David Suzuki deserves his honorary degree, but that doesn’t mean he should be treated like a saint.
Many arguments have been made against the conferring of Suzuki’s degree. Calgary Herald columnist Licia Corbella writes that Suzuki is hypocritical, flying around in private jets while he preaches about “living small.” In a follow-up piece, she shares anecdotes about Suzuki’s poor personal conduct, recounting how Suzuki once told her to “fuck off” as a young journalist. She compares the verbal attack on her to his attacks made on the oil sands: baseless and without merit.
Moodys Gartner, who suspended their $100 000 donation to the university after learning about the honorary degree, claimed that Suzuki, while having contributed greatly to science education and awareness, has abused his platform through refusing to “engage in rational discourse and debate” around the oils sands.
I won’t deny that many of Suzuki’s statements are brash; he’s described the oils sands as the moral equivalent of slavery and economics as a form of brain damage. He typically clarifies inflammatory statements like these in press releases like this one, but it wouldn’t it kill him to employ some nuance when first making these statements.
It seems that outraged Albertans, some travelling from Calgary and Red Deer to protest the decision, are taking Suzuki’s honorary degree as a validation of his statements and, in turn, as a personal attack against what’s arguably the lifeblood of the province. While I understand this anger, it’s important to remember that this degree is being given to Suzuki not for his political positions, but for his work in science communications.
Television shows like Suzuki on Science and The Nature of Things, as well radio series like Quirks and Quarks, have undeniably raised general awareness about science and the environment across Canada. Is this work not something to be celebrated through an honorary degree? Close to 30 other universities have done so, including the University of Calgary, another Albertan university that receives funding from energy companies.
Ultimately, Suzuki’s inflammatory nature is small potatoes in this debate. The central concern? Freedom of academic inquiry at our university. If we hold the oil sands as a sacred institution that can’t be questioned, how can the university feel comfortable examining the environmental effects of the oil sands? Would we end up squandering the possibility of finding ways to make the oil sands more sustainable, or even making alternative sources of energy more affordable and effective?
Besides, the university has awarded honorary degrees to much more controversial figures. Take Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, a former CEO of Nestlé who was awarded a degree in 2012 for water stewardship, even though he stated in a 2005 documentary that considering access to water a human right would be an “extreme solution” to the globe’s water problems. In the face of protests, the university held steadfast in their decision to confer the degree. Why would they do any different this time around?
Suzuki is a flawed human being, but he still deserves recognition. An honorary degree doesn’t grant him sainthood, and Albertans need to stop acting like it does.