, but the Foundation subsequently showed no interest in ENL. Other environmentalists and progressives have reacted the same way: an apparently heartfelt commitment to alternative economic thought is followed by a complete lack of interest when an alternative theory is developed and presented to them. 

[3] Naomi Oreskes & Erik M.Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010). This book is summarized in a documentary (currently available on Netflix) by the same title.

[4] Bill McKibben, “Exxon’s climate lie: ‘No corporation has ever done anything this big or bad’“: The Guardian, October 14, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bill McKibben, “Imagine if Exxon had told the truth on climate change“: The Guardian, October 28, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] A third Suzuki method worth mentioning is his portrayal of science. He makes three key claims: science is value-neutral, it is the most powerful force shaping today’s world, and it can provide “solutions” to the ecological crisis. All three claims are false. The scientific method is value-neutral, but scientific practice certainly is not. For some frightening examples of scientific corruption, see Science for Sale by David L. Lewis (citation below). The most powerful social force in the world is not science, but the global capitalist class, which to a large degree drives scientific practice. And scientific solutions are far from adequate to solving the crisis – this will require immense economic and political shifts as well. Lewis nicely sums up Suzuki’s naivety: “… scientists have been very poor students of their own history, and suffer from misplaced moral confidence in their enterprise, institutions, and judgment, which have always been subject to fraud, misconduct, and the delusion of crowds …” (David L. Lewis, Science for Sale (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), ix)

[10] According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, Britain’s capitalist rulers grudgingly accepted the introduction of universal suffrage with the Reform Act of 1867, but did not fully grant this right until several decades later. Further, the London Times, “… did not regard democracy as acceptable until 1914”. (E. J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 125) The author explains that the new ruling class resisted parliamentary democracy until “… they no longer regarded the British working class as revolutionary …”, but rather saw it as a collection of “… politically ineffective … proletarian plebs, which presented no major danger.” (Ibid., 126)

[11] Peter A. Victor, Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2008).

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