"At the end of my life, I want simply to be able to look into the eyes of my grandchildren and tell them reassuringly that grandpa did everything he could. This motivation is enough."
By Joanna and Wolfgang Hafenmeyer
This is the final profile in the CSRwire Talkback Future Makers series.
Other interviewees in our Future Makers series (based on our book of that title) had already told us about David Suzuki, who has informed and fascinated Canadians for more than three decades with the work of his foundation, countless television and radio series and books about environmental topics. Yet how is it that the child of Japanese parents, born in 1936 in Vancouver, went from star geneticist to the embodiment of a more sustainable future for Canada?
A Doctorate in Zoology
David completed a doctorate in zoology at the University of Chicago in 1961. Because of his Japanese heritage, David was often rejected by other Canadians of his own age. His lack of Japanese language skills meant he didn't fit in with Japanese peers either. A need to prove himself, paired with his love of nature, became his driving force. After his geneticist exams, he became an assistant professor, and soon managed his own laboratory.
The Responsibility of the Scientist
David rose up on waves of the euphoria set in motion by innovations in gene technology. New techniques like DNA recombination meant people were in a position to make targeted changes to nature. At the time, David led a laboratory with excellent scientists. All the hard work of past years seemed to be paying off.
But then he read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, now a classic of the environmental movement. He came across the following passage:
You scientists are so intelligent, but you forget, that the laboratory is not the real world. In the real world, everything is linked to everything else. In the laboratory you run tests and these have special effects. In the real world, these experiments can provoke consequences in completely other areas, that no one realized before.
David admitted to us that even now these words overwhelm him. He began to understand that his specialization caused the biological big picture to slip completely out of view. As he read Carson’s book, it became clear to him how little geneticists thought about the possible consequences of their gene modifications. Who could know what effects a genetically altered plant growing not in the laboratory, but in the fields might have on the surrounding environment—or animals and people who eat it?
Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?
David recognized that science, which he loved so much, was part of the problem and not part of the solution. He was completely convinced that only people who were very familiar with the subject matter and who were pursuing no special personal interests could speak credibly about this topic. So he decided in 1978–‘79 to give up work in the laboratory and as a geneticist generally.
He never regretted his decision. He had already learned from his father that the reason for living is not in order to pile up money and power. So he decided to follow his convictions.
And so, for more than 30 years, he has been moderating the documentary series The Nature of Things, in which he breaks down scientific discoveries and complex matters into understandable terms for millions of Canadians watching in their living rooms.
The Time for Solutions
A further turning point in David's life was the period from 1988–1990. In 1988, he conducted interviews with renowned scientists for a radio series, A Question of Survival. He was surprised by the amount of bad news. Although he had already been engaged for years in the earth’s ecological problems, he thought when he heard these conclusions, “Dear God, the planet is being exposed to the attack of a powerful predator – people, and it will probably not survive this attack.”
When the series was broadcast he received 16,000 letters and almost all of them read: ‘We heard your program, you filled us with an incredible fear, but what can just one person do?’ His wife Tara suggested showing solutions and action. He decided to establish the David Suzuki Foundation in 1990. Its purpose: to locate the underlying roots of human problems and to develop solutions and alternative actions.
A Strategy for a Future-Ready Canada
Over the years, David developed more and more new approaches to solutions. At the beginning of the latest millennium, the idea came to him to look ahead one whole generation and use it as a brain-teaser: what would Canada look like in the year 2030, if everyone wanted to continue to enjoy the customary or possibly even higher quality of living? He says:
It was fairly easy to gather a consensus that the air in 2030 should be clean, the food edible and the running water drinkable.
Every Canadian could unite behind the goal of creating a Canada with a sustainable quality of living. The David Suzuki Foundation put together Sustainability in One Generation in 2004. The question now is how to achieve the common goal.
Grandchildren As Motivation
When we asked David why he still undertakes all of these exertions at the age of 70, he replied:
I won’t rescue the world, and even my foundation won’t be able to do this. But if there are a million people like me, who all do their best, and thousands of organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation, I believe that could be a significant force for good. At the end of my life, I want simply to be able to look into the eyes of my grandchildren and tell them reassuringly that grandpa did everything he could.
David admitted to us that he recognized 20 years ago he could not save the world by himself, but he is certain that our species is condemned to ruin if we don’t recognize our place on the earth:
Today most people think we are so clever that we don’t need nature anymore. That is a huge tragedy. We don’t know enough to manage the planet. We have to recognise again what true wealth is – community, family, the things that we do together, nature. I think if we can accept this again, we can be happier and less destructive creatures.
About the Authors:
Joanna Stefanska Hafenmayer is the Managing Director of “MyImpact,” an organisation focusing on helping leaders to realize meaningful careers through coaching and seminars, as well as assessment tools and publications. An expert in the development of corporate responsible leadership programmes, Joanna is also a member of the Board of “Öbu” – the Swiss think-tank for business and sustainability – and leads the Responsible Corporate Leadership (RECOL) Forum, a group of innovative global enterprises in this area. Prior to 2012, she was a member of Microsoft Switzerland’s Executive Board as their Innovation & Sustainability Officer. Joanna was selected as a First Movers Fellow of the Aspen Institute.
Wolfgang Hafenmayer is the Managing Partner of LGT Venture Philanthropy, with a mission to improve the quality of life of less advantaged people. To realize this mission, Wolfgang built a team of 25 investment managers and philanthropy advisors on five continents to identify and support organizations with outstanding social and environmental impact currently improving the quality of life of 7.9 million less advantaged people. Wolfgang has been an Investment Manager with BonVenture, the first social venture fund in German-speaking Europe, and helped set up Forma Futura, a sustainable asset management company.