Global Warming, and a Plea for Change

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THE BIG PICTURE: Reflections On Science, Humanity, And A Quickly Changing Planet

By David Suzuki and Dave Robert Taylor (Toronto and Vancouver: Greystone Books; London and New York: David Suzuki Foundation: 2009, 272 pp., $19.95, 2009, paperback)

In his latest book, David Suzuki tackles most of planet earth’s biggest issues, from the warming of the planet, to consumer culture, biodiversity and modern man’s approach to food and the food chain.

Each of “The Big Picture’s” 10 sections is comprised of essays by the famed Canadian environmentalist. And though the topics cover the world over, his voice is mostly directed at North Americans — examining both Canada and the U.S.’s contributions and culpabilities to current environmental debacles, as well as offering direction toward eventually solving these complex problems.

Much like the radio and television broadcasts for which he is famous, the essays in his book take seemingly overwhelming issues and present them in an easy, conversational manner. You get big ideas fleshed out by lots of small, very digestible examples. The effects of global warming on plant life, for instance, is demonstrated by a study where a 50 percent increase in carbon dioxide caused a doubling in the growth of poison ivy. Ouch.

Sometimes, the writing feels like a college lecture series, where certain points and favored metaphors are returned to again and again. This makes sense, as Suzuki — a geneticist with a Ph.D. in zoology — has been a faculty member at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver since the 1960s.

But he references scientific research consistently enough that it never feels entirely like an opinion piece. And though he’s been granted 24 honorary degrees, been elected to the Royal Society of Canada and had a new species of rainforest fly named in his honor (Dixella Suzuki), the man manages to remain humble. He even makes cute parallels between the larval state of his namesake and his own swamp-loving childhood.

David Suzuki
Environmentalist and author David Suzuki. Photo from the David Suzuki Foundation

Suzuki asks his readers to do the same: “It has been said that all 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,” he says in a chapter on preserving earth’s biodiversity. “Humanity will not protect that which we fear or do not understand.”

Keep learning, he beseeches us over and over again. And after reading the chapter on industrial meat production, you will certainly want to know a lot more about what’s been put on your plate — flame-retardant-filled fish and all.

In the end, “The Big Picture” is as much a commentary on the human nature as it is on the relationship between humans and nature. Sure, his tirade on technology and virtual socialization does feel a little out of touch. (The man does not own a cell phone and proudly claims he never will.) But, overall, his arguments feel as logical as they are passionate. And being able to comment on bioaccumulation and transgenic crops at your next dinner party should pay off in dividends.

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