‘Our generation has not been very responsible,’ Suzuki tells graduates

Applause thundered and there were hoots and hollers from graduates and the audience as Dr. David Suzuki received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from York University. Suzuki was bestowed with the honour during the Faculty of Science & Engineering, School of Kinesiology and Faculty of Environmental Studies convocation ceremony on June 14.

Right: David Suzuki

In his convocation address, Suzuki delivered what could only be described as a “barn burner” of a speech as he reacted to the record high levels of smog reported for the day of his convocation. Further fueling his passion were media reports on the impact of air pollution on health – that 5,800 Canadians would die this year from the effects of smog, and the dire warnings issued about the state of the earth’s climate.

An award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster, Suzuki has received high acclaim for his 30 years of work in broadcasting, explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. Suzuki drew on his ability to communicate and his commitment to the environment to challenge graduates to be true to their science. He asked graduates to remember that for every action, there is a consequence that reverberates around the world and to incorporate that understanding into their science and their lives following university.

“Thank you so much for this honour. I am thrilled and absolutely delighted to join the graduating class of 2005,” said Suzuki. “When I graduated from college in 1958, the end of the millennium and the 21st century seemed impossibly far away. Now you are the generation that will live your entire lives in the 21st century.”

He described the university environment as a place where graduates, while being able to examine the outer edges of human thought, also gain knowledge by examining the past. Distilling that information, assessing it and acting on it are critical skills gained by university graduates, said Suzuki. “Your education has prepared you to examine and assess the flood of education that is going to wash over you. Within that information, you will have to find a way to live an flourish. Never have we needed that information more than today, as we face unprecedented challenges, changes and opportunity.”

Right: David Suzuki is congratulated by York Chancellor Peter Cory following the award

What sets humans apart from other species inhabiting the planet, said Suzuki, is the fact that humans had a massive brain, which endowed the species with thought, curiosity and inventiveness. “That brain invented the concept of the future.” Humans, said Suzuki, learned to shape their future by making decisions based on learned experiences and past knowledge. Now the very future of mankind is threatened, said Suzuki. “We no longer seem to be able to do what got us to this point. We are turning our backs on that very essence of our strategy for our survival.”

Leading scientists in the world are saying that mankind is headed for disaster, said Suzuki. “Why then, if the survival characteristic of our species is our foresight are we not acting on what scientists are telling us?”

He chided the media for focusing on the trivial while at the same time ignoring the catastrophic effects of climate change and pollution. “The papers have detailed every little twitch in Michael Jackson’s face or the comings and goings in the death and re-election of a pope. Yet just two months ago, the largest study ever undertaken on the planet’s ecosystem concluded that human beings are in deep trouble, and that we have undermined the very life support systems of the planet and yet that report was virtually ignored by the media.

“We have to put ourselves back in the world, a world where everything we do is interconnected. We have to do what our ancestors did to get us here, look ahead and think about where the dangers lie, recognize the opportunities and choose the best options for survival,” said Suzuki. “This is a heavy responsibility, left to you, the graduating class today. Our generation has not been very responsible and we leave you a heavy load. But, looking at you today, I feel absolutely confident that you are capable of living up to this challenge. Congratulations Class of 2005.”

More about David Suzuki

An internationally-respected geneticist, Suzuki was a professor at the University of British Columbia from 1969 until his retirement in 2001. He has received numerous awards for his work, including a UNESCO prize for science, a United Nations Environment Program medal, and the Order of Canada, and was the recipient of the prestigious E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship Award for “Outstanding Canadian Research Scientist Under the Age of 35.”

Suzuki is well-known to millions as the host of the CBC’s popular science television series, “The Nature of Things”, and founded the long-running CBC radio series, “Quirks and Quarks”.

Suzuki has 15 honorary doctorates from universities in Canada, the US and Australia. For his work in support of Canada’s First Nations people, he has been honoured with five names and formal adoption by two tribes.