Suzuki’s po­lar­iz­ing style won’t move us for­ward

Progress will come with trade-offs and com­pro­mises, Tom Powrie says.

Edmonton Journal - - OPINION - Tom Powrie is a re­tired pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at the Univer­sity of Alberta.

I was at the re­cent con­vo­ca­tion where the Univer­sity of Alberta gave David Suzuki an honorary de­gree. I am an econ­o­mist, and Suzuki finds some prob­lems with that breed, as I have some prob­lems with him.

But first, there are some prob­lems with his de­trac­tors. The folks who protested his de­gree that day, al­though they were com­mend­ably quiet, should have known bet­ter than to be there at all. The point of the day was to hon­our the young peo­ple who were re­ceiv­ing their de­grees.

Also, some donors to the univer­sity with­drew their gifts be­cause of this hon­our to Suzuki. This seems to say that their sup­port is con­tin­gent on their agree­ment with all of the univer­sity’s poli­cies. I hope they will think about this. We all want our univer­sity to be of high qual­ity, and for that its in­de­pen­dence is re­quired. We do not want a place whose de­ci­sions are bought.

Suzuki has one of the very best styles of speak­ing that I have ever heard. It was a plea­sure to lis­ten to it. And his shows Quirks and Quarks and The Na­ture of Things are great con­tri­bu­tions to Canada.

But he has short­com­ings for the hon­our he was be­ing given, and the con­tent of his speech dis­played them. He told us of a visit from a cor­po­rate CEO who wanted to dis­cuss things with him. He ex­plained how he asked this man to for­get he is a CEO and to talk with Suzuki as an equal.

He then said he ad­dressed this man as “Mr. CEO” and ex­plained to him that the laws of physics and chem­istry and bi­ol­ogy can­not be ig­nored, and that these laws say that clean air and wa­ter and land are es­sen­tial to hu­man life. (The pom­pos­ity here was cringe­wor­thy.)

He told us that the CEO re­fused to agree with him about the over­rid­ing value of clean air, clean wa­ter, and un­pol­luted land. He spec­u­lated that the CEO could not agree be­cause he would have been fired if he had.

My own spec­u­la­tion is that the CEO would more likely have been fired if he had said he was in favour of dirty air, dirty wa­ter and pol­luted land. But more to the point, I sus­pect that the CEO was look­ing for, and not get­ting, a dis­cus­sion of in-be­tween cases, a dis­cus­sion of trade­offs and com­pro­mises.

There was no trace in Suzuki’s talk of any aware­ness of any need for any such dis­cus­sion. In fact, every breath we take puts a lit­tle puff of pol­lut­ing car­bon diox­ide into the air, and yields the ben­e­fit of life it­self. This is a trade-off, where a cost in one form brings a ben­e­fit in some other form. Every breath we take, every meal we bake, every poop we make, pol­lutes the land and the wa­ter and the air a lit­tle.

All are trade-offs of costs for ben­e­fits. And of course we make many trade-offs with very high stakes, and some, I think, that are wrong be­cause the costs ex­ceed the ben­e­fits.

The is­sue with the en­vi­ron­ment is not how to keep it pure and per­fect.

The only way for us to give over­rid­ing pri­or­ity to clean air, clean wa­ter and clean land, is for us all to cease to ex­ist, but I think we are worth keep­ing.

So the real is­sue is, what set of trade-offs is the best bal­ance be­tween dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment and re­sult­ing other ben­e­fits, and what set of rules and arrangement will best achieve this bal­ance? These ques­tions are very, very hard. And they are very, very im­por­tant.

Let’s all help. One way to help is to skip the po­lar­iz­ing per­fec­tion­ism that re­fuses to look for the an­swers in the only place where the an­swers can be found, in trade-offs and com­pro­mises.

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