Folks in the oil patch are mad as hornets over the University of Alberta’s decision to give an honorary degree to David Suzuki in June. Big donors are threatening to cancel cheques and pull the plug on future contributions. A petition calling for the university to change its mind has garnered 14,000 signatures. Even the deans of business and engineering have issued anguished letters of apology to distance themselves from the decision.
Are they being too thin-skinned? I don’t think so. The U of A has just given them the middle finger. Mr. Suzuki has compared making a living in the oil sands to profiting off the slave trade. He clearly wants to take their livelihood away – at the very moment when their one and only hope for getting oil to tidewater, the Trans Mountain pipeline extension, seems hopelessly stuck. He is their chief tormentor. Even Rachel Notley, Alberta’s Premier, was moved to say that the university’s decision was “a bit tone-deaf.“
Honorary degrees don’t mean much anymore. Any celebrity can get one (and has). Their main purpose is to gain some cheap publicity and reflected glory for the granting institution. Mr. Suzuki already has fistfuls of them, to say nothing of an Order of Canada and an informal designation (bestowed in 2015 by Reader’s Digest) as Canada’s Most Trusted Man. So why make such a fuss about one more piece of paper?
Because it’s about time. Mr. Suzuki is known by most as a twinkly-eyed old sage with a harmless message about living in tune with nature. But his messages are not benign. He doesn’t simply oppose fossil fuels, or the capitalist system. He’s a menace to scientific inquiry. And many of his views are well outside the scientific mainstream.
His relentless war against genetically modified foods is one example. For years, he’s been calling for outright bans on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – despite the fact that a majority of scientists, as well as the world’s leading health organizations, have declared them perfectly safe. He and other anti-GMO scaremongers have been able to stall crucial experiments with genetically modified crops that are designed to improve yields and nutrition, and benefit poor people around the world.
Mr. Suzuki also claims that up to 90 per cent of cancer is caused by environmental factors, such as the “massive use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers and literally tens of thousands of different molecules synthesized by scientists.” There’s no mainstream scientific support for that view either. For good measure, he also thinks that immigrants coming to Canada are bad for the environment.
In Mr. Suzuki’s view, economics itself is a form of “brain damage,“ and the current debate between economic development and environmental debate is illegitimate. This doesn’t sit well with either environmentalists or economists who are trying to come up with feasible solutions to environmental problems. “There’s no way I’d share the stage with David Suzuki,” tweeted Andrew Leach, a leading energy economist at the U of A. “Not a chance.”
Mr. Suzuki began his career as a geneticist, and his research on the fruit fly was recognized around the world. But what made him famous was his television work for the CBC and his role as an activist. Today, his view of the world is distinctly dystopian, and has a profound role in shaping environmental views in Canada.
David Turpin, the university’s president, issued a full-throated defence of its decision, saying that the honorary degree is to honour Mr. Suzuki’s “promotion of science literacy.” That’s rich.
“I think this is not only insulting to anyone that works in Alberta’s oil and gas industry but, most importantly, is unacceptable to anyone that has earned a degree by studying and understanding the value of the sciences and the principles of evidence-based research and decision-making “ Rob Kneteman, a U of A graduate who works in the oil patch, said in an open letter on his Facebook page.
This is not a matter of academic freedom of speech. A university has the right to give an honorary degree to whoever it wants. And the people who support it have the right to object. This particular choice is obnoxious on the merits, and foolish on the optics. And if there’a a price to be paid, so be it.