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He built Mountain Equipment Co-op into a national force in outdoor equipment retailing. He once led British Columbia's public housing corporation. Now Peter Robinson is aiming to influence environmental policy as CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation. Since joining the foundation a year ago, the 56-year-old former park ranger has needed all his ability as a quick study - at the same time as he copes with a crisis in the broader economy.

Is it true when you were a young park ranger, you were thrown into a hot spring trying to break up a semi-naked party?

And I wasn't naked - I want to make that very clear. Everyone has to have a humiliating, embarrassing moment and trying to quell a party of about 200 drunken folks in a pool that's 200 miles from the closest RCMP detachment teaches you something about self-confidence and humility.

Did it teach you to know your environment before you act?

Be aware. Be aware.

What talent do you bring to such diverse organizations?

You can take leadership across different sectors because of certain skills around strategic thinking, speaking and organizing.

Although it would be nice to have specific sectoral experience and move through it [in your career] it is not as important as having soft skills that relate to how you deal with people.

What was your biggest challenge coming to the Suzuki Foundation?

When I was at Mountain Equipment, I thought it was one of the greenest businesses on the planet. We had done a great job on the issues of sustainability, looking at our materials, how we sold things.

But in this sector, you are suddenly faced with a lot of scientific evidence on what is unfolding around us. If you are not an optimistic person, you could actually get depressed from evidence on everything from climate change and air pollution to environmental degradation and the loss of species.

Is this mood deepened by the financial crisis?

Like everyone else we are striving to make sure we stay solvent through this period. But even though this is a difficult time for all of us, there is actually quite an interesting opportunity to reconfigure our thinking. It is very hard to do it at a time when things are humming along really well, but now we've shaken ourselves up.

Does the recent federal budget take advantage of that opportunity?

That is the big question. By and large, it tried to address many short-term things. The big opportunity was missed. Where was the unifying theme that said 'We really want this to be about the direction we are going in as a country and society?' Where's the man-on-the-moon vision?

Do you agree carbon capture and sequestration could be the game-changer for Canada?

We have to be a little bit careful. It is new technology and it takes a while to get these things right. So you have to look at this perspective of whether you should continue to use all the fossil fuels that you are using, but hope you can develop a very viable way to sequester the carbon that is emitted in the back-end and sort of catch up to this.

Or would it be more viable to conserve energy, to look at other forms of energy? We're going to run out of oil eventually. If you're going to put money into technology, where is the biggest impact? Do you continue to accelerate fossil fuels and develop a good sequestration technology, or do you invest in renewables that are going to be there after the oil runs out?

Doesn't the budget make a big commitment to carbon capture?

If you can say anything about the green elements in the budget, they put a lot of money into carbon sequestration. But when 25 per cent of energy consumed to produce oil from the tar sands would be used just for sequestration, that's a very expensive system. You get much bigger bang with the technology of renewable energy.

Even in a downturn, does money still flow to your foundation because of the name brand of co-founder David Suzuki?

David is one of the most iconic individuals in this country. You do the usual-suspects lineup and if you put prime ministers, premiers and David Suzuki and a few others up there, people are going to know pretty well who David Suzuki is. But these are tough times and if you look at our funding base, we don't seek out government funding - it is individuals and they were hit hard. We're going to wait and see what happens.

Would you ever contemplate layoffs?

We will have to contemplate anything related to how we do financially. I come from a business background. I don't want to spend money I don't have. It keeps the pressure on us to make sure we are relevant to people. If nothing else, recession disciplines you to be really good at what you do.

What's the green pitch to organizations and households at a time of economic turbulence?

We have done an injustice to the public in describing what is a green economy, a green job, a green stimulus package, as if the colour somehow implies what it is. The assumption is: 'That's it, all you have to do is paint it green and we've solved everything.'

This notion of calling something green means very simply that you do things in a way that doesn't separate economics from the environment. It would be a myth to say we are against economic activity - we're not, but we say don't pull those apart and do one at the expense of the other.

When we do economic stimulus, when we create jobs, we make sure they are connected to other objectives. For centuries, we used the environment as the free dumping ground and we can't do that any more. It's causing us other problems.

So instead of building new roads, take that money and put it into public transit - it's the same investment of dollars. It still creates jobs but it is smarter to do it that way rather than something that disconnects economics and environment.

David Suzuki recently said good things about Wal-Mart. Isn't that a strange bedfellow?

All organizations change and grow with time. You have to assume that environmental groups also change and grow. You are beginning to see the concept that traditional ways of thinking - that environmental groups are tree huggers and smokestack pluggers - might actually be from another time.

If you believe in urgency - as I do - you look practically and pragmatically at whether you fight against groups, or you try to see if you can work with groups to make things happen faster.

So Wal-Mart has decided on an energy program that conserves energy and saves them money. They also have impact on the use of energy in all their supply chain. So I can see businesses saying 'We want to adopt sustainability principles to be more efficient.' But that component - business operations - is only a third of how you become sustainable. Another third is around what you are producing; and there is a social element - how you treat people in your supply chain. If you can do all three of those, you've got the magic.

So Wal-Mart hasn't been totally blessed by the Suzuki Foundation?

No, they still have some other work to do.


Peter Robinson

TITLE CEO, David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver.

BORN August 6, 1952, in Halifax; raised in Vancouver.

EDUCATION MA in conflict analysis and management from Royal Roads University, BA in geography from Simon Fraser University; diplomas in community economic development, fish and wildlife management.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS Began career as a park ranger in wilderness areas of B.C.

1980s: Joined B.C. Housing, where he rose to CEO.

2000: Joined Mountain Equipment Co-op as CEO.

January, 2008: Became CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation. Currently chair and chancellor of Royal Roads University, Victoria.

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