November 10, 2009





Big Medicine is published by Team EMS Inc.


Managing Editor

Hal Newman  


Contact: ideas@tems.ca




Avi Bachar

Steve Crimando

Angela Devlen

David Newman

Hal Newman

Chris Piper

Norm Rooker

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

Jim Rush

Blair Schwartz

Geary Sikich

Ric Skinner

W. David Stephenson

David Suzuki

Sacha Vais

Beryl Wajsman


Contributor Emeritus

Erik Ronningen




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The views expressed here reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of their organizations. In particular, the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Big Medicine, nor any member of Team EMS Inc.



















It’s time to rethink our approach to garbage

September 18, 2009 - By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola


In Mexico City, politicians recently banned the ubiquitous plastic bags that citizens use for everything from groceries to soft drinks. But that will only go part way to reducing the 12,000 tonnes of garbage the city produces every day. Only six per cent of Mexico City’s garbage gets recycled now, but the government has an ambitious plan to recycle, compost, or burn for energy 85 per cent of it by 2013.

Mexico City’s waste-management situation illustrates the importance of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. And we should add another R: rethink. People in Canada are getting better at this, but we can do more. We recycle just over 20 per cent of our garbage. And,
according to Stats Canada, each of us produced an average of 837 kilograms of non-hazardous solid waste in 2006. That’s a lot of garbage going to the landfill, and it’s a lot of resources and energy being wasted. Some European countries, such as Austria and Switzerland, are now recycling more than half their wastes, so there’s a lot of room for improvement.

After all, whatever we throw away represents a waste of resources and money – not to mention time.

Beyond the waste problem itself, landfills produce about one quarter of Canada’s methane emissions – and methane is a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. Some cities are now capturing that methane to burn for energy rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere.

Reducing the amount of trash we create in the first place is the best place to start tackling our waste-management problems. Not only does it mean we send less waste to the landfill, it also means we use fewer resources and less energy – as it takes energy to produce and transport packaging and disposable items.

Every day, more people, stores, and cities are finding ways to cut down on use of disposable plastic bags, but we still create a lot of unnecessary packaging and products. Planned obsolescence – the absurd practice of producing goods that won’t last so that the consumer cycle can continue – is still very much with us. We can all avoid buying products that are over-packaged or that are “disposable” – and encourage producers to be more responsible. When we consumers take the time to let stores, businesses, and governments know that we want less packaging and that we want goods that last, we will make a difference. Our changing attitude about plastic bags is a perfect example.

Reusing offers opportunities to get creative. People have always re-tailored clothes to give them new life. Think of the other ways you can use products that no longer function in their intended role. But reusing is an area where some difficulties arise, especially on a larger scale. Reusing waste by converting it to energy is a growing trend. The most common method is burning the garbage and using the heat to produce energy. Although the technology is improving, it still has its problems; burning waste creates emissions, for one. Other methods are also being explored, including breaking down the waste with microorganisms to produce methane and carbon dioxide for biogas.

Recycling is one of the first things that come to mind when we think of waste reduction. Most of us urban Canadians dutifully take our paper, plastic, and bottles and cans to the blue box recycling bins. Again, if we use fewer products that must be thrown away, we’ll have less stuff to recycle and send to landfills. But we should all be aware that our efforts to recycle are not in vain. If we work to ensure that our communities, schools, and workplaces have good recycling and composting programs and that producers and retailers take responsibility for their products, and if we all improve our own efforts to recycle, we will reduce our need for landfills.

Individual action is important, but legislated solutions are also effective. In
Switzerland, people buy stickers that they have to attach to garbage before it is picked up. The more garbage you put out, the more you have to pay. Switzerland now has the highest rate of recycling in the world.

We can all do our part as citizens, but as can be seen in Mexico City and Switzerland, a push by governments can go a long way to creating the kind of large-scale change needed to get our waste-management problem under control.



Now's the time to take science seriously


[May 31 2009]


Looking at the enormous changes the world has experienced over the past century, it’s clear that the most powerful force shaping our lives and society was not politics or economics but science when applied by business, the pharmaceutical and medical industries, and the military. Think of the impact of antibiotics, chainsaws, nuclear weapons, computers, oral contraceptives, cars, television – the list is long.


And what lies ahead? Human cloning, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and space weapons – to say nothing of environmental issues such as climate change, deforestation, and toxic pollution. How can any society make important decisions about these issues without being scientifically literate and informed?

Too often, the role of science in solving our social, medical, and economic problems is poorly understood because the nature of scientific research, discovery, and application is not understood.

The Globe & Mail recently reported that the federal government has radically reduced its support for science. Well, why should Canadians support scientific research?

First, good scientists make important discoveries, and to maintain a top group of scientists, we need a culture that supports and honours its researchers. That can’t happen when science funding becomes a political hockey puck slapped around by whichever party comes into power. We need generous long-term support for our top scientists so that they can create clusters of enthusiastic, inspired researchers.

Canadian scientists are a small fraction of all scientists, but they occupy front-row seats to the world’s best research because, if they’re good, they get invited to small meetings of experts, they are consulted about new insights, and they receive scientific papers before they are published. They become our eyes and ears to the discoveries being made worldwide.

Many people believe that we must identify important areas like cancer, energy, or pollution and then direct the money to those areas so that we can look for solutions or new technologies. That is not how science works. Scientists need money to do their work, and when funding is directed at specific areas, scientists will find ways to make their work relevant to those areas. It’s a game that’s played to get grant money. I did it when I was an active researcher. I was interested in genetic control of cell division. When cancer-research money became available, I used the rationale that understanding the process of cell division would give us insights into the process by which cells begin to divide out of control as they become cancerous.

Scientists don’t go from experiment A to B to C to D to find a cure for cancer. That’s just how we write up our results or our grant proposals. Many scientists who have made important discoveries would have never qualified for research grants if the grants were specifically targeted. Let me give you two examples from my area of training, genetics.

In the 1960s, microbial scientists puzzled over an arcane area to do with bacteria and viral infection. They found that certain viruses could infect and kill bacterial hosts while other bacteria seemed immune. How could the bacteria fend off viral infection? You might wonder who cares whether bacteria get sick. But out of this very esoteric work came the answer: Bacteria had enzymes that recognized specific stretches of viral DNA and cut them up. These “restriction enzymes” turned out to be vital tools for genetic engineering, something that could not have been predicted when this Nobel Prize-winning work was started.

I remember as a student in the 1950s slaving over research papers by a woman studying corn. Barbara McClintock was a meticulous scientist and we agonized over her experiments because they were so complex and elegant. She was studying genes in corn that had a peculiar property of changing locations on chromosomes. We never imagined that her work would lead to the discovery of “jumping genes” that are now a vital part of the toolbox geneticists use to modify gene behaviour. Dr. McClintock won a Nobel Prize for work that would never have qualified for grants had there been restrictions for applications.

I would urge politicians and scientists to resist rigidly restricting funding to specific research areas. Instead, they should support scientists who can be judged by their track records, by their papers and talks, in the knowledge that those scientists will have ideas, make observations, and hear about work that will be useful in some area that can’t be predicted. And we must have a culture in which science is as important a part of our education as reading, writing, math, and music.




President Obama puts science in its rightful place


[Feb 6 2009]


Science has taken a beating over the past few years – especially in the U.S. and Canada. We’ve put up with incessant braying from climate change deniers who, in the words of Guardian writer George Monbiot, “ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals” just so they can “pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates” in their palms.

George Bush’s administration was so anti-science – blacklisting and purging scientists and suppressing or altering scientific studies – that 60 top scientists released a statement in 2004 accusing the administration of distorting scientific fact “for partisan political ends”.


Science hasn’t fared much better here in Canada. A year ago, an editorial in the scientific journal Nature criticized our government for its skepticism about the science of global warming, and for muzzling federal scientists and closing the office of the national science adviser.

How refreshing it was, then, to listen to U.S. President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech on January 20.

“We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost,” the president said. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

What’s even more refreshing is that President Obama is backing those words with action. He has appointed top scientists to key positions, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as energy secretary, leading marine biologist Jane Lubchenco to head up the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and Harvard physicist John Holdren as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology.

These appointees understand and take seriously the science of climate change. President Obama also understands the geopolitical ramifications of policies that help fuel climate change, as he made clear in his speech when he noted that “each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

It was refreshing also to hear the new president talk about choosing “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” and about “what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”

That common purpose and need for courage, as the president knows, extends beyond U.S. borders. After all, migratory Pacific salmon don’t recognize the line between our nations, nor do rivers like the pristine Flathead, which flows from B.C. into Montana and forms the western boundary of Montana’s Glacier National Park, or threatened and endangered species like grizzly bears that breed, feed, and roam across our common border. And the winds that carry pollution and greenhouse gas emissions don’t get turned back at the border for endangering citizens on either side.

Here in B.C. where I live, most of the species at risk – from grizzlies to monarch butterflies – cross back and forth regularly between the two countries. We can’t hope to protect them without strong and complementary habitat-protection policies in both countries. We also need agreement on policies to protect the waters that flow between our two nations. President Obama said during his campaign that he opposes industrial development in the headwaters of the Flathead. “The Flathead River and Glacier National Park are treasures that should be conserved for future generations,” he said in reaction to a push by the B.C. government for development in the region, including an open-pit coal mine 40 kilometres from the Canada-U.S. border.

Climate change is another issue that must be addressed quickly and effectively by both nations. President Obama has proposed an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists and economists around the world know that putting a price on carbon emissions, through cap and trade and carbon taxes, is the best way to bring our emissions under control. And while a number of Canadian provinces have joined with U.S. states to implement cap-and-trade programs, our federal government has yet to act.

It’s great to see a U.S. administration that isn’t afraid of real progress and change. But, as President Obama noted, it isn’t just up to the American government to create that change; it’s up to all of us. And while he was referring to American citizens, we Canadians must also join to confront the challenges that both our countries, and indeed, the entire world, face. It’s time to realize that, when it comes to finding solutions to our common problems, science matters.


Let's speak up for the country we want


[Oct 24 2008]


We’ve just had our federal election and, if nothing else, the environment did become an issue. Unfortunately, global warming and other environmental issues were overshadowed by an economic crisis and, no doubt, by the fear people have of the word tax, so much so that they didn’t notice the word cuts was also in there.

Now it’s up to all of us to make sure the environment doesn’t get lost in all the noise about the economy. The new government has some important choices to make in the near future.

Although a few nations are putting plans to combat global warming on the back burner while they weather the economic crisis, many more are holding fast, realizing that protecting the environment makes good economic sense. The European Union has stated that it is committed to meeting emissions targets even as some Eastern European countries are getting cold feet.

And the U.K. has created a Department of Energy and Climate Change to confront both energy security and climate change, with an emphasis on creating green jobs and a green economy.

Even the State of Florida, a Republican stronghold formerly governed by U.S. President George Bush’s brother Jeb, has released an ambitious climate plan. The Florida plan estimates net economic savings of $28 billion between now and 2025, along with a 51 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels, and a 33 per cent reduction below 1990 levels. Projected drops in fuel consumption are also expected to lead to significant reductions in the state’s dependence on foreign and “dirty” fossil fuels.

Here in Canada, several provinces, including B.C. and Ontario, have taken the lead in establishing plans to combat global warming and to shift to a sustainable economy. But more needs to be done, especially at the federal level.

Continuing to rely on projects such as the Alberta tar sands to keep our economy afloat is a short-term strategy with long-term negative consequences for both the environment and the economy. Sure, we’ll be able to pull in some money while the oil lasts, or while it is economically feasible to extract, or until the rest of the world has switched to renewable sources of energy, but then what?

Should we really continue down this path while the rest of the world takes a more forward-looking approach to energy, the environment, and the economy? Where will that leave us in 10, 15, or 20 years? Maybe the current batch of politicians doesn’t care; most of them won’t be in government then. But we should care. After all, it’s not just our world; it’s the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren.

We may be able to withstand the current economic crisis, but we’ll surely face more in the future. And the environmental crises we now face, from rapid extinction of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles, and plants to global warming, may not be as immediately apparent to most people, but the consequences will be far more severe than diminished retirement savings plans.

If we start now to shift from reliance on dirty and nonrenewable sources of energy to renewable sources, and if we put more effort into conserving energy, we will benefit in so many ways.

Other countries have proven this, and continue to prove it. Scientists and economists have confirmed not only that we must do something, but also that acting now will cost us far less in the long run than doing nothing.

Canadians may have elected a government that differs little from the one we had before the election – and they may have even shown, through the votes they did cast and through the disappointing apathy that many demonstrated, that it was difficult to connect with the parties that made the environment the top priority. But we shouldn’t conclude that the results of the election mean that the window of opportunity for government action on the environment has slammed shut.

We must keep in mind that more than two-thirds of voters cast ballots for political parties with strong plans to fight global warming and other environmental problems. Millions of Canadians have sent a message to this parliament that they want action on global warming.

A minority government such as the one we just elected has an even greater responsibility to listen to all our voices. We just have to speak loudly enough to be heard.



Lessons my father taught me are worth sharing


[Sep 14 2008]


Now that I'm in my 70s, I look back at the world of my childhood, with its shared phone lines, ice boxes, radio soap operas, and no television, and it seems like an ancient, lost civilization. And yet the ideas and values I learned as a child seem every bit as important for today’s youth, for whom rappers, billionaires, and movie stars are role models.

When I was a boy, my father was a bigger-than-life figure, a wonderful storyteller who enchanted people with his outgoing personality. He was my hero. He took me camping and fishing and instilled in me a love of nature and the outdoors. When he came home from work, he always asked me what I had learned in school, and as I recounted my lessons, he seemed genuinely interested, often amplifying my information or correcting me. I loved those sessions, and I now realize that he was reinforcing my education by making me recount what I had learned.

Dad was my biggest booster, but he was also my harshest critic. When I began in television, he followed everything I did. More than once when he couldn’t follow my narrative, he would call and bawl me out: “If I can’t understand what you are saying, how do you expect someone who doesn’t know you at all to follow your ideas?” To this day, I think of my father as my audience whenever I prepare a script or write a book.

My mother was the rock-solid foundation of the family. She was the first up in the morning and the last to bed at night, but unlike Dad, she did it quietly. I only understood how important she was as she developed Alzheimer’s disease and I watched Dad struggle to fill her shoes. I begged him to allow me to hire help for him, but he declined. “She gave her all for me,” he said, “and it’s my turn to pay her back.”

Both of my parents are now dead, and in my own dotage, I think about the important lessons I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren – and I realize they are the same lessons I got from Dad. I can’t help thinking they are not quaint ideas from the past but very modern ones that we need desperately today.

“Respect your elders,” he told me.

“But Dad,” I protested, “Mr. Saita is a fool.”

“David,” Dad remonstrated, “he has lived a long life and has had experiences and thought about a lot of things you haven’t. I know he seems opinionated and stupid, but if you listen, even he can teach you something.”

“To do well in Canada as a Japanese-Canadian,” he said, “you have to work 10 times harder, you must be able to get up and speak extemporaneously, and you must be able to dance.”

Fortunately, hard work was never an obstacle for me and I entered oratorical contests for which Dad drilled me in the art of public speaking. I never understood the dancing part and was not successful in that area.

“Whatever you do, do it with gusto. Don’t do it in a sloppy, half-hearted way but enthusiastically, whether it’s scrubbing the floors, picking cherries, or playing basketball. That’s how you get the most out of life.”

“We all need money for the necessities in life, but you don’t run after it as if money makes you a bigger or better man. If someone flashes his fancy new clothes or big car, pity him, because he has gone down the wrong road.”

“Live within your means.” This important lesson is embodied in the familiar expression “Save some for a rainy day.”

“You must stand up for what you believe in, but be prepared for people to be angry and to disagree. If you want to be liked by everyone, then you will stand for nothing.”

“You are what you do, not what you say.” Kids have a different way of saying this in their taunt, “All talk and no action.”

My mother also taught me useful homilies like “Always clean up your own mess,” “Be kind to animals,” and “Share; don’t be greedy.”

Today’s youth are bombarded with news about the antics of Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, and Jay-Z, and look to them for inspiration, but that’s all the more reason to listen to the words of our elders.




A nuclear reaction


[Aug 19 2008]


One could be forgiven for thinking we’ve overcome the problems associated with nuclear power. Everywhere you turn, nuclear is being touted as a “green” energy source and a solution to global warming. Our prime minister recently sang the benefits of both nuclear power and uranium mining in a speech to a business crowd in London, England. “As the largest producer of uranium, we can contribute to the renaissance of nuclear energy, a no-emissions source that will be expanding here in Britain and around the world,” Stephen Harper said.

If only it were so easy. Those of us old enough to remember Chernobyl and Three Mile Island also remember a time of concern about nuclear waste, nuclear-weapons proliferation, accidents at nuclear power plants, pollution from uranium mining…

Have those problems gone away? Has science found a way to deal with them? Unfortunately, the answer is no – and those aren’t the only problems. Nuclear power is also expensive and heavily subsidized by taxpayers’ money, and it isn’t even totally emissions-free. Although nuclear energy’s ability to provide large-scale continuous power makes it tempting, we have better ways to deal with our energy needs.

To start, waste from uranium mining and nuclear power plants is a serious issue, especially considering that much of that waste is highly radioactive. Although we can recycle some waste from power production, we still haven’t really figured out what to do with most of it. One method for large-scale storage is to bury it, but that’s basically a policy of out-of-sight, out-of-mind – we don’t yet know the full consequences. It’s also expensive and the waste has to be transported over long distances where the probability of a mishap is very real.

And although nuclear has a relatively good safety record compared to some other large-scale energy technologies, the consequences of an accident can be far worse – as we learned when a reactor at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Russia, exploded in 1986. It sent radioactive fallout into the air over Russia, Europe, and even parts of North America and led to an increase in cancers in the areas with the highest concentrations of fallout.

If nuclear energy really does expand “around the world”, as Prime Minister Harper predicts, the dangers of weapons proliferation will continue to grow.

Nuclear power plants also take a long time to build and are incredibly expensive – and are notorious for going massively over budget. Canada has subsidized the nuclear power industry to the tune of $20 billion over the past 50 years. Just think of what we could have done by putting that kind of money into renewable energy.

Nuclear energy isn’t even all that green when it comes to global warming. If you look at the life cycle of nuclear power, the technology produces greenhouse gases at every step, from energy-intensive uranium mining and transportation to constructing and decommissioning power plants. (Looking at the life cycle of energy technologies hasn’t been always been a common practice, but it’s an important step that has allowed us to identify problems with energy sources that look attractive at first glance, such as corn-based biofuels.)

If we were to look forward instead of backward, Canada could become a leader in energy technology and innovation. As costs for renewable energy go down, costs for old-school technologies like nuclear power and fossil fuels continue to rise. Advances have also been made in power-grid management, meaning renewable sources can be more easily integrated into energy systems.

The government of B.C. has recognized that nuclear energy isn’t a panacea; in April, it banned uranium mining in the province. Keep in mind that uranium is a limited resource. The European Commission estimated in 2001 that global supplies of uranium could last as few as 12 years if capacity increases substantially and will only last from about 40 to 70 years with current usage rates. Prices have already been skyrocketing as uranium becomes scarce.

As we rethink our energy future in light of the dangers of further increasing greenhouse gases, we have an enormous opportunity. I believe that rather than putting all of our faith in big technology (big dams, coal plants, nuclear), investing in a decentralized grid of diverse, small-scale renewable energy sources would be far more resilient and reliable.

We should all get behind renewable energy in order to avoid the dangers and expense of an expanding nuclear industry. But there’s something else we can do: use less energy. Conservation means we could avoid having to build expensive power plants, and we’d also have cleaner air and some real solutions to global warming. Many people have already switched to more energy-efficient appliances, as well as finding other ways to reduce energy consumption. All of those small things add up to make a big difference. People really do have the power.



Message in a bottle


[May 30 08]


The water that comes out of most city taps in Canada is pretty clean. Yet many people prefer to spend money on bottled water, believing that it is somehow safer. Now we’re learning that the stuff in plastic water bottles may be more harmful than anything in our tap water. Bisphenol A is just one chemical that’s been in the news – and in many plastic bottles – recently. This compound mimics estrogens (human female hormones) and has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers and childhood developmental problems. It is found in clear, hard polycarbonate plastic commonly used in household and commercial water coolers and some reusable bottles, and it’s just one potentially harmful substance associated with plastic containers.

The presence of chemicals isn’t the only reason we should try to wean ourselves from the bottle, though. For one thing, bottled water is expensive, costing more than a comparable amount of gasoline. Unlike most nations on Earth, Canada has vast quantities of fresh water. Have we so polluted our water that we feel compelled to pay a lot for it? And from beginning to end (and for plastics, that end is a long time away), plastic bottles contribute to environmental problems. To start, the manufacturing process is a factor in global warming and depletion of energy resources. It takes close to 17 million barrels of oil to produce the 30 billion water bottles that U.S. citizens go through every year. Or, as the National Geographic website illustrates it: “Imagine a water bottle filled a quarter of the way up with oil. That’s about how much oil was needed to produce the bottle.” It also takes more water to produce a bottle than the bottle itself will hold. Canadians consume more than two billion litres of bottled water a year, and globally, we consume about 190 billion litres a year. Unfortunately, most of those bottles – more than 85 per cent, in fact – get tossed into the trash rather than the recycling bin.

The pollution from plastics affects our air, land, and water. Many plastic bottles end up in landfills or get incinerated, and burning plastic releases toxic chemicals into the air. Plastic that stays on land or that is buried can take hundreds of years to break down, and even then, it doesn’t completely biodegrade.

One of the most disturbing things is what happens to plastic that ends up in the oceans – which is about 10 per cent of all plastic produced, according to Greenpeace. About 900 kilometres off the coast of California, a massive, expanding island of plastic debris 30 metres deep and bigger than the province of Quebec swirls in what is known as the North Pacific Gyre. In a recent column for CBC’s website, writer Heather Mallick described it as “a hideous chyme stretching and pulsing in the sea like an underwater gob of spiky phlegm.” Plastic doesn’t biodegrade; rather, it photodegrades, which means that, under sunlight, it just keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The tiniest bits of plastic, called nurdles, enter the food chain when they are eaten by marine animals and birds. Nurdles also soak up toxins, adding to the poisons consumed by animals and every creature up the food chain. More than a million birds and marine animals die every year from eating plastic waste or from becoming entangled in plastics.

If the environmental damage caused by plastic bottles or the existence of potentially toxic chemicals in the bottles isn’t enough to make you avoid them, how about some reasons that hit closer to home?

First there’s the fact that many bottlers get their water from municipal supplies. Coca Cola filters and bottles water from municipal sources in Calgary and Brampton for its Dasani brand. Pepsi’s Aquafina comes mostly from Vancouver and Mississauga. That’s right: they’re taking your tap water and selling it back to you at a markup that can be as high as 3,000 times the price you pay for it through your taxes.

There’s also a danger that governments may use the growing reliance on bottled water as an excuse to avoid their responsibility to ensure we have access to safe drinking water. The federal government must address any existing concerns about drinking-water quality with enforceable standards designed to protect human health.

If you’re worried about chlorine in your drinking water, put it in a pitcher and let it stand overnight to allow the chlorine to evaporate – or consider buying a carbon activated filter for your tap. To carry water with you, fill up your stainless steel or glass bottle from the tap, and enjoy. Water is a precious resource that belongs to all of us. Let’s not take it for granted. And let’s not put it in plastic.



The ugly truth about cosmetic pesticides


[Apr 19 08]


A real estate agent once visited me at home and offered to sell my house. I was tempted for about a nanosecond before turning him down cold.

The house where I’ve lived for decades in Vancouver is not just a property to me. My home - especially the backyard - means so much more.

The backyard isn’t just my own private place of refuge in the summer. It’s a sacred place for my family as well.
It’s where my kids played tag as children and where they now socialize with their friends as adults. It’s where my wife and I hold family barbecues and dinners in the summer. And it’s where my father-in-law gets down on his hands and knees to pull weeds and tend to the St. John’s Wort and tulips. Our pet dog, Huckleberry, was even buried in the backyard when he died.

I wouldn’t trade any of my memories that have taken place on that small stretch of grass for anything in the world. I know I’m not alone in my passion. Our yards and gardens are a symbolic zone, a private sanctuary. Our public parks are also treasured spaces: they’re the public commons where we can throw Frisbees, play volleyball, read a book, or (my favorite) take a nap.

There’s been a tremendous amount of interest in green spaces recently. And with good reason. Many of the private yards and public parks that we enjoy are coated with toxic chemical pesticides to kill weeds. The problem is that they work too well, and exposure to them can damage our health.

In 2003, the Ontario College of Family Physicians published a scientific literature review that showed “consistent links to serious illnesses, such as cancer, reproductive problems and neurological diseases” associated with chronic pesticide exposure.

It stands to reason that children and pets are often more exposed since they’re the ones most likely to be found rolling playing on the grass during the summer months. Children are also more vulnerable to the health effects of pesticide exposure because their young bodies are still developing.

So what exactly are we spraying on our lawns? At least 50 active pesticide ingredients registered for use in Canada have been banned in other countries due to health or environmental concerns. One popular lawn herbicide called “2,4-D”, can easily be found in products lining the garden care section of your local hardware store. But don’t look for it in Denmark, Norway or Sweden. The herbicide, 2,4-D, is no longer sold in Scandinavia because of health and environmental concerns.

Another report, published by my foundation, showed that more than 6,000 cases of acute pesticide poisoning occur in Canada [L1] each year. Even more frightening, half of those poisonings involve children under six.

Despite the clear evidence against chemical pesticides, more than 30 per cent of Canadians with gardens still use them. But there is evidence that this practice may be coming to an end. Many cities have passed bylaws banning the use of these lawn and garden pesticides. We can look forward to the day when a neighbour applying these chemicals to their yards will seem as out-of-place as a smoker lighting up a cigarette on a transatlantic flight.

That day may be just around the corner - at least in some parts of Canada. In 2003, Quebec banned the use and sale of many lawn pesticides. Now the Ontario government is proposing similar legislation. The Government of PEI also recently held hearings on a potential province-wide ban. Provincial action is important, because while cities and towns can restrict the use of these chemicals on public and private property, provincial governments have the power to ban the sale of cosmetic pesticides. Pulling the prohibited products from store shelves is the best way to make sure they aren’t used.

I hope that residents across Canada - especially in Ontario and PEI - make their voices heard on this issue.

Remembering the great times I’ve had in my backyard, like watching my kids play, chatting with my father-in-law while he tends the garden, and having friends over for a summer dinner are incredible experiences. I’m sure most Canadians have similar memories that have taken place in their own backyards. We should be able to enjoy these green sanctuaries without worrying about chemicals. And so should our children.



Kilroy was here


[Mar 1 08]


Well, it seems we've finally done it. Humanity has finally made its mark - our own little place in history.

Even if we, as a species, snuff ourselves out now, the next hyper-intelligent creature that emerges from the muck, or one that finds our little planet drifting through space, will know that we were here. Millions of years from now, a scientist with six arms will be sifting through compressed layers of our collective detritus and ponder the most compelling question about our era: Who the heck was Britney Spears?

You see - it seems that we've entered a new epoch: a period of geological time usually reserved for distinguishing between massive periods of change on the planet. In this case we've moved from the era that geologists call the Holocene, which has been this relatively stable period since the last ice age 10-12,000 years ago, to the Anthropocene - a time when human activities have become the dominating force of change on the planet.

Changing epochs is not like changing your socks. In scientific terms, this is a big deal. Epochs tend to be delineated by periods of upheaval. Think ice ages and mass extinctions. When Nobel-prize winning chemist Dr. Paul Krutzen brought up the idea back in 2000 and again in 2002, it was still considered pretty radical and somewhat impetuous for our little species to have its own epoch.

But a team of scientists writing in a new paper in the journal GSA Today, published by the Geological Society of America, now argues that it's becoming increasingly difficult to deny humanity's growing influence on a planetary scale. In their paper, they examine the case for change and conclude that it's time to accept the obvious - we are in the Anthropocene.

According to the researchers, just about every natural process on the planet now bears a human signature. For example, if you look at the soils, humans are now the dominant force behind changes to physical sedimentation. Dramatic increases in erosion from agriculture, road and urban development, and dams have pushed people to be the largest producer of sediment by an order of magnitude over nature.

If you look at the air, humans are rapidly changing the composition of the atmosphere by burning vast amounts of oil, coal and gas. As a result, carbon dioxide levels are one-third higher now than they were 200 years ago - higher, in fact, than they have been in the past 900,000 years - and they are expected to double this century.

If you look at life on the planet, human activities are causing the extinction of many species - possibly leading to a "major extinction event" that rivals others, such as the demise of the dinosaurs. Humans are also rapidly replacing vast areas of natural vegetation with agricultural crops. As the researchers point out: "These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks."

If you look at the oceans, sea levels have risen slightly due to melting ice and thermal expansion (water expands as it warms) and these levels are expected to continue to rise through the century. Our oceans are also noticeably more acidic now, again due to the human release of so much carbon into the atmosphere, with "potentially severe effects in both benthic (especially coral reef) and planktonic settings," according to the researchers.

So, there you have it, the case for the Anthropocene. We've done it. We've written our name on the wall. We're the king of the hill, lord of the sandbox. We're now the most powerful force of change on the planet - so much that we actually get our own epoch. A pretty big responsibility for a naked ape that emerged on the plains of Africa only 150,000 years ago.

So what now, little human? What now?



Where do our leaders stand on science?


[Feb 3 08]


From all the election hoopla in the United States, Canadians would be forgiven for thinking that our American friends were about to head to the polls tomorrow, not in November. But while the American process might seem tad drawn out to some, it does give voters a chance to get to know their candidates - something that Canadians would do well to follow, as we too may be facing an election in 2008.

What does politics have to do with science? Plenty, actually. Science and the application of it through technology are two of the most important forces shaping our world today. But contrary to what many people in our electronic age may believe, science and technology aren’t independent forces that operate on their own. Instead, they are very much subject to the values and beliefs of a society. And the primary way in which those values and beliefs are expressed is through the choices made by its citizens - particularly who they choose to lead them.

Governments influence science in many ways. At a basic level, governments provide funding to scientific institutions and thus get to decide what kind of research gets funded and what kind does not. If a government has a particular ideology and does not support specific research, you can bet that its funding will be cut, regardless of the research’s scientific potential.

At the other end, where established science might be able to shed light on the most prudent public policies to pursue, again the government has a direct hand, by choosing to accept or ignore the advice of experts in the field. Once again, prevailing government ideologies can and do trump science.

One of the most obvious examples of this has been in the United States under President Bush. Throughout Mr. Bush’s presidency, his administration not only ignored the advice of scientists, but actively sought to downplay the voices of scientists who disagreed with its point of view - even to the extent of censoring key documents and removing scientists who disagreed.

Reporter Chris Mooney documents many examples of such political interference in his book The Republican War on Science. And according to the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists: "In recent years, scientists who work for and advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed and distorted, while agencies have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information." The organization has a petition, signed by 12,000 scientists, calling on the government to restore scientific integrity in the United States.

Naturally, this has many scientists in the U.S. watching the American race closely. A recent edition of the journal Science even offered profiles on the various candidates from both parties and where they appear to stand on certain science-related issues. From science education in schools to climate change and stem cell research, these issues are very important and will hopefully come to the forefront during the campaign.

With Canadians possibly heading to the polls for a federal election this year or next, we should be asking similar questions of our own candidates. Although Canada has largely been spared some of the attacks on science that have been cropping up in the United States, the ability to ignore prevailing scientific opinions and craft poorly researched science policy is by no means limited to American politicians.

Voter apathy is a serious problem in Canada, where voter turnout is shrinking. That’s not good for science and it’s not good for democracy. If you care about the future of science and the future of our country, make sure you too get to know your candidates. Ultimately the science we pursue is based on our values, so this is your chance to mould the shape of things to come.



Global trade brings unwanted visitors


[Jan 2 08]


We've probably all heard the urban legend about the unsuspecting shopper who takes home a bunch of bananas from the supermarket, only to have a tarantula later crawl out and terrorize the family. Well, new research shows that there could be some truth to the story.

As it turns out, spiders are excellent hitchhikers and often end up taking rides across countries, continents and oceans. According to a report published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, spiders are thumbing rides more and more often as global trade increases. And as our planet heats up from global warming, more spiders might decide to make their vacations permanent.

Researchers with the University of Bern in Switzerland looked at 87 alien species of spider from 25 different families known to have been introduced to Europe from other continents in the past 150 years. They found a near-linear progression of increased spider introductions correlating with an increase in global trade over the same time frame.

Both the volume of trade and the number of trade routes around the world have expanded greatly over the past century. At the same time, the duration of each of these trips has shortened due to more efficient shipping routes and techniques, and faster forms of shipping, such as air transport. Less time spent en route increases a hitchhiker's odds of surviving a trip, which make it more likely that the creature will be able to set up home in a new location.

Spiders are also survivors. A three-season study from New Zealand in 2002 found 31 alien adult spiders of seven different species (including several that were poisonous), plus nine egg sacs, survived trips from California in containers of table grapes - in spite of the containers having been fumigated and kept at a chilly one degree Celsius.

Notably, researchers also found that the spiders most likely to survive long-distance shipping were all significantly larger than their native counterparts of the same family. They conclude that, as a result of increasing global trade, at least one alien spider species will likely settle in Europe every year for the near future. This number could increase if global warming makes Europe more hospitable to spiders from warmer climates.

The ecological impact of alien spiders is not well known. However, as with any introduced species, spiders have the potential to displace native species and disrupt local ecosystems. Depending on the type of spider, there could be human health implications as well.

But if invading alien spiders seem like a small concern in the big scheme of things, consider that spiders aren't the only unwanted organisms that can hitchhike on our increasingly wide and dense global trade network. A recent review published in the journal Ibis, for example, reported on how the highly contagious avian bird influenza H5N1 spread across Europe. Again, the most likely culprit is global trade.

Many people originally thought that migratory birds were the vector that allowed bird flu to spread from China throughout Asia, to Africa and Europe. However, French researchers found that the pattern of spread didn't follow bird migration routes, but rather trade routes. And they cite case after case of known transmissions through domesticated birds.


Their conclusion: "In summary, although it remains possible that a migratory bird can spread the virus HPAI H5N1 and contaminate poultry, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that human movements of domestic poultry have been the main agent of global dispersal of the virus to date."

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. That brings with it a host of new challenges and new responsibilities. Whether it's big spiders or dangerous viruses, we'd best find ways to minimize the ecological and human health threats posed by our global economy. The world is shrinking. And we'd better get used to it.



Firefighters and enviro groups band together to ban toxic fire retardants


[Nov 5 07]


Canada's professional firefighters and environmental groups are calling for a complete ban of all PBDEs -- toxic fire-retardant chemicals used in many common household items such as televisions, sofas and mattresses.

PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are currently unregulated in Canada. The government has proposed regulations, but environmental groups have flagged them as ineffective because they exempt decaBDE, the most widely used chemical in this class. In fact, the proposed regulations would ban only PBDE mixtures no longer in use, affording little or no protection against chemical threats to health and the environment.

"Everyone agrees that all PBDEs are toxic. Inconceivably, the sticking point for government seems to be whether or not we should do anything about it," says Lisa Gue, the David Suzuki Foundation’s environmental health policy analyst. "We are calling for all chemicals in this class, especially decaBDE, to be banned."

The Canadian branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) also strongly supports a ban on all PBDEs, because of the occupational health hazards they present to their frontline workers. Firefighters are keenly aware of the dangers of highly flammable consumer products, but they also know many alternatives to PBDEs are available today.

"In particular, we are concerned about special dangers that members of our profession may face from this chemical, which we encounter in a combusted state in the course of our duties," says Jim Lee, IAFF's Assistant to the General President for Canadian Operations. "Firefighters, who routinely suffer exposure to toxic substances on the fireground despite the best respiratory and protective clothing practices, are at a significantly increased risk of cancer."

Cancer is an epidemic among firefighters. In the seven-year period of 2000 to 2006, recognized occupational cancers claimed the lives of 63 full-time firefighters in Canada. Since 2002, six provinces have enacted legislation formally linking certain cancers to the profession.

"Any measure that takes a potentially dangerous chemical away from the firefighters’ workplace will enhance firefighter safety, and as a result, public safety," says Mr. Lee, who was a Toronto firefighter for 30 years.

Sometimes referred to as "the new PCB," PBDEs persist in the environment and bioaccumulate. Health effects include damage to the neurological, reproductive, immune, and hormonal systems. DecaBDE is also classified as a potential human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Studies show that PBDEs levels in killer whiles and other Canadian wildlife are increasing exponentially.

In February, Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal), the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Environmental Law Association, and Environmental Defence formally challenged the government's proposed PBDE regulations by filing a Notice of Objection under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). The government has yet to respond.


Toxic Flame Retardants: A Burning Issue

If you're like most people, you’ve probably never heard of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). But along with virtually every Canadian, you are surrounded by these chemicals.

These chemicals are used as flame retardants in a wide-range of consumer products, including TVs, computers, electronics, motor vehicles, carpets, and furniture.

Health effects of PBDE exposure include damage to the neurological, reproductive, immune, and hormonal systems. The most widely used chemical in this group, decaBDE, is also a suspected carcinogen. These toxic chemicals are released into the environment during manufacturing, and end up in household dust as products containing them degrade.

The discovery that PBDEs are rapidly accumulating in humans and the environment has raised serious concerns. Sweden has banned all these chemicals for health and environmental reasons. Many U.S. states are following suit. Legislation to ban decaBDE has been introduced in Washington, California, Maine, and Illinois.

There are currently no restrictions on the manufacture, import, sale, or use of PBDEs in Canada, despite the fact that Canadian women and killer whales have some of the world’s highest concentrations of PBDEs. PBDEs found in marine mammals increased by 7,000 per cent from 1984-2003 and continue to double every 3.5 to four years.

Many firefighters' organizations in the United States strongly support motions to ban PBDEs, because of the occupational health hazards they present to these frontline workers. Firefighters are keenly aware of the dangers of highly flammable consumer products, but they also know many alternatives to PBDEs are available today.

The good news is that the federal government is currently developing a PBDE risk management strategy. The bad news is that proposed regulations announced last December would exempt the most commonly used PBDE: decaBDE.

The David Suzuki Foundation has formally objected to the proposed regulations and advocates a ban on all PBDEs.



Human genome continues to surprise

[Aug 8 2007]


Imagine discovering that the person running your favourite Fortune 500 company was not the CEO, as everyone presumed, but rather the bicycle-courier guy in spandex shorts and a goatee who everyone thought just delivered the messages.

That's pretty much how scientists working on the ENCODE project must have felt after analyzing the first part of the human genome.

ENCODE, short for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, is a massive project that aims to catalogue all of the functional elements of the human genome. The recently completed first stage of ENCODE catalogued just one per cent of our genetic code, but that represents some 30 million bases, or "letters" of DNA, in this case chosen randomly from 44 different parts of the genome. Analyzing that one per cent of our genetic structure took 308 scientists from 10 countries four years to complete.

All that effort has uncovered something marvelous: What I and other geneticists for decades took for granted may have been wrong. Or at least a wild simplification of what's actually going on.

Until very recently, accepted dogma in genetics was that DNA, specifically DNA in the form of genes, contained all the instructions necessary to make proteins. These proteins then made things happen at a cellular level, thus a gene is "expressed," and its instructions carried out. Another chemical, called RNA, was like a Xerox copy that simply replicated information from the DNA and transferred it to the area where proteins are made, shuttling information back and forth like a courier. It's a nice, tidy explanation for a complicated process. And in hindsight, it's probably a little too tidy.

Scientists first came up against the limits of this explanation when they mapped the human genome. To their surprise they found that people only have some 21,000 protein-encoding genes. Yet organisms like C. elegans, a tiny worm, or my specialty, the fruit fly, have almost as many - some 20,000 of them. If these genes are providing all the instructions on how to build and maintain an organism, how can such obviously more complicated creatures like humans have similar numbers of genes as simpler creatures like insects?

One answer may be found in the majority of our DNA that does not, as far as we know, code for proteins - what scientists used to call "junk." When ENCODE researchers started their project, they probably assumed that, because only a small fraction of our DNA coded for proteins, only a small fraction of whatever they looked at would be transcribed into RNA, the messenger that delivered the instructions on how to make the protein.

Instead, ENCODE researchers found that much of the human genome is transcribing into RNA. It's just that the information contained in it isn't necessarily read to make proteins. So then what is the role of junk DNA and what does all this extra RNA do? As yet, no one really knows, but it's clear that the human genome is much more than the sum of its genes. In fact, genes themselves may actually take a back seat in the development and functioning of an organism compared to RNA.

It's amazing for me to look at what we know now compared to when I ran a genetics lab back in the 1970s. In fact, when I tell students what we used to think back then, they can't help but giggle at our naivete. I may be overstating the role of the bicycle courier in my Fortune 500 company analogy. But I may be understating it too. It's still too early to say if RNA - our genetic bicycle courier - is actually running the show or not. But what has become clear is that there are a lot more bicycle couriers running around out there, delivering much more information than seems necessary and perhaps even making decisions on the fly. They may not be necessarily running the company, but they certainly have the ear of whoever does and they aren't keeping their opinions to themselves.


Keep light bulb hazards in perspective

June 22, 2007 - Whenever a new product comes to market, inevitably it will have flaws that can drive some people to distraction, so much so that they may be unable to see the forest for the trees.

Case in point - compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs.

Much has been made about switching from standard, incandescent bulbs to CFLs to help save energy. On the surface, it's an easy choice. CFL bulbs put out as much light as regular bulbs while using one quarter of the energy. Incandescent bulbs, on the other hand, haven't really changed much since their invention over 100 years ago. More than 90 per cent of the energy they use actually produces heat rather than light.

With CFLs now on the scene and issues like global warming and air pollution at the top of people's radar screens, it's only natural that switching to CFLs would become an issue. In fact, I'm even doing a series of advertisements with Powerwise, an energy-conservation partnership between the Government of Ontario and local power producers, to get people to start replacing their old bulbs.

Still, the switch to CFLs is not without criticism. Some folks suggest that because the bulbs use less electricity, people will be tempted to keep them on longer, negating their energy-efficiency advantage. Others point out that all that extra light from people keeping their bulbs burning for longer will add to the burden of light pollution in our cities. Still others say that the quality of light is less pleasing, and Lupus sufferers tell me incandescent light is better for them.

Far and away the most common concern is about mercury. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury - a toxic metal. Mercury poisoning can be a serious health hazard. The term "mad as a hatter" actually comes from the days when hat makers used mercury to improve the felt on hats. Many hatters exposed to large amounts of mercury over long periods of time suffered brain damage. Mercury accumulation in fish can also be a health hazard to those who eat certain types of it regularly.

But we have to keep things in perspective. The amount of mercury in a CFL is tiny - many times less than is found in a watch battery or dental filling. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest sources of mercury in our environment today, because coal contains mercury. By reducing our electricity consumption through measures like switching to CFLs, we reduce the demand for power, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, along with mercury and other pollutants.

Naturally, we have to consider the entire life cycle of a product before we make a wholesale switch. But the stats on CFLs are pretty compelling. According to Environment Canada, replacing even one 60-watt standard bulb with a 15-watt CFL in each of Canada's 12 million households would save up to $73 million a year in energy costs and reduce greenhouse emissions by nearly 400,000 tonnes.

This isn't to say that people don't need to be educated about the safe use and disposal of these bulbs - only that these shouldn't be used as yet more excuses for inaction. Retailers should be required to take back old CFLs for recycling, as a few - such as Ikea - already do. Consumers should be careful when installing or replacing these bulbs, and if one should break, follow cleanup safety guidelines recommended by Environment Canada or the Environmental Protection Agency.

CFL bulbs alone are hardly the solution to all of our environmental problems, but they certainly are a step in the right direction. They may have their flaws, but they're getting better all the time: Better light, less mercury and shatter-resistant bulbs. So until something even better comes along, they're a good, simple and effective way to help lower electricity consumption, save money and reduce our environmental footprint - which is ultimately the whole forest we need to see.



Got a good story? Tell somebody. [Jun 7 07]

As a broadcast journalist, I'm well aware of the challenges today's reporters and journalists face in covering stories - from tight deadlines and a lack of resources, to corporate ownership and the pervasion of tabloid-style reporting in mainstream media. But as guest editor for a recent Saturday edition of the Vancouver Sun, I found out that I still have a lot to learn.

I've never been a news reporter. In fact, more often than not, I'm the focus of a news story, rather than reporting it. Still, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how the news game worked. I know that news is what's happening right now, and that reporters have to crank out copy fast. And I know that daily news is an ephemeral beast. I myself have been guilty of picking up a newspaper, starting to read it, then throwing it down in disgust upon realizing that it was a day old. Yesterday's news just isn't news anymore.

So it was amazing to find out just how much goes into producing a daily newspaper. I was at the Vancouver Sun for a 12-hour shift. In spite of the fact that I had assigned some stories weeks before, there were still dozens of decisions to be made on the fly - everything from writing headlines to story placement, getting reporters to follow up on leads, use of language, fact checking, and, of course, meetings, meetings, meetings.

And that was just the editorial part of the day. At 7 p.m., when I thought we had put the paper to bed, we were off to the production facility where the paper was printed - another whole set of decisions and new challenges. The entire process left me exhausted and humbled.

Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the result. We managed to include some stories that I thought would never run - an article on the true cost of gasoline in the Business section, for example. A reporter looked into what a litre of gasoline costs society if "full-cost accounting" is factored into the equation. This kind of analysis considers factors that are normally considered "externalities" in economics - things like air and water pollution and climate change. When these things are considered, gasoline actually costs upwards of $4.00 per litre - far more than the $1.25 we're currently paying at the pump.

Throughout the stories, my goal was to weave a common thread of sustainability. I hoped to get people thinking about the environmental footprint of everything we do and stimulate discussion about how we can do things better. It was actually pretty easy to find stories that touched on these issues for every section of the newspaper, from Sports to Arts. The reality is our economy and our way of life depends on the natural services that we generally take for granted. We can't afford to do that any longer.

I'm sure that some people will be unhappy with "my" newspaper, because I didn't make it only available online to save paper (great idea, but not an option for the publisher) or that car advertisements were still allowed in the paper, or that the stories weren't deep enough or didn't cover all the environmental challenges we face. In the end, it was just one day. I hope that the edition got a few people thinking in different ways. And I hope it gave the reporters and editors some new ways to think about things too.

So, here's my suggestion to everyone reading who, like me, gets frustrated with the media and the coverage of certain stories, or the lack of it: Tell somebody. If you don't think your local newspaper, radio or television station is covering something adequately, give them a call. Reporters are reporters because they are inquisitive people. They like telling stories. If you have a story idea, don't be afraid to write or call and suggest it. Environmental problems affect all of us. And it's up to all of us to solve them.



Wanted: Leadership for the 21st Century


[Apr 30 07] - I just turned 71. That's old - at least in my books. Sometimes I can't believe that I've made it this far. Other times I can't believe how much there is left I want to do. At my age, I think it's pretty common for people to start thinking about these things, and what we want to leave behind - our legacies.

Politicians have a much shorter lifespan - politically speaking, that is. They can be around for four years or less. Rarely more than eight. That's why I'm often surprised by how little they seem to want to accomplish in that time. Certainly, I understand the lure of the status quo. Change is hard. Often vested interests will fight you every step of the way. Political advisors will say "No, no, no - stay the course! Don't make waves! Get re-elected!"

But what's the point of being re-elected if you aren't going to DO anything? Yes, yes, maybe I'm being naive. Maybe politicians are just there to support their vested interests, take home a fat paycheck and pension, and revel in the power of their office. But surely there's got to be more to it than that? The life of a politician is not one I envy. It's hard, sometimes brutal. You are constantly under scrutiny. You are always on the job. It takes up your entire life.

That's why I honestly believe that most politicians at least start out wanting to work for the common good. Many become overwhelmed by the muck, but great leaders act. They make bold decisions and move on them. They don't tinker when big changes are needed and they don't change things just for the sake of change. One of my pet peeves is the way some administrations will move into office and, rather than take an honest assessment of what's working and what isn't, instead set out to dismantle everything the previous administration had done just to make a point.

Of course, it's hard for leaders to act without public support. But right now, the environment is the top public concern. The public will support strong environmental leadership, so now's the time for our political leaders to act.

And politicians are indeed starting to take note. Seeing the success of initiatives in Europe, some politicians in North America are making bold decisions and plans to clean up our environment. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California may have been the brunt of jokes when he was first elected, but no one's laughing now as he's carefully crafted one of the world's most progressive, legislated plans to reduce pollution and global warming.

Recently, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell went down to California to talk to Schwarzenegger about his plans. That's a very encouraging sign. Premier Campbell's Speech from the Throne earlier this year was very bold and painted a new vision of British Columbia as leading North America in terms of sustainability. Given how proud British Columbians are of their natural heritage, progressive environmental leadership seems like a natural fit. It will also help diversify and strengthen B.C.'s economy in the long term, and also be a model for other provinces.

This is exactly what our leaders should be doing - learning from each other. Many provinces and states are coming out with exciting new programs towards sustainability. Ontario recently announced a "standard offer contract" system for renewable energy that's the first of its kind in North America. I hope Premier Campbell, and all our leaders, take a good look at the best examples of environmental leadership from all jurisdictions and incorporate them into their own plans.

In the end, all that we have are our legacies. I've been on this planet now for 71 years. I don't know how many years I have left, but I promise you I plan to make the most of them. I hope our political leaders look at their terms in office the same way.


Searching for more sustainable options [March 17 07]--Phew. That's all I can say now that I've finished a 30-day cross-Canada road trip to listen to Canadians' concerns about the environment.

It's been exhausting and at times bewildering, but I now know that the concern for environmental issues we're reading about in the polls isn't just a surface anomaly - it's real and it's palpable. Canadians are hungry for sustainable solutions and frustrated by what they see as a lack of political leadership on these issues.

It frustrates me too. Governments should make it easy for consumers to choose environmentally sustainable products and services. World-renowned economists like Sir Nicholas Stern are telling us that greatly reducing our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is critical to having a healthy economy in the not-too-distant future. Air and water pollution is already costing our economy billions of dollars every year due to increased health care costs and lost work days. It's only sensible - sustainability should be a top priority of every government at every level.

Yet, as I wrote in a recent column about the designed obsolescence of cell phones and other gadgets, disposability seems to be winning out over sustainability on many fronts. That battle with cell-phone chargers wasn't the only time on the tour that we weren't able to make our first choice from a sustainability perspective. Another was with our fuel.

We specifically chose to lease a bus with a modern, super-efficient diesel engine. Many people may not be aware, but diesel has a lower carbon footprint than gasoline. This is why there are so many diesel cars in fuel-conscious Europe. We needed a big vehicle like a bus because it would be packed with an entire month's worth of office supplies, gear, clothes and food for up to a dozen people. A bus was by far our best option to have the lowest carbon-footprint possible.

But we knew the tour would still have a footprint and it was very important to us that the tour be carbon-neutral. So we decided to calculate the global-warming emissions from the tour and purchase internationally regulated credits to offset those emissions. These credits are like a self-imposed carbon tax. Money spent on these "gold-standard" credits goes towards reducing an equal amount of emissions through energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Replacing an old dirty coal-fired power plant with a wind farm, for example. Since climate change is a global problem, it doesn't matter where we reduce emissions, so long as we actually reduce them.

For us, the icing on the cake would have been to also showcase an alternative fuel - in this case, biodiesel. Biodiesel is a fuel made from vegetable matter, like vegetable oil or even used restaurant grease, as opposed to fossil fuels. It's non-toxic and when burned, produces less carbon dioxide and fewer of the most common air pollutants. Biodiesel is now available as a blended fuel in some major Canadian centers. It's much more readily available in Europe.

Biodiesel is not without controversy. A large-scale conversion of forested land to grow crops for biodiesel could result in a huge net release of carbon into the atmosphere. And there are widespread concerns about using land to grow fuel that could be growing food. Still, biodiesel has many advantages and could be an important part of a sustainable future. It certainly warrants more attention - which is why we wanted to use it.

In the end, however, the decision was made for us when the bus's engine manufacturer warned our leasing company that running biodiesel in the new engine would void the warranty. Our bus company was supportive, but said they couldn't take that risk.

From small things, like disposable electronic goods, to bigger items like the fuels we use to get around or heat and cool our homes, making the most sustainable choices can still be much harder than it should be. Consumers can't very well embrace the best choices if they don't know what they are or if they aren't even available. To break down those barriers and help guide our economy to a sustainable future, we need government leadership and that's what my tour was all about.



Extreme weather extremely costly [Dec 23 06]--Global warming may have been the last thing on the minds of Vancouverites as they dug out from a record November snowfall and cold snap. But it’s another reminder of how much we all depend on the stability of our atmosphere.

While residents of other Canadian cities may scoff at Lotus land’s relatively minor misfortunes, the city has certainly had its fair share of weather anomalies lately. First, record rains churned up rivers and caused landslides in the city’s watersheds, leading to turbidity problems in the drinking water supply and a boil-water advisory across the region. Then, just as the water began to clear, a record cold and snowfall paralyzed the city.

What has this got to do with global warming? Well, extreme weather events like these are exactly the kind of thing climatologists say will become more common as our climate heats up. How confusing is that? Global warming can cause heavy snowfalls. But it’s true.

This ability to link global warming to so many weather-related phenomena has created a bit of a joke: Blame everything on global warming. Stock market down? Global warming. Can’t get a date? Global warming.

But underlying the joke is a serious fact. Our atmosphere is connected to everything – including us. By adding vast amounts of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (from our industries, cars and power plants) we’re trapping more heat near the surface of the earth. More heat means more energy. Adding so much energy to our atmosphere creates the potential for more violent outbursts – like the weather Vancouver has been feeling lately.

This is why it’s so imperative and urgent for humanity to get this problem under control. It’s not as though global warming is just a minor inconvenience. Left unchecked, it’s set to become a major hindrance to economic growth and international development. Vancouver newspapers were full of stories during both extreme weather events about how much these “natural” disasters were going to cost the city’s economy.

In developing countries, severe weather events are doing more than harming the economy – they’re killing people. Of course, extreme weather has always killed people. But in a recent article in the journal Science, Indian researchers report that extreme summer monsoon rains in India are becoming more common. Last summer, for example, more than 1,000 people died during one torrential rainstorm around Mumbai.

For the Science study, researchers analyzed data during the period 1951 to 2000 from more than 1,800 weather stations around central and eastern India. They found that while overall rainfall remained fairly consistent during the 50-year period, the number of extreme rainfall events doubled. Researchers cannot conclusively say that human-induced global warming is the cause, but the study’s findings are in line with what computer models predict will continue to happen unless we seriously curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The new research helps shed light on why, when global warming models predict more rain in places like India, rainfall there doesn’t seem to have increased overall. The answer is that, although annual average rainfall hasn’t necessarily increased, extreme rainfalls have. That’s unfortunate because more steady rainfall could actually benefit India’s agriculture. Extreme weather benefits no one, especially in a developing country like India that lacks the infrastructure to deal with it.

Keep that in mind for Canada. Canadians by and large sure wouldn’t mind more pleasant weather. But global warming won’t benefit anyone if more extreme weather is the result. Just ask folks in Vancouver.



Take my research, please [Oct 12 06]-- Recently, news blogs and newspapers reported that some politicians had cribbed research conducted by my foundation and used the information to build their own environmental agendas.

This news sent many a blogger all atwitter. While some of them focused on whether or not the information had been adequately referenced, others decried this action on the part of the politicians as proving that they had no ideas of their own, so they had to steal them from others.

Allow me to clear something up right now. To all politicians looking for ways to reduce our footprint on nature – or, to use politician-speak, create an “environmental platform”: Knock yourselves out. Feel free to steal, pilfer, borrow, rent, filch or otherwise take any research my foundation does and put it to good use.

This may seem obvious to some, but the whole point of conducting and publishing this research is to get people to actually use it. As public education, it helps raise awareness of environmental problems. But more important, it provides solutions to those problems. And most of those solutions are best implemented by our political and business leaders, rather than by individuals.

So if you ask me if it bothers me that politicians are stealing the solutions brought forward by my foundation, the answer is no. To use a computer term, we consider this information “open source.” It’s a free buffet; please take all you like. The whole reason why we do the research is to effect change. If those who have the power to make those solutions happen actually use that information, so much the better. This is how change happens.

As for the complaint that using my foundation’s ideas shows that politicians have none of their own – nonsense. Since when do great leaders come up with all their ideas on their own? Societies built around the narrow viewpoints of one person are called dictatorships and tend to be decidedly backward and not terribly pleasant. And if the notion is that ideas should only be coming from within a particular party – again, nonsense. This kind of partisan mentality is a form of xenophobia and it kills new ideas. Then again, perhaps that explains the state of Canadian politics.

I’ve also been asked if I worry that if one political party “steals” our ideas and runs with them, it might be off-putting to the other parties. That is a concern. But we can’t control who uses our research and nor do we want to. The David Suzuki Foundation is non-partisan. We share our research with all political parties and encourage them all to adopt the solutions we bring forward.

Frankly, it’s a tough slog all around. We can have a great idea and support from the vast majority of the public, but political leaders can turn it down flat because it might cost votes in an important constituency or because of political lobbying from an industry group. Sometimes there doesn’t appear to be any reason why an idea is rejected other than fear of change. That can be disheartening, but at least if the information is out there, the public can use it make changes in their own lives or to ask our leaders to take action.

My foundation is just one of dozens of organizations across Canada offering solutions to the country’s environmental and social problems. Rather than ignoring these solutions because they don’t come from within a particular party, it is my hope that our political leaders open their eyes, embrace change and start taking advantage of all this free advice. That isn’t stealing, it’s just good leadership.



Crocodile Hunter more than just a showman [Sep 25 06]-- Scientists sometimes call them “charismatic megafauna,” but most people would just say they’re cute and fuzzy. Certain animals like bears, tigers and the great apes have become poster children for the environment because, for many people, they symbolize the beauty and majesty of all nature.

Steve Irwin was not one of those people. Mr. Irwin, the famous Crocodile Hunter, was killed by a stingray earlier this month while diving off the coast of Australia. He became famous, not for showing the world the cutest and cuddliest of creatures, but for highlighting those that terrify us the most – crocodiles, snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies.

I’m currently in Australia on a book tour and was scheduled to meet up with Mr. Irwin in October. Sadly, that meeting will now never take place and I will miss out on spending time with someone for whom I feel a great deal of kinship and respect.

Growing up in Canada, my passion and my playground was a swamp near my home. There, I waded through cattails to catch frogs, fish, spiders, snakes and anything else I could get my hands on. I was utterly fascinated by these creatures and had a burning curiosity to find out what they did, how they lived, what they ate and what ate them.

I would not be surprised if Mr. Irwin had similar experiences as a child. Both of us seem to like things that others might call ugly or dirty. To us, they are all beautiful.

Certainly, I understand why people gravitate towards the most charismatic, loveable creatures. It can even be beneficial and educational. Piquing people’s interest in the environment with the world’s most charismatic creatures may start them on the road to understanding and respect for all of nature. After all, March of the Penguins would never have become the international sensation that it did had it been called Flight of the Turkey Vulture.

But that’s precisely what made Steve Irwin’s role so important. True, he often went after the spectacular creatures himself – just not the pretty ones. At least, not pretty to most people. He went after the ones that were either unknown, or vilified, hunted down and despised by most of humanity. He’s been criticized for doing this simply for the rush or to feed his ego, but in so doing he put the spotlight on creatures that would otherwise been seen by the general populace only in our nightmares.

Every creature has a role to play in an ecosystem. Ugly, “dirty” or microscopic ones are often the most important. It has been said that humans could disappear off the planet and the rest of nature would flourish and thrive, but if ants disappeared, the natural world would be thrown into chaos.

Humanity will not protect that which we fear or do not understand. Steve Irwin helped us understand those things that many people thought were a nuisance at best, a horror at worst. That made him a great educator and conservationist. At a time when interest in the basics of science, like taxonomy – the discovery and classification of living things – is waning in favour of high-tech fields, it’s a role that will be sorely missed.

Famed Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia,” meaning an innate love and kinship for other biological creatures. Mr. Irwin had it in spades and he wanted to share it with the world. It was his enthusiasm for life on this planet – any life – that made him so remarkable. Steve Irwin may not have focused on the charismatic megafauna of the world, but the world clearly saw many of those same characteristics in him.


Hired guns aim to confuse [Aug 22 06]-- Al Gore once told me that to get politicians to listen, you have to engage the people first. The former vice president is attempting to do just that this summer with his critically acclaimed global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." But he's up against some pretty powerful opponents.

His movie, by most standards, is pretty good. Rotten Tomatoes, a website that compiles movie reviews from newspapers, television and the internet, shows that 92 per cent of critics liked it. A story by the Associated Press on experts who critiqued the science behind the movie found that they too gave it a thumbs up for accuracy. Personally, I thought it was brilliant.

But shortly after the Associated Press article came out, other articles started popping up that said Mr. Gore's science was shoddy. People claiming to be experts wrote opinion pieces in newspapers decrying the film, Mr. Gore, and the "theory" of global warming in general. Contrarians, it seemed, were coming out of the woodwork. What happened?

What happened was a well-funded campaign to discredit the film and carpet bomb North Americans with confusing and contradictory information about the science of global warming. It appears to be having an effect too. Recent polls I've seen indicate that while the public is very concerned about climate change, they are still confused about the science.

Those who read science journals probably find this public confusion, well, confusing. While there is plenty of discussion in scientific circles about what precisely a changing climate will mean to people in various parts of the world, there is no debate about the cause of global warming (human activities, mostly burning oil, coal and gas), or about the fact that it is already having an effect and that those effects will become more and more pronounced in coming years.

Yet, there they are in the editorial and opinion pages, supposed experts writing about the grand global warming conspiracy perpetuated by Europeans. Or socialists. Or European socialists. Those in the know can laugh off such nonsense. But the problem is, most people aren't in the know. Average citizens are busy people and they are not experts in climate science, so naturally they tend to defer to people who appear to know what they're talking about.

Unfortunately, masquerading as an expert in the media is pretty easy. All you need are a few letters after your name and a controversial story to tell. That makes news. And there's no shortage of public relations people willing to spin a good tale - usually for a tidy profit. Companies pay big bucks to have these spin doctors work their magic and make sure the industry line gets heard.

But even some of public relations' best-known spin doctors are disgusted by what's going on right now over global warming. Jim Hoggan is one. He's a personal friend who happens to be president of one of western Canada's largest public relations firms, James Hoggan and Associates. And he's so appalled at what he says is deliberate manipulation of public opinion about this issue that he's started a website called desmogblog.com to debunk the global warming skeptics.

Jim writes in his blog: "There is a line between public relations and propaganda - or there should be. And there is a difference between using your skills, in good faith, to help rescue a battered reputation and using them to twist the truth - to sow confusion and doubt on an issue that is critical to human survival. And it is infuriating - as a public relations professional - to watch my colleagues use their skills, their training and their considerable intellect to poison the international debate on climate change."

Well said, Jim. His blog makes fascinating reading. It names names and follows the money trail - often leading back to big U.S. conservative organizations and fossil fuel giants. Jim's making it his mission to expose the liars and the frauds and he's doing a pretty good job.

Al Gore was right, the people do have to be engaged before politicians will listen. But engaging the people sometimes requires clearing the air first.



Warmer world more annoying, scientists predict [Jun 9 06]-- It's one of those science stories that at first appears rather irrelevant: A study out of Woods Hole Laboratory has found that poison ivy will become more common if our world continues to heat up from global warming. But the study actually gives us an indication that a warmer world will really be like - and it won't be springtime in Paris.

Research has shown that plant growth tends to increase under higher carbon dioxide levels. So, for six years, researchers with the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Hole pumped extra carbon dioxide into three test areas of pine forest in North Carolina. By adding more of the most common greenhouse gas to the test forest, researchers hoped to simulate conditions we're expected to see in our atmosphere by the middle of this century.

Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, report that when CO2 levels for the experiment were raised by about 50 per cent, poison ivy growth more than doubled - far exceeding average plant increases. This is because vines respond especially well to increased carbon dioxide levels. Instead of storing the carbon in a woody stalk or trunk, as most plants do, vines simply grow more shoots and leaves, which provides them with more access to sunlight for photosynthesis - so they grow more quickly.

Interestingly, the poison ivy did not only grow twice as fast, it became more poisonous. Researchers say it is unclear why this occurs, but it may have something to do with the way the ivy produces the most noxious form of urushiol, the vine's poison that irritates our skin. Other studies have found that global warming could increase other irritants as well - such as pollen levels in the air, making life more miserable for hay-fever sufferers.


One can imagine the humourous headlines resulting from such studies: "Life in future more irritating, scientists say" or "Global warming makes world more annoying," but there is more to the story. For example, increased vine growth in forests also has a climate feedback effect. As vines grow faster, they can choke out woody plants such as trees, which store far more carbon in their trunks. So, rather than soaking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it, these forests could soon start turning it over rapidly and make global warming worse.

In fact, our climate contains a number of such feedback loops, where a change brought on by warmer weather causes another change, which exacerbates the problem. As Canada's frozen tundra melts, for example, it could cause the soil to release methane, which is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. This, in turn, could again make global warming worse.

Also in the North, if global warming reduces snow and ice cover, it will expose the darker earth below. Without the bright white snow to reflect some of the sun's radiation back into space, the ground will absorb more light and heat, again potentially leading to increased temperatures.

Our climate is a complex system, intimately connected to the entire biosphere and all life within it. Small changes here or there can have repercussions down the line. Seemingly minor alterations can have cascading and unintended consequences. It would be foolish to assume our climate will change slowly in a simple, linear fashion.

We hear so much about the most dramatic problems global warming is expected to cause, such as rising sea levels, extinction of species and more frequent or extreme weather events, that it's easy to dismiss less provocative studies. But they are all part of a story we need to understand if we are to prepare for a different world tomorrow, and make the changes necessary to prevent some of those problems from occurring today.









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David T. Suzuki PhD, Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster.

David has received consistently high acclaim for his 30 years of award-winning work in broadcasting, explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things.

His eight part series, A Planet for the Taking won an award from the United Nations. His eight-part PBS series The Secret of Life was praised internationally, as was his five-part series The Brain for the Discovery Channel. For CBC Radio he founded the long running radio series, Quirks and Quarks and has presented two influential documentary series on the environment, From Naked Ape to Superspecies and It's a Matter of Survival.

An internationally respected geneticist, David was a full Professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver from 1969 until his retirement in 2001. He is professor emeritus with UBC's Sustainable Development Research Institute. From 1969 to 1972 he was the recipient of the prestigious E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship Award for the "Outstanding Canadian Research Scientist Under the Age of 35".

He has received numerous awards including the Roger Tory Peterson Award from Harvard University. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada, and a member of the Order of British Columbia. He has received 18 honorary doctorates - 12 from Canada, four from the United States and two from Australia. First Nations people have honoured him with six names, formal adoption by two tribes, and made him an honorary member of the Dehcho First Nations.

David was born in Vancouver, BC in 1936. During World War II, at the age of six, he was interned with his family in a camp in BC. After the war, he went to high school in London, Ontario. He graduated with Honours from Amherst College in 1958 and went on to earn his PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1961.

The author of 43 books, David Suzuki is recognized as a world leader in sustainable ecology. He lives with his wife, Dr. Tara Cullis, and two daughters in Vancouver.


Previously on David Suzuki:


Global trade brings unwanted visitors [Jan 2 08]


Firefighters and enviro groups band together to ban toxic fire retardants [Nov 5 07]


Human genome continues to surprise [Aug 8 2007]


Keep light bulb hazards in perspective [Jun 22 07]


Got a good story? Tell somebody. [Jun 7 07]


Wanted: Leadership for the 21st Century [Apr 30 07]


Searching for more sustainable options [March 17 07]


Extreme weather extremely costly [Dec 23 06]


Take my research, please [Oct 12 06]


Crocodile Hunter more than just a showman [Sep 25 06]


Hired guns aim to confuse [Aug 22 06]


Warmer world more annoying, scientists predict [Jun 9 06]



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