Mark Milke: Suzuki is best understood as an Old Testament prophet in green garb, not a rational scientist.
Now that it’s 2022 and there’s a bit of distance between the floods in the fall of 2021, it’s time to analyze a popular Canadian figure who always amps up reaction to events in the natural world: David Suzuki.
It would be helpful to put Suzuki and his constant over-the-top jeremiads in some context—call it my first resolution of 2022.
When David Suzuki mused aloud in November that “there are going to be pipelines blowing up if our leaders don’t pay attention to what’s going on,” he was behaving in the same manner he always has. (He has since apologized.)
He’s best understood as an Old Testament scold of a prophet, increasingly incensed when not every member of the public treats his warnings as divine. He then warns of doom and catastrophe if we do not all heed his prophecies.
This is nothing new. I first encountered David Suzuki when I was a teenager. Even then, I noticed his doom-mongering persona and also a prickliness with those who questioned him.
He came to Kelowna Secondary School (I don’t recall the exact year). His talk, naturally, was on the environment but also opined on much else. I recall he mocked those who did not think the world was overpopulated.
Suzuki’s prickliness became clear in my next encounter about 20 years ago. Vaughn Palmer was hosting Voice of BC, a cable talk show, and occasionally asked those with some public profile to pre-tape a few questions for the guest.
Suzuki versus capitalism
I gave Palmer three questions, which he rolled out, offering up each question and then giving Suzuki a chance to respond. After the third question, and before he responded, he asked Palmer “Who is this guy?!” with some irritation in his voice.
If memory serves, I believe that reply flowed in response to two of the questions where I referenced the environmental virtues of capitalism. Suzuki always argued (then and now) that free enterprise is bad for the environment.
Except, as I pointed out in one rhetorical question, it was the command-and-control Soviet Union and other such Marxist economies in the 20th centuries that were comparatively worst for the environment, not capitalist economies.
One example which I gave as an example to the anti-capitalist Suzuki: Lake Baikal. Here’s a New York Times headline from 1972: “Lake Baikal Symbolizes Soviet Pollution Problems.” As the Times reported in 1972, “So bad has the pollution [in lake Baikal] become that floating islands of waste have been‐ reported on the lake.” (Say what you will about pollution in Canada, I don’t recall Lake Okanagan, where I grew up swimming in, with any “floating islands of waste.”)
The reason for utter destruction of some habitats like Lake Baikal under communism was no surprise: How would a government that owns everything also punish misbehaviour? The owner (the state) and regulator (the state) were one and the same. Governments that don’t own the means of production can levy fines and shut down firms that don’t abide by environmental protocols. That doesn’t happen when the owner and regulator are the same entity.
Or ponder the politics in autocracies: Imagine being an environmental manager in the Soviet Union in 1948. Are you going to tell Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin to shut down a steel factory polluting the landscape or a lake? Not unless you like Siberian winters.
Facts on the ground matter
I digress. In my questions to Suzuki, I also cited the 1995 book, The State of Humanity, edited by Julian Simon. with several dozen scientist and statisticians authoring chapters on everything from the decline of child mortality over the centuries, to massive increases in agricultural yields.
A business professor at the time, Simon once held the same views as Suzuki: The world was getting environmentally worse, not better. When challenged, he decided to write a book demonstrating how his view was correct. But after doing the data dive, he flipped.
The statistical, historical record with data going back centuries in some cases and a millennium in others, showed the opposite of what he assumed: Humanity, along with environment—in capitalist countries anyway—was mostly getting better and progressing.
Suzuki’s answer was something to the effect that he didn’t care for ideological labels, i.e., capitalism or communism.
Fine, I thought, except Suzuki was the one being ideological with a mistaken claim about free enterprise and the environment. Also, he should care about facts and he too often glides over those in pursuit of not only a green utopia but in opposition to much observed progress in the world since his birth 85 years ago, and even before.
Back to Simon here: Simon’s data spanned centuries and even millennia depending on the issue and which mostly found improvements. His data ended in the early 1990s but here are two examples of improvements from other sources, one over a century and one in recent decades which make the same point.
- London’s Thames River was a polluted, poisonous, dead body of water in the mid-19th century and beyond. When a passenger ship sunk in 1878 after a collision, at least some of the 600 passengers who died might have survived. The problem was that as some swam to shore they were overcome “by the noxious cocktail of pollution in the water” was how the Daily Telegraph described it.
By 1957, the Thames was pronounced biologically dead. But after an intensive environmental program, as well as improved technology, it was revived, and as of 2010, when the Telegraph wrote its story, the river was home to 125 types of fish and more than 400 species of invertebrates. Also, herons and seals now frolic near Canary Wharf.
- Or consider forest cover, which has been recovering for decades where market-friendly economies exist. According to Human Progress, China, Europe and North America have all gained forest cover since 1990: 511,800 more square kilometres in China; 212,122 more in Europe; and 64,410 square kilometres gained in North America. (The exception to this has been in continents such as Africa where families still use wood to cook food, often where trees are the only option instead of natural gas or oil.)
This attention to the data matters because control-and-command economies, be they East German control freaks half a century back, or those who think they can painlessly “transition” energy economies now, always think bureaucratic commands can whip the economy, energy, or population, where the planners want. (They also ignore, pace the examples just noted, improvements in the environment.)
Usually, such efforts are anchored in anti-reality theories and end in wreckage, be it environmental and economic under Marxist planners or—wait 30 years —energy shortages and high prices which impoverish millions.
Suzuki might respond that unlike his inattention to the data in previous doom-mongering prophecies, this time it’s different.
Empiricists versus the emotionalists
Except other scientists and statisticians disagree. Others who have covered this the-world-is-improving ground include the Danish environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg, author of several books who make the same point as Simon: one can care about the environment and humanity without sacrificing either to alarmism.
For example, climate-related deaths are down by 96% over the last century. As Lomborg points out, “In the 1920s, the death count from climate-related disasters was 485,000 on average every year. In the last full decade, 2010-2019, the average was 18,362 dead per year, or 96.2% lower.” The data comes from the International Disaster Database.
More specifically, on carbon emissions, yet others such as Steve Koonin, a former undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under Barack Obama and whom I wrote about recently in The Orca, takes the empirically informed view in his new book: yes, human-induced impacts upon climate are in evidence and cannot be dismissed. No, that does not mean all claims attached to that fact should morph into hysterics and exaggerations. That, in Koonin’s words, “misrepresents what the science says” given that “climate and energy are complex and nuanced subjects.”
As Koonin wrote in Unsettled, “Simplistic descriptions of ‘the problem’ or putative ‘solutions’ will not result in wise choices.”
To be even clearer, linking even extraordinary events such as this year’s floods in B.C. to the effects of humanity on climate is to commit the most basic correlation-causation error and is warned about, in general terms, by no less than the IPCC. As Koonin writes, “The Executive Summary of Chapter 3 of IPCC’s 2012 Special Report on Extreme Events (SREX) states the problem well:
“Many weather and climate extremes are the result of natural variability (including phenomena such as El Nino), and natural decadal or multi-decadal variations in the climate provide the backdrop for anthropogenic climate change. Even if there were no anthropogenic changes in climate, a wide variety of natural weather and climate extremes would still occur.”
Koonin further notes the World Meteorological Organization goes even further. Here’s their warning about attributing single events to human-induced climate change:
“…any single event such as a severe tropical cyclone [hurricane or typhoon], cannot be attributed to human-induced climate change given the current status of scientific understanding.”
But Suzuki disdains nuance, despite his own scientific training. It’s why he calls down judgment on politicians and on us all. Over the years, Suzuki has proclaimed that “Environmentalism Has Failed!” in a Macleans’ interview (not true—see Simon, Lomborg and Koonin); that politicians should be charged criminally if they don’t take his extreme positions; and even compared those who work in Canada’s oil sands to slave-traders.
Such statements are not the reasoning of a rational mind, but born-again doomsaying, born in visions of purity and righteousness.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. He is also working to set up a new think tank to defend reason, democracy and civilization.