Environmentalist David Suzuki receives honorary degree from Alberta university

EDMONTON — Human beings are a “tectonic force” shaping nearly every facet of the planet we depend on and our failure to realize that is at the heart of most ecological disputes, environmentalist David Suzuki said Thursday.

In Edmonton to receive an honorary degree from the University of Alberta, the longtime conservationist and oilsands critic was greeted by cheers and boos as he got up to speak while protesters waved placards outside.

“We have disputes over many things because we haven’t started from a position of agreement on what we all need and must protect,” Suzuki said in a moderate speech that focused on the challenges facing the science students graduating.

“We have become the dominant animal on the planet and we have to find a way of living in balance with the elements that keep us alive and healthy.”

Some stood to cheer his words, others remained seated, but the applause was long and loud.

Suzuki has said that Alberta’s oilsands, which are crucial to the province’s economy, should be left in the ground to prevent vast amounts of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

Outside the convocation ceremony, about three dozen protesters from as far away as the oilsands capital of Fort McMurray and the industry’s financial hub in Calgary disputed Suzuki’s position — as well as his fitness for the honour.

“The oil industry is important to Alberta and to Canada and Mr. Suzuki is not very supportive of it,” said Barbara Benyon of Camrose, Alta. “Any good he might have done has been cancelled out long since.”

The university said Suzuki’s honorary degree was granted “for contributions to public understanding of science and the environment.”

However, there are those in the province who take Suzuki’s views personally.

“It is a personal thing,” said Bob Iverach, a Calgary lawyer and University of Alberta alum.

Iverach said giving Suzuki a degree 10 years ago, before he became so outspoken, would have been one thing. Now, Iverach compared it to giving one to Adolph Hitler on the basis of his early career.

“Hitler wrote ‘Mein Kampf.’ Do you give him a PhD for the body of work he’s done?”

Others criticized Suzuki for his lifestyle. They said it’s a long way from the low-carbon model he advocates for others.

“This award to David Suzuki is a complete insult,” said Ken Wilson from Calgary. “He’s a celebrity sensation. He’s made up. He has done nothing environmentally in terms of his own lifestyle.”

Suzuki did not directly address the controversy, but did say everyone should be “scientifically literate” so as to be able to address today’s economic and environmental challenges.

In introducing Suzuki, university president David Turpin reminded the audience that universities have traditionally been places where unpopular but necessary ideas can be thrashed out.

“We need independent thinkers,” he said. “We need to question the status quo.”

The university announced in April that Suzuki was one of 13 people who would be honoured at spring convocation.

That prompted complaints, as well as critical public letters from the university’s deans of business and engineering.

Donors and alumni, particularly those in the oil and gas industry, said they would withdraw donations and partnerships. One Calgary law firm said it was cancelling its annual $100,000 funding commitment to the university’s law school.

In an op-ed posted on his foundation’s website, Suzuki said that universities should be the place “to air a range of ideas about the geophysical, social and economic consequences of fossil fuel use.”

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