The Nature of Masochism

I don’t know why I did it, but I caught David Suzuki’s “The Nature of Things” tonight in their very special episode on Canada’s oil sands and the insatiable demonic satyrs people developing them. I will not go into too much detail on my thoughts of Suzuki’s program as I watch it—I’m not a cruel man—but I’ll offer a few snippets.

First, as with most of Suzuki’s oeuvre, the show is heavy on the emotional anecdotes and laughable conjecture, and light on, you know, actual science. Considering that this is ostensibly a science program, one might find this a bit odd, but for those who have faithfully watched CBC for the past two decades, both of them could tell you that this is par for the course for Herr Suzuki.

You got your standard Erin Brockovich effect: cancer clusters, big industry nearby, ergo big industry to blame. You got your evil scientists—funded by industry, natch—who have been studying the local environment for decades, but of course they cannot be trusted. You got your “noble savage” spouting “prophecies” of man’s demise. You also got the government screwing over the little guy (with whom I can usually sympathize). You got your lone rogue scientist, fighting the Man. You got your international climate conference, complete with Suzuki’s beloved protesters chanting Suzuki’s beloved chants. You got long, aerial shots of industrial activity, presumably taken from a flying carpet and not from a fossil fuel-guzzling helicopter. And, of course, you got your dastardly Americans and their puppet Harper.

But there was one piece of science that Suzuki highlighted, not once but thrice. I presume this is because he’s light on monitoring data supporting his cause. The study is by one Dr. David Schindler, who is about as objective and apolitical as Dr. Suzuki himself.

Here’s one scene: At an open forum meeting Dr. Schindler is asked how sure he is that there is underground seepage from the oil sand tailings ponds into the Athabasca River, he replies, “Scientists never deal in certainties, but I believe it’s 99% positive”. Of course, there’s no scientific proof of this. He just knows.

What he found in his study, which is under review and has not yet been replicated, is that during the snow-laden winter season, bitumen and other elements associated with the oil sand industry—and naturally occurring deposits—had accumulated over a four-month period.

A federal panel that came out of the publicity surrounding the support recommended that the monitoring program needs to be revamped. Fair enough, but this still does not prove that oil production is significantly affecting the health of people in the region. What the study suggests is we may not have enough information.

So the whole episode, which takes us from the small communities of the Athabasca to the global climate debate to the ‘merkins love of oil and money, hinges on Dr. Schindler’s one, solitary study. I watched two hours of Suzuki for this? It’s like watching a M. Night Shamalyan movie and finding there’s no twist. Bummer, man.

Maybe Suzuki’s right. Maybe the benefits of the oil sands simply aren’t worth their impact on the environment and society. But he could be wrong too. If so, would he offer a two-hour retraction on his sliming of a hugely vital industry, one that has enriched the lives of far more people than Suzuki could imagine?

Suzuki has made a tidy living as playing David to the world’s Goliaths. Who cares if the people he demonizes might actually be decent, honourable, ethical individuals? What matters is that he’s right and anyone who disagrees is condemned to hell.

Where we’d likely be subjected to repeated episodes of The Nature of Things.

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