In the midst of a recession and skyrocketing unemployment rates, American companies were cutting costs by outsourcing work to foreign countries. With experts estimating that 3.3 million white-collar jobs will be sent overseas by 2015, this episode questioned: Is America’s middle class being hollowed out? NOW went to India, where the country’s skilled and educated workforce was answering customer and financial service calls and taking over technology positions for some of America’s biggest corporations while millions of Americans searched for jobs at home.
Next, Bill Moyers interviewed eminent scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki who says that the entire planet may be reaching its limit. Then, as millions of Americans prepared to head back to school, the impact of ballooning state budget deficits was evident in America’s classrooms. Nationwide, primary schools, high schools, and state colleges and universities faced severe cuts. In 2002, some Oregon public schools were forced to close ahead of schedule, leaving parents scrambling. David Brancaccio interviewed Southern Oregon University president Elisabeth Zinser about the Oregon budget cuts and their impact on higher education.
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. Bill Moyers is away this week. I’m David Brancaccio.
As we head into Labor Day weekend, about nine million Americans won’t be taking Monday off. They are unemployed. Of those, two million have been out of work for more than half a year.
This has everybody talking about how to create jobs.
President Bush is arguing that his tax cuts will stimulate the economy and boost employment. Democratic presidential contenders have more ideas than California has candidates for governor, but lost in all of this is one phenomenon that has been largely overlooked: it’s about companies sending American jobs overseas to save money.
“Offshoring” is the jargon. Sound familiar? That’s what’s been happening to manufacturing jobs for years.
What is different is these are white-collar jobs, customer service, technology, and financial services. It could all add up to the transformation of the American workforce.
Correspondent Keith Brown and producer Brenda Breslauer on how big companies are cashing in by shipping jobs out.
BROWN: Newly arrived immigrants to the United States? Not quite.
These students are in India, half a world away— training for jobs there that were once held by Americans back here in the U.S. Learning to speak English with an American accent. Learning all about American popular culture.
These workers are part of a growing trend — good, old-fashioned American customer service from right there in India.
As part of their training, these workers even choose new American names. Call centers like this one are popping up in cities across India, providing good paying jobs to a highly skilled and educated workforce there — answering customer service, technical support and financial service calls for some of America’s biggest corporations: Citibank, American Express, Dell, AT&T, Hewlett Packard and Delta Airlines to name a few.
It’s not just customer service jobs. More and more of America’s corporate giants are also farming out technology jobs overseas. Last year, Bill Gates announced Microsoft would be investing $400 million in Indian operations.
GATES: Everyone is looking at India as a primary source of these great human skills. Most people predict that there will be more software support and development people here than in any other country within the next decade.
HIRA: The idea is to move as much work as possible offshore because it’s a lot cheaper.
BROWN: Ron Hira has been studying the new trend of jobs moving overseas. He’s a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His parents moved to the U.S. for work in 1967.
HIRA: It’s almost every single day that we get a new news story of a new announcement from some major company. And these are the who’s who of technology companies: Hewlett Packard, Electronic Data Systems, IBM, Yahoo, Microsoft, and on, and on, and on, that they’re expanding operations overseas. These same companies are either cutting back in the U.S., or they’re not hiring.
BROWN: For U.S. corporations, the economic benefits of sending jobs to India are almost irresistible. Consider the results of one recent survey: a software programmer in the U.S. makes $66,000 a year. A programmer in India: only $10,000 a year.
A mechanical engineer: just over $55,000 dollars here. In India: $5,900.
An accountant here: $41,000 dollars. In India: a mere 5,000.
These numbers point to a transformation of the American workplace with white-collar jobs being shipped offshore to far away places as companies seek out the lowest wages.
HIRA: They’re using euphemisms like “realigning resources.” I’ve also seen euphemisms like “rebalancing the workforce,” “redeploying people.”
BROWN: Companies say tapping into this global workforce is a way for them to maintain their competitive edge.
Consider this internal conference call from computer giant IBM in which company executives discuss the pressure to move jobs offshore to keep up with corporate rivals.
This recording was obtained by the union, the Communications Workers of America, or CWA:
IBM CONFERENCE CALL: We don’t want to just sit back and say don’t do it because there are going to be problems. Our competitors are doing it. And we have to do it.
BROWN: And there’s this from Microsoft: an internal presentation, also obtained by the CWA, in which a senior vice president urges managers to, quote, “pick something to move offshore today.” He explains that in India, you can get, quote, “quality work at 50 to 60% of the cost. That’s two heads for the price of one.”
HIRA: So this is almost like bragging rights on Wall Street with the analysts, that they’re cutting costs.
There’s no question offshoring saves U.S. corporations billions of dollars. But if it’s so good for both American business and investors, then why are some companies going to such lengths to hide it from consumers?
BROWN: We asked one of our associate producers to call AT&T.
WILLIAMS: I have a question about my phone service. Can you tell me where you are?
FEMALE VOICE: “Ma’am. We’re really sorry, ma’am. I’m not supposed to disclose that information.”
BROWN: AT&T says they don’t disclose their location for security reasons. But some critics believe there’s a different explanation.
TURNER: It’s a dirty little secret that they want to have kept.
BROWN: Shirley Turner is a New Jersey State Senator. She says while offshoring may be good for a company’s bottom line, it’s not good for public relations.
TURNER: They’re not proud of it and they don’t want the public to know that they are exporting so many jobs.
BROWN: Critics say, one reason you may not have heard about this trend is because many of these corporate giants are working hard to keep their hands clean by contracting out these jobs to middlemen, companies in the U.S. that then send the jobs overseas.
BROWN: And that’s just what happened to Mike Rohal.
ROHAL: It is a bit confusing how a company can bestow a prestigious award like this, the AT&T True Spirit Award, and then throw you out like bath water.
BROWN: Rohal says he gave more than 20 years of loyal service to AT&T.
ROHAL: Thought I had a job for life. At that time, I think it was pretty much still, you know, a job for life. And I think that was probably true of not just AT&T but probably a lot of places at the time.
BROWN: Mike Rohal is the father of three boys who finds himself unemployed for the first time.
After 20 years working on information technology for AT&T, Rohal says his job, along with more than 100 others in his division, was outsourced to a contractor— Computer Sciences Corporation or CSC.
Rohal was transferred to the new company. And for 2 years, things went fine.
Then, Rohal says, one day CSC announced that the work being done in his department was being sent off shore to India. And what’s more, the company told Rohal he would have to train new Indian workers how to do his job.
BROWN: You were told you were responsible for knowledge transfer. What does that mean exactly?
ROHAL: Knowledge transfer is corporate speak for “you’re gonna train your replacement.”
BROWN: You had to train the person who would take your job?
ROHAL: I had to train them in the responsibilities and the duties of performing my particular job. People who were, ultimately from what we heard, were paid 1/5 of what we were paid.
BROWN: Almost a year later, CSC laid Mike Rohal off.
ROHAL: My feeling about that company is they are nothing more than an axman.
BROWN: An axman?
ROHAL: An axman. They’re brought in to get rid of people, to do the dirty work that corporate doesn’t want to do.
BROWN: Mike Rohal is not alone. Recent studies predict more than half a million technology jobs will move overseas by the end of next year. Financial services companies will be next, also expected to send more than half a million jobs abroad in the next 5 years.
In fact, over the next 15 years, 3.3 million white-collar jobs are predicted to go overseas—jobs now held by middle class workers who’ve traditionally been the backbone of the American economy.
TURNER: We’re losing the middle class. Those people who really have struggled for many years to get to the top.
BROWN: Not long ago, it was manufacturing jobs that were moving out of the country. Back then, some American workers were retrained for jobs in what was called the new “service economy.” Now those jobs are moving too.
TURNER: We’ve lost the manufacturing jobs and now we’re losing many of the service jobs. So what’s going to be left for our children and our children’s children?
BROWN: In June, a group of out of work information technology workers from JP Morgan Chase, Intel and other companies protested an outsourcing conference being held inside the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
SLIGHT: They read us a little memo that said this was a business decision to outsource our jobs for cost reasons, you know, whatever excuses they give, and every day since then we went to working going ‘Is today going to be our last day?’
SELSKY: I feel bad about losing my job. I don’t know what I’ll do as a 53 year old, 2 kids in college, especially given the current economic market. And people have to understand that even if this doesn’t happen to them, the downward wage pressure will affect them.
WARD: I was preparing for this time but it came too damn fast.
BROWN: With this offshoring, it allows companies to cut costs of production. It allows them to offer 24-hour service to their customers. Isn’t it a benefit for the American consumer?
ROHAL: I think that’s just another line that everyone’s being fed.
BROWN: Do the American people benefit from this at all?
ROHAL: Not all American people. Not the average American, not me. Not my family. Not the other families who have been affected by this off-shoring practice. We’re struggling now.
BROWN: Professor Hira knows all about the pain of that struggle. He witnessed the impact firsthand when his father was laid off from his job as an engineer at Westinghouse in 1977.
HIRA: I know what he went through. In that time, you know, period, where you had employer and employee loyalty, and where there was a relationship. You know, and employers didn’t just lay off people capriciously.
And it really broke his spirit. You know, he didn’t view work the same way.
BROWN: Neither does Mike Rohal. In fact, he’s looking at what he thinks will be a more stable blue collar job for the future.
ROHAL: There’s a program I’m looking to start at one of the technical schools. For doing installations of voice and video lines. You know, something that has to be done here, something they can’t send offshore.
BROWN: Is this a step backwards?
ROHAL: I see it as a move toward stability.
BROWN: And it’s not just the individual worker who’s hurt when service jobs disappear, according to Shirley Turner. What’s going on, she says, is a “hollowing out” of America that erodes the tax base and weakens the economy.
TURNER: Because this is money that’s being exported and we receive no tax dollars in return for that. Not one penny is collected by the state government or the county or local government or even the federal government. So at a time when we’re experiencing deficits on every level of government it just makes no sense that we continue down this path.
BROWN: And it’s not just corporate jobs at stake. What really makes Turner angry is what happened to tax dollars in her own state of New Jersey.
TURNER: Government jobs now are going overseas, they’re following the bad example of the corporate world, where they’re outsourcing jobs to foreign countries at a time when we have a skyrocketing unemployment rate right here in this country.
BROWN: Last year, Turner was astonished to read in the NEWARK STAR LEDGER that jobs once held by New Jersey state employees had been offshored. Those jobs had first gone to a company called eFunds, operating out of Wisconsin. Then eFunds sent those jobs overseas.
TURNER: It was a cost-saving measure. Where in Green Bay, Wisconsin they were paying anywhere from $10 to $12 an hour. And when they moved the operation to Bombay, India they were paying roughly $3 an hour.
BROWN: What was the work? Processing New Jersey’s welfare benefits.
TURNER: The irony of it is that here we were exporting the jobs that could very well have been done by welfare recipients. And this was a contract to service welfare recipients.
BROWN: Turner was so outraged that last year she introduced a bill to require any contract granted by the state of New Jersey be administered by American citizens or legal residents.
The bill did not pass. But the publicity surrounding it caused such a stir, that in May, eFunds moved those jobs back to New Jersey. And a number of welfare recipients were even hired to work in the office.
TURNER: So we have people now, some of them have been on welfare, they have been trained and now they’re working in these positions.
BROWN: But it’s a small victory. eFunds is still answering benefits calls for 19 other states— from Bombay, India.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW. Critical stress on the Earth and environment.
SUZUKI: For the first time in human history, we now have to ask, “What are all six billion people on the planet doing? What is the collective impact of humanity?”
ANNOUNCER: Scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki.
BRANCACCIO: This week and next, millions of students head back to school. But when they get there they may be in for a shock. Bigger classes, higher tuition and in some cases, locked doors. At California State University, fees have shot up 30 percent.
Next spring, six of Cal State’s 23 campuses won’t take any freshmen or transfers at all. In Nebraska, budget cuts are even costing tenured professors their jobs. In Boston, 900 public school teachers have been laid off. State college students there could pay as much as $1,000 more.
Last year, some Oregon public schools were forced to close early for lack of money. Parents scrambled to take care of their kids. And Oregon’s public colleges have faced some of the most severe cuts in the nation. It’s more expensive than ever to get a degree.
Elisabeth Zinser, president of Southern Oregon University, knows all too well the hard choices facing America’s educators and students. She joins me now.
President Zinser, thank you so much for joining us.
ZINSER: Thank you, David.
BRANCACCIO: What is it about the state of funding for public education in this country right now that would drive you to fly across the country going into a holiday weekend to talk to us about it here on NOW.
ZINSER: Because I want to contribute to helping the public understand how important it is to invest in public higher education and for that matter in the public schools.
We’re in a position where presidents and faculties across this country have had to make the heart-breaking decision to raise tuition to the levels that we are. Ours are going up eight percent next year after already raising them last year a substantial amount.
And that was as a last resort following many cuts within our institution. Many layoffs. Many reduced hours for certain key services. And a variety of other administrative cuts such as in our case we discontinued a vice president’s division all together.
Trying very hard through cuts to avoid raising tuition. And then finally coming to the point where we recognized that we must do so to preserve the quality of our institutions.
BRANCACCIO: What’s your reaction when you pick up a newspaper and see that the University of Illinois is canceling 1,000 classes? That Virginia Tech is getting rid of its education major? That in California they might have to turn away 30,000 applicants to the state college system.
ZINSER: It is truly a disaster waiting to happen. We are in a position where having raised the tuition in order to maintain some quality and maintain these programs is heartbreaking. But even so, some colleges and universities are finding it necessary to discontinue classes. And that causes students to take longer to graduate which further increases the cost to the student of receiving their degree.
BRANCACCIO: I’m sure your students appreciate you doing what you can yet one Oregon state legislator is quoted as saying that the recent budget was the Downward Mobility Act of 2003.
ZINSER: Unfortunately, I think there is some truth to that. And the problem is we are headed for a great deal of segmentation in our society because the low-income students are going to have the greatest difficulty in continuing their education.
BRANCACCIO: The ones who continue. There may even be ones who just never apply. You never saw them. You never spoke with them because they just thought that college was too expensive now.
ZINSER: Well, that’s true. And I think that’s where the— unfortunately, we may see some boomeranging going on with regard to the No Child Left Behind Program where we prepare students more effectively for going to colleges and universities. Ninety percent of them today are looking to a future in higher education. And yet it is these students that we don’t always see that are the ones that aren’t going to be able to go to college.
BRANCACCIO: I’ve read about some state elected officials who are talking about higher education as a private good, not a public good. As in private good if my Madeline needs to go to college, that’s between me and my bank account and my ability to borrow. Very different from, say, the need to maintain public safety and maintain order. A public good.
ZINSER: It is a private good for the individual to have an opportunity to increase the capacity they have to earn a good living. But it’s a public good when we provide access, strong access to quality education so that opportunity for the future for these young people and, in many cases, not so young people have a chance to enter into society with good wages and with ability to contribute to the workforce.
BRANCACCIO: An economic development argument. The governors and elected officials around the state don’t seem to be buying the economic development argument as they once did. I mean, what can you say to really make that concrete to them?
ZINSER: Well, I think many of them are buying it to a point. The problem is there’s a huge recession under way. And we’re going into slow recovery. And our policy makers are faced with a number of expenditures that they have to deal with that don’t seem at all discretionary.
Medicare, prisons and so on. And it ends up that higher education is viewed as discretionary. They assume that, well, we have another place to go. We can always go to the students in a pinch. The problem now is that we have gone to the students as far as we possibly can without eroding the very reason for public education in this nation.
BRANCACCIO: Sounds like you’re worrying about some of your students in this environment.
ZINSER: I’d be irresponsible if I wasn’t worrying about it.
They’re working more. They are having to take part-time status rather than going full time.
BRANCACCIO: The students must be what? Borrowing money to pay the higher tuition.
ZINSER: They’re borrowing a great deal. 66 percent of our students at Southern Oregon University are borrowing in one way or another on financial aid. And they leave with an average at $18,000 in debt. So that means it takes longer for them to be able to recover and be making contributions to taxes and in other areas in their lives. So it’s a serious problem. The biggest problem is creating an economic segregation where the low-income students are not going to be able to go to college without more assistance than our states and federal government are providing them now.
BRANCACCIO: Is it too much of a utopian vision to hope that everyone should have access to higher education? I mean, everyone. At state colleges, in many cases, you can get in no matter what.
ZINSER: It’s not a utopia. It’s a necessity. Just as a century ago, high school was necessary to be able to live a good life. Today, a college education, whether it be a community college start with technical capabilities and liberal learning and capabilities in certain areas that community colleges provide, or whether it be the four-year. College education is a requirement to be able to contribute to our global economy and to be able to live a decent life today.
BRANCACCIO: Well, President Elisabeth Zinser, thank you so much for joining us here on NOW.
ZINSER: Thank you, David.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS: Are global corporations riding high by shortchanging the world’s women?
BAMFORD: You know you have to keep your labor cheap. Women are actually subsidizing all this accumulation of capital in the capitalist system, because they’re the lowest paid.
ANNOUNCER: The hefty price of globalization, a special report. That’s next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.
Job flight in America: get the latest facts and figures. Taking the pulse of Mother Earth: check in on the state of the environment. Gasoline prices: find out how your state measures up at the pump.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
Once again, David Brancaccio.
BRANCACCIO: This week the Environmental Protection Agency announced one of the most controversial policy decisions on the environment since President Bush took office.
Industry will save billions and many factories will become more efficient and safer.
The same might not be said, however, for the air.
Critics say the new rules effectively gut part of the Clean Air Act. Now 17,000 power plants, refineries, and factories can make major upgrades without installing new anti-pollution equipment.
The result, say environmentalists: millions of tons more pollutants released into the air, contributing to thousands more premature deaths, millions more asthma attacks.
It’s the latest in a series of rollbacks by the Bush administration that have alarmed environmentalists.
Among those sounding the alarm is David Suzuki, who argues that the entire planet may have just about have had enough.
In a four-part television series beginning next Wednesday night on PBS, Suzuki, a noted Canadian scientist, explores how everything in the natural world from life-giving water and soil, to the life in our oceans and our skies, is interconnected with the earth.
Nothing, he says, can exist alone.
The series, called THE SACRED BALANCE, is a personal journey that is equal parts philosophy and hard science. Suzuki argues the sacred balance between Earth and all living things has been disrupted with disastrous results.
Recently Bill Moyers sat down with him.
MOYERS: We get so many reports of what we’re doing to our air, our soil and our water. But I ask you as a scientist, is the diagnosis lethal?
SUZUKI: I don’t think anyone can say at what point it will be lethal to us as a species. I like to say that in Canada not long ago, Cape Breton coal miners took canaries in the coal mine. When the canary keeled over, they didn’t say, “Hey, Jack, come on over here. This bird just fell over. What do you think? Do you think it’s—”
They hauled their backsides out of there as fast as they could go. Birds are, especially canaries, are super sensitive to hydrogen sulfide, sour gas. So, they give you an early warning.
Well, canaries have been falling all around the planet for decades now. Plants and animals that no longer are able to survive in the plan— in the conditions that we’ve created. And what have we done? We’ve ignored this. We’ve always said, “Oh, well, there’s plenty more where that came from.”
There aren’t plenty more where that came from. And now our own children have become the canaries. One out of five children in Canada will now have asthma. When you and I were boys, asthma was a rare disease.
MOYERS: And that’s as recent as the 1930’s, right?
SUZUKI: Exactly. Exactly. So our own children are now telling us we’re doing something fundamentally wrong.
And all you have to do is every time you have a smog alert, go down to the emergency room in the hospital, and sit there for a day. You will see that room, those emergency rooms jammed with people in deep respiratory distress.
Well, you don’t have to be a genius to say, “Maybe it’s got something to do with what we’re taking into our lungs.” And the point of THE SACRED BALANCE that I did was to say, “Look, people, we can’t continue to act as if air is something out there. And we are here. And we manage our interaction with the air.”
We are the air. At our ages, I reckon we’ve taken about 350 million breaths. We’ve taken one to four liters of air, breathed it deep into our bodies, and fused to the air, and filtered whatever was in that air into our bodies. The idea that we use air as a toxic dump, and somehow it goes away and doesn’t affect us is absurd.
MOYERS: Or water.
SUZUKI: Or water. We are over 60 percent water by weight. We’re just a big ball of— blob of water, with enough organic thickener added so we don’t dribble away on the floor.
MOYERS: That is interesting. You’re changing the metaphor. You’re saying that air, water, soil, are not outside of us. They are us.
SUZUKI: We are made of those things. And this isn’t rocket science. This is ancient, ancient understanding.
I apologize to my aboriginal friends when I talk about this. Because I am a Johnny-come-lately. They all look at me, and go, “Where the heck have you been? It’s taken you a long time to figure this out.”
MOYERS: I can hear people in the audience saying, “Oh, no, here we go again. Back to that kind of romantic idea of human beings living in the Garden of Eden, in an innocence that.” You know, it just doesn’t apply in this 21st century world.
SUZUKI: The whole problem with modernity today is we think anything new is good. Anything that’s old is bad. You know? So, even old timers like us, gotta get those old guys out of the way, so the young, hot-shots can come in there.
MOYERS: Yes, but you know David, you keep referring modestly to our age, humbly to our age. The fact of the matter is you and I are living longer because of modern technology. I had heart trouble nine years ago. And I’ve had a productive nine years, whereas 100 years ago, I would probably have died at 60.
MOYERS: So, there’s a tradeoff.
SUZUKI: Oh, of course. There have been huge, huge advances. I mean, what are we doing right now? We’re sitting in a studio.
And this miracle of modern television, global telecommunications, computers, we can’t imagine existing without it. I would hope that with all of this so-called technological progress, there would be enormous benefits. And there have been. But I think it’s important to put it all into perspective.
We have to put it into a perspective of are human beings now so intelligent that we’ve now escaped the physical, biological constraints of the planet? I think most people today believe that, that we’re somehow special, and different. What again, to refer back to aboriginal people tell us is the Earth is our mother.
Now people immediately think a Mother Earth, you know, that’s a metaphor. That’s poetic way of speaking. They mean it literally. And I, as a scientist have come to understand, they are absolutely right in the most profound scientific way.
MOYERS: How so?
SUZUKI: We are created out of the most important elements of the planet.
People don’t even understand that every bit of our food was once alive. We take another creature, plant, animal, microorganism, tear it apart in our mouths. And incorporate those molecules into our own bodies. We are the Earth in the most profound way.
And we are fire. Because every bit of the energy in our bodies that we need to move, and grow and reproduce is sunlight. Sunlight captured by plants, converted into chemical energy that we consume and store in our bodies. So, when they speak about the Earth as our mother, and the four sacred elements: Earth, air, fire and water, they mean it literally. And they are right.
MOYERS: Uh-huh. I was touched in watching the Sacred Balance. The first program in the series begins with you and your grandson in an arcade.
[EXCERPT FROM THE SACRED BALANCE.]
SUZUKI: And that swamp, believe me, was my magical place. I grew up in central Ontario after the war, as a teenager. And those are terrible times, at the best of times, when your hormones are raging through your body, and you look at the world in a different way.
But I would go to that swamp and forget all of my problems. And there was a world of enchantment. I was very interested, as a boy, in insects. And I could just go and look in that pond, and spend the whole day there.
Because there was diversity and wonder and surprise, that will never be duplicated by human ingenuity. So my grandson’s world is a very impressive world. You know, when you see him in that arcade, boy, he just beat me at every game. But when I took him out into a swamp, I was so delighted to see that the enchantment was still there.
And when I asked him at the end of the shoot, “Which would you prefer?” he said, “Grandpa, let’s go back to the swamp.” So it’s still there.
MOYERS: What does it say to you as a scientist that in the last 200 years, the United States has lost 50 percent of its swamps, its wetland?
SUZUKI: Well, you see we’ve regarded nature as an enemy. As an enemy to be made over into our image. And we continue that process, draining swamps.
I thought that the Everglade National Park was an attempt to suddenly realize that the terrible, smelly swamp in fact, was a national treasure. But as you know, the Army Corp of Engineers would like to dig canals right across the neck of Florida, and drain it. And change that whole area.
We haven’t learned to respect and treasure these wild areas. We consider wild something that we don’t like. We want to make it over so that we understand it. So, we’re doing the same thing in Canada.
We’re draining our potholes, and our wetlands. And we wanna clear cut our forests, so that we can make a managed forest, a plantation. And we can control it, and grow what we want. That’s not a recognition, I think, of where we belong. Or that we don’t know enough to be able to manage the Earth.
MOYERS: You say in the series, and in the book that we have become a super species.
SUZUKI: Uh-huh. Never in the four billion years that life has existed on this planet has a single species been able to transform the physical, chemical and biological makeup of the planet as we are doing now. We have become a new kind of force, what I call the super species. Now, human beings have never had to worry about what are all of the humans on the planet doing to the Earth.
We were a local, tribal species. We aggregated within very small areas. You know? I’ve gone down into Brazil many times in the Amazon. And you go into a native community. There’s plastic everywhere. And you say, “What’s wrong with these people?” Well, they’ve never lived with material that persists over time. They eat a banana, they throw the peel around, it biodegrades in a matter of weeks. That’s been the way we’ve always existed.
For the first time in human history we now have to ask what are all six billion people on the planet doing? What is the collective impact of humanity? And because we’ve never had to do that we’re not used to thinking this way. And it’s taking time for us to catch up and adjust to this new collectivity.
MOYERS: How much weight do you think the earth can bear?
SUZUKI: That’s the big question. We brought an aboriginal Kayapo from the Amazon to Vancouver and I thought, “Boy, is he gonna be impressed with Vancouver. You know, sparkling city, cars.” And he looked out and he said, “All of this has come from the earth. How long can the earth keep doing this?”
And I thought, “My God, here’s a guy right out of the Brazilian rain forest and he sees it immediately.” I don’t know. Who can tell? We have now become the most numerous mammal on the planet. I was just in Australia a few months ago and I said there are more humans than all of the rabbits on the planet. And they got it right away—
That is a hell of a lot of human beings. There are more humans than all of the rabbits on earth. There are more of us than all the wildebeests, than all the rats, than all the mice. We are the most numerous mammal on the planet.
But because we’re not like rabbits or rats or mice we have technology, we have a consumptive appetite, we have a global economy. We are now like no other mammal that has ever existed. And it’s time for us to sit back and start saying, “Wait a minute. Now, yes, we’ve got a very productive economy. But what are we doing in terms of our grandchildren and their grandchildren?”
I thought that the responsibility of every generation was to receive the earth from our ancestors and to pass it on to future generations as we receive that. This hasn’t been going on for many generations now.
The places that I remember as a child in British Columbia where we went fishing for halibut and sturgeon and salmon I can’t take my grandchildren to because there are no fish left. Well, you know, what are we to assume? That the fish that we destroyed are somehow somewhere else? They’re not anywhere.
MOYERS: But once you start talking like this immediately you raise in people’s minds the fears, “oh, well here’s another environmentalist, another eco freak who wants to take away my comfort and my security. And that if this consumption that you talk about doesn’t expend the economy, well go to hell.” You’ve heard that.
SUZUKI: There is no question now that our economy is going to be in deep trouble either way. If it doesn’t come— if we don’t come to grips with the fact that we live in a world that’s finite, the biosphere, the zone of air, water and land that life exists is fixed. It can’t grow anymore than it already is.
This is our home. This is where we live and where we will always live and it’s fixed. And we have now become a major user of that biosphere. And the economy has now bumped into all kinds of limits and it can’t keep growing indefinitely.
MOYERS: So, how do you assure people that protecting the environment is not ruining the economy that provides jobs, income, food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, television? How can you assure people that David Suzuki doesn’t want to stop everything?
SUZUKI: I don’t want to stop progress if progress is about improving the quality of our lives. If life is all about more stuff, if it’s about quantity, if bigger is better, more is better then yes, David Suzuki is against that.
MOYERS: As a scientist do you take seriously something you never even thought of when you first went on television: global warming?
SUZUKI: Absolutely. And the thing that hurts me today is that the scientific community overwhelmingly has warned us that global warming is real and that humans are a major contributor to it and that we should do something.
The fact that it is still regarded as a theory that is highly controversial has been maintained by the media. The media, aided by huge amounts of funding from corporations, have actively perpetuated the notion this is still a controversial scientific notion.
MOYERS: How do you explain the different views on global warming?
SUZUKI: Oh, it’s very easy. In Canada — I can’t speak for the United States, but in Canada — it costs more and more money now to run for office. And much of that money comes from the corporate sector.
In British Columbia where I live, the forest sector, which is now responsible for less than five cents of every dollar in our economy, perpetuates the notion that it’s 50 percent of the economy of British Columbia.
And that you get far more revenue cutting the trees down than say having eco-tourism or, you know, hiking and camping and all of the things that are bringing in far more revenue. They still fund our politicians, our candidates for political office disproportionately so they have direct access to the pillars of power.
MOYERS: What do you think when you read that the White House recently ordered our Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, to leave global warming off its report because it’s such a political hot potato?
SUZUKI: It’s absolutely scandalous. It’s shocking. Increasingly, I am very distressed when I come and visit the United States. I spent eight years getting my education in this country. I love this country.
And Americans have been incredibly generous to me and my family. In November of 2001, just a couple of months after September 11th, I was invited to an environmental meeting in Buffalo, New York. And of course people were still very, very raw after the Twin Towers.
But someone at the end of this my talk got up and said, “What do Canadians think about what’s going on in the United States?” And I said, “You know, when Mr. Bush was elected the first thing he did was he said no to the nuclear weapons test ban. He said no to global warming, the Kyoto Accord. He said no to a world court. He said no to land mines banning.”
And then when September 11th happened, he said the world must join behind us in fighting terrorism. And I don’t think you could have it both ways. You can’t say “we’re going our way and to hell with the rest of the world” and then say, “oops, sorry, you’ve gotta come and now join me.” You can’t, well, I thought I wasn’t gonna get out of that room alive. It really shocked me to see the response to that.
And I think, in a time of crisis it’s when you need as much dissent, question, criticism as possible and yet that seems to be a time when there is no toleration for that. And that’s frightening to me.
MOYERS: You were a kid in Canada when World War II broke out. I didn’t know until I read about you that Japanese-Canadians were interred like American-Japanese. What did that experience teach you?
SUZUKI: Well, it was the definitive event of my life. It shaped my persona and my drive, my priorities. I, to this day, when I look in the mirror, I cannot— I don’t like to look in the mirror at myself. I hate watching programs with me in it.
SUZUKI: Because when I look at myself, I see the slit eyes. And I see the face that was, for four years during World War II, depicted as the enemy. And it was my enemy too. That face was my enemy because I was a Canadian. And we wanted to go out and kill Japs.
Except that my country had put us into a prison. In my case, my father was sent away to a road camp he was working in the mountains for a year. He was separated. And my mother and father were born and raised in Canada. Never been to Japan. But we were called enemy aliens— considered enemy aliens. Deprived of everything we had. Given 70 pounds of luggage each and shipped to camps in the Rocky Mountains.
We landed in a place that is now Valhalla Park. It’s this wonderful area. And as a boy, there were no teachers in the village for a year and a half. So I was seven years old. I was roaming the mountains fishing and meeting bears and wolves. And that was where I bonded to nature.
But in the camp there were all these children whose parents had come from Japan who spoke Japanese. And I couldn’t speak Japanese and they beat me up. And the white kids, of course, had nothing to do with us. So I grew up with a tremendous sense of self-hate.
MOYERS: Were you bitter? Were your parents bitter?
SUZUKI: I think if one broods on this and becomes bitter and hateful then ultimately the bigots win. You become them.
And what I learned is that democracy sounds great on paper. But democracy is only as good as the people who try to live up to it.
And you always have to fight to get more of it. It’s not perfect. I don’t know anything that’s better. But you have to fight all the time to make it better.
When times are good, you can guarantee anything. “Yeah, you can go anywhere you want. You can say anything you want.” Times are good. It’s only when times are tough that those rights become most precious.
When society is threatened, that’s when you need to be able to speak out without fear of intimidation or fear of losing rights or being imprisoned.
And if you can’t guarantee those rights when times are tough then what the hell’s the point of saying that we are a democracy, blah, blah, blah. People go to war and die for those rights. And in order to make those rights real in times of crisis, that’s when we have to speak out and defend them.
MOYERS: Spoken like a grandfather.
SUZUKI: It is.
MOYERS: Those pictures of you and your grandson around the world.
SUZUKI: That’s everything, Bill. That’s everything. At our age what have we got except a legacy for our children and grandchildren. I want to be able to look at them and say, “I did the best I could.” And that’s all anybody can do.
MOYERS: The book, the series is THE SACRED BALANCE. Thank you very much, David Suzuki.
SUZUKI: Thanks for having me.
BRANCACCIO: You can learn more about David Suzuki’s exploration starting next Wednesday night when THE SACRED BALANCE premieres on PBS. Now, a short excerpt.
[EXCERPT FROM THE SACRED BALANCE.]
BRANCACCIO: Not wanting to upset the sacred balance, today I took the train to work instead of driving. That and the fact that I’m cheap and the price of gasoline has just gotten awfully expensive: you’ve seen it…$1.75 a gallon on average nationally. $2.35 a gallon at one place I passed as I was leaving California last week. It is the biggest spike for gas prices around the country in recorded history.
I paraphrase here, but the oil industry’s explanation for the sudden 12 cent a gallon surge was that you just can’t get around that darn law of supply and demand. Americans use more and more gasoline and when the unexpected happens to disrupt supply — a gasoline pipeline breaks in Arizona or an electricity blackout halts six oil refineries — then, as night follows day, the prices will go up.
But this is Public Broadcasting and you expect us to go deeper than that. So let’s delve.
The question becomes, why isn’t there enough refined gasoline around to get us through the inevitable times when things go wrong?
One answer is that there aren’t enough refineries.
VERLEGER: In the case of the petroleum industry, I don’t think there’s been a new refinery built in the United States since the mid-70’s.
BRANCACCIO: Philip Verleger runs an energy trend forecasting company based in California.
VERLEGER: Gasoline demand goes up, companies do upgrade refineries and make investments to produce cleaner products. But there’s no real fundamental investment.
BRANCACCIO: He says there are lots of reasons including federal antitrust officials telling big oil companies a few years ago that they couldn’t merge unless they sold off some of their refineries, which they did. Verleger also says many of us would be upset if someone proposed building a new refinery around the corner. He says instead, what refineries have been doing is spending money to make newfangled gasoline to meet clean air rules.
VERLEGER: We have not been able to resolve in our national debate the tradeoff between building new refining capacity, expanding refining capacity and providing the fuels to these vehicles that Americans want.
BRANCACCIO: That leads us to a new question: Why should refineries ensure plentiful supplies anyway, since it’s fair to say they do make more money when there’s less gasoline. Why spend money to expand capacity if the result is lower gasoline prices? Verleger thinks that allegation is a little far-fetched.
VERLEGER: They have the crude oil. They’d like to refine it. And they’re really good at this. So I just, you know, that’s a story that does not seem to fly.
BRANCACCIO: Other analysts see it differently. Yesterday, the Rand think tank published a study based on wide discussions with refining industry officials. According to the study, those in the industry are patting themselves on the back for getting so efficient by ridding themselves of so much capacity. The study includes one executive’s “happy” thought:
“I think the industry has learned that it’s okay to fall short on product. There is no reward being long on product or production capability.”
In other words, there’s no margin in being on the side of the little guy. If you’re an investor in one of these refining companies, you may agree with that wholeheartedly. If you’re driving somewhere this holiday weekend in a vehicle that requires fossil fuel, you may not.
We can all agree on at least one thing, however. The biggest spike in gasoline prices on record is not just a household budget issue. It slows down the entire economy, costing by some estimates, as much as a billion dollars a week. Do the math. At that rate, it could cost us 52 billion dollars a year — almost as much as we got back from the President’s latest tax cut.
That’s it for NOW. I’m David Brancaccio. Good night.
This transcript was entered on April 16, 2015.