Thursday, June 26, 2008

Good Science Writers: David Suzuki

Of all the scientist writers who didn't make it into The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, David Suzuki surely counts as the most famous rejected Canadian.

David Takayoshi Suzuki earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1961 and was a Professor at the University of British Columbia from 1963 until he retired in 2001. His research interests centered on the genetics of Drosophila melanogaster.

Suzuki founded the radio program Quirks and Quarks and serves as the host of the TV program On the Nature of Things. He has written 43 books and has received numerous awards for his contributions to science education. For the past three decades Suzuki has concentrated his efforts on environmental issues. Whether you agree with him or not, he is one of the world's best science writers.

The David Suzuki Foundation was set up, "to find ways for society to live in balance with the natural world that sustains us. Focusing on four program areas – oceans and sustainable fishing, climate change and clean energy, sustainability, and the Nature Challenge - the Foundation uses science and education to promote solutions that conserve nature and help achieve sustainability within a generation."

This essay on The Beauty of Wind Farms is copied from the New Scientist website. It was published on April 16, 2005.
OFF the coast of British Columbia in Canada is an island called Quadra, where I have a cabin that is as close to my heart as you can imagine. From my porch on a good day you can see clear across the waters of Georgia Strait to the snowy peaks of the rugged Coast Mountains. It is one of the most beautiful views I have seen. And I would gladly share it with a wind farm.

But sometimes it seems like I'm in the minority. All across Europe and North America, environmentalists are locking horns with the wind industry over the location of wind farms. In Alberta, one group is opposing a planned wind farm near Cypress Hills Provincial Park, claiming it would destroy views of the park and disturb some of the last remaining native prairie in the province. In the UK more than 100 national and local groups, led by some of the country's most prominent environmentalists, have argued that wind power is inefficient, destroys the ambience of the countryside and makes little difference to carbon emissions. And in the US, the Cape Wind Project, which would site 130 wind turbines off the coast of affluent Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has come under fire from famous liberals, including Senator Edward Kennedy and Walter Cronkite.

It is time for some perspective. With the growing urgency of climate change, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot shout from the rooftops about the dangers of global warming and then turn around and shout even louder about the "dangers" of windmills. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges humanity will face this century. It cannot be solved through good intentions. It will take a radical change in the way we produce and consume energy - another industrial revolution, this time for clean energy, conservation and efficiency.

We have undergone such transformations before and we can do it again. But first we must accept that all forms of energy have associated costs. Fossil fuels are limited in quantity and create vast amounts of pollution. Large-scale hydroelectric power floods valleys and destroys animal habitat. Nuclear power is terribly expensive and creates radioactive waste.

Wind power also has its downsides. It is highly visible and can kill birds. The fact is, though, that any man-made structure can kill birds - houses, radio towers, skyscrapers. In Toronto alone, it is estimated that 10,000 birds collide with the city's tallest buildings every year. Compared with this, the risk to birds from well-sited wind farms is very low.

Even at Altamont Pass in California, where 7000 turbines were erected on a migratory route, only 0.2 birds per turbine per year have been killed. Indeed, the real risk to birds comes not from windmills but from a changing climate, which threatens the very existence of bird species and their habitats. This is not to say that wind farms should be allowed to spring up anywhere. They should always be subject to environmental impact assessments. But a blanket "not in my backyard" approach is hypocritical and counterproductive.

Pursuing wind power as part of our move towards clean energy makes sense. It is the fastest-growing source of energy in the world - a $6 billion industry last year. Its cost has dropped dramatically over the past two decades because of larger turbines and greater knowledge of how to build, install and operate turbines more effectively. Prices will likely decrease further as the technology improves.

Are windmills ugly? I remember when Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme from 1976 to 1992, told me how when he was growing up in Egypt, smokestacks belching out smoke were considered signs of progress. Even as an adult concerned about pollution, it took him a long time to get over the instinctive pride he felt when he saw a tower pouring out clouds of smoke.

We see beauty through filters shaped by our values and beliefs. Some people think wind turbines are ugly. I think smokestacks, smog, acid rain, coal-fired power plants and climate change are ugly. I think windmills are beautiful. They harness the power of the wind to supply us with heat and light. They provide local jobs. They help clean our air and reduce climate change.

And if one day I look out from my cabin's porch and see a row of windmills spinning in the distance, I won't curse them. I will praise them. It will mean we are finally getting somewhere.
Today I was reminded of David Suzuki when John Pieret quoted from an article that Suzuki just published on [What a difference 50 years makes]. Here's an excerpt ...
I began speaking out on television in 1962 because I was shocked by the lack of understanding of science at a time when science as applied by industry, medicine, and the military was having such a profound impact on our lives. I felt we needed more scientific understanding if we were to make informed decisions about the forces shaping our lives. Today, thanks to computers and the Internet, and television, radio, and print media, we have access to more information than humanity has ever had. To my surprise, this access has not equipped us to make better decisions about such matters as climate change, peak oil, marine depletion, species extinction, and global pollution. That's largely because we now have access to so much information that we can find support for any prejudice or opinion.

Don't want to believe in evolution? No problem - you can find support for intelligent design and creationism in magazines, on websites, and in all kinds of books written by people with PhDs. Want to believe aliens came to Earth and abducted people? It's easy to find theories about how governments have covered up information on extraterrestrial aliens. Think human-induced climate change is junk science? Well, if you choose to read only certain national newspapers and magazines and listen only to certain popular commentators on television or radio, you'll never have to change your mind. And so it goes. The challenge today is that there is a huge volume of information out there, much of it biased or deliberately distorted. As I think about my grandson, his hopes and dreams and the immense issues my generation has bequeathed him, I realize what he and all young people need most are the tools of skepticism, critical thinking, the ability to assess the credibility of sources, and the humility to realize we all possess beliefs and values that must constantly be reexamined. With those tools, his generation will certainly leave a better world to its children and grandchildren 50 years from now.

[Photo Credit: Wikipedia: The copyright holder of this file, Joshua Sherurcij, allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted.]


  1. Ah! Thanks for taking what was my lazy way out, blog-wise, after a long day, and turning it into something informative. I only knew Suzuki from the Nature of Things programs that escaped over the border for a time. I appreciate the further information.

  2. I'd be curious to know if you'd include Suzuki's The Sacred Balance as an example of 'good science writing'. I read it as an undergrad and felt that it really skirted the line between science and new-age woo in its desire to find metaphors and allegories about 'our place in nature'. Suzuki gave a talk at my school, shortly after I'd finished the book, wherein he made comments about the dangers of pursuing science outside of Nature's plan, and condemned all genetically modified organisms.

    I respect David Suzuki very much and The Nature of Things is one of the main reasons I got into the biological sciences, however, from my experiences in doing research in the Vancouver area (where Suzuki is a very public figure) I got the impression that a lot of people feel that he's given into sensationalism (rather than scientific objectivity) when it comes to environmental issues.

  3. The CBC has an utterly arresting 1975 radio interview in which he reflects on his childhood, WWII internment and experience of virulent racism, and the beginning of his career as a scientist.

  4. Does anyone know if The Secret of Life is available for purchase or download?

  5. Is "Good Science Writers" going to be a regular series? I hope so.

  6. Is it bad that I have a man-crush on Suzuki?

  7. It is true that he has been increasingly political and I would agree, as carlo stated, sensationalist. I also disagree with his position on GMOs. However to impact a society with a sensational appetite for environmental destruction, I would argue, that one has to be a sensationalist. One might say this isn't the role of a scientist. Well I trust a scientist more than a politician, or many other people in the position to take a leadership role on this issue. There is no one like him, in a position of a respected scientist, offering a strong, honest, viewpoint on the state of our environment.