Suzuki's U of A degree signifies a deeper problem
Mark Milke, Calgary Herald, A14, April 28, 2018
Seventeen years ago, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer asked me to give him three questions, filmed in advance, for his television show and his guest, David Suzuki.
One of my queries: Why was Suzuki relentlessly anti-free enterprise given that it was the last century’s command-and-control economies that were the worst for the environment?
After all, the Soviet Union had zero incentive to clean up pollution given how its government owned everything. That meant no one was personally responsible for anything. (What was the Soviet Politburo going to do — fire itself?)
Suzuki’s answer to my query was a dodge. As I recall, he said he didn’t like ideological labels.
The story has resonance now given the eruption of angst over the University of Alberta, where I earned two degrees, and its decision to award an honorary degree to Suzuki.
Economist Andrew Leach helped start the fireworks when he noted Suzuki’s misrepresentation of economics; Suzuki apparently doesn’t know that it was economists who came up with the term “tragedy of the commons” to describe the problem with property that is collectively owned; i.e., as in the Soviet example above.
The University of Alberta can award a degree to a man who knows little about economics, or even climate science by his own admission. Neither is a requirement for an honorary degree.
Its president and board can also choose not to revoke the planned honour on the grounds of academic independence.
“Universities must not be afraid of controversy” and “instead … must be its champion” is how university president David Turpin defended the Suzuki degree this week.
Fair enough. And I would defend the university’s independence on this matter. But it is also fair ball for alumni and others to end support for a university that honours a man who compares oil extraction to slavery, but anyway luxuriates in oil’s benefits.
Just two months ago, Suzuki told a journalist he used an environmental award from Monaco to take his entire family to French Polynesia. He thus ignored the incongruity of campaigning against carbon emissions but yet taking an unnecessary, carbon-emitting trip halfway across the Pacific.
The deeper problem with some in academia or their representatives, as made clear in the Suzuki controversy, is two-fold.
First, many universities are hardly bastions of independence or willing to endure controversy for anything but pet causes that reinforce existing biases.
Consider the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ campus freedom index, which measures the state of free speech at 55 universities. It found that 15 “earned an ‘F’ grade for having actively censored controversial or unpopular speech on campus.” That “F” list included the University of Alberta.
Second, some educational leaders offer up platforms only to the usual suspects, Suzuki included.
Thus, recall how in February, the Alberta Teachers Association gave Suzuki a platform to speak to teachers at their convention. There, he predictably railed against Canadian energy. As Postmedia columnist Rick Bell reported, the convention was mostly a love-in where “no one” challenged Suzuki.
In the interests of fairness and to make the cost of Suzuki’s advocacy more real, the least the ATA could have done is to have an economist show up to inform teachers how much their wages would drop absent the oil and gas sector.
Or invite Danish academic and environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg.
Lomborg, as with Suzuki, also asserts the CO2-temperature warming phenomenon is real, but instead, recommends adaptation, including technological advances, rather than cratering modern economies.
(For the record, my position is the same as Lomborg; I would also caution against reflexive anti-Suzuki rhetoric given that science and the environment matter to human flourishing. His specific positions should be judged on their merits.)
But whether the teachers’ union or the University of Alberta, both are anything but champions of free inquiry or controversy. Nor are they willing to send tough questions in Suzuki’s direction.