Half of us will de­velop can­cer

Re­search is not enough to stop the cri­sis

Bayview Post - - Life -

I’m of­ten in­tro­duced as an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist. I pre­fer to be called a fa­ther, grand­fa­ther, sci­en­tist or au­thor, as th­ese terms pro­vide in­sight into my mo­ti­va­tion.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ism isn’t a dis­ci­pline or spe­cialty like law, medicine, plumb­ing, mu­sic or art. It’s a way of see­ing our place in the world and rec­og­niz­ing that our sur­vival, health and hap­pi­ness are in­ex­tri­ca­bly de­pen­dent on nature. To con­front to­day’s en­vi­ron­men­tal crises, ev­ery­one — garage me­chan­ics, con­struc­tion work­ers, den­tists, politi­cians and judges, etc. — has to see the world through an en­vi­ron­men­tal lens.

I re­cently at­tended an event with a panel of out­stand­ing ath­letes and artists who had be­come ac­tivists on var­i­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. The mod­er­a­tor asked what role awe had played in their com­mit­ment. Their an­swers re­vealed how in­spir­ing it is to ex­pe­ri­ence that sense of awe in the face of nature’s beauty.

I couldn’t help think­ing that two more words should have been added to the dis­cus­sion: “hu­mil­ity” and “grat­i­tude.” As the panel grap­pled with the is­sue of eco­log­i­cal degra­da­tion, the idea emerged that all we need is to be more aware so we can use sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy to solve the crises.

The Canadian Can­cer So­ci­ety re­cently re­ported that half our pop­u­la­tion will de­velop can­cer. This isn’t nor­mal, but it shouldn’t sur­prise us. After all, we have syn­the­sized hun­dreds of thou­sands of new mol­e­cules that have never ex­isted on Earth. Most have never been tested for their bi­o­log­i­cal ef­fects and tens of thou­sands are now used in prod­ucts and en­ter our waste stream.

When we dump this vast as­sort­ment of new mol­e­cules into air, wa­ter and soil, we can’t an­tic­i­pate how they might in­ter­act within liv­ing or­gan­isms or what their long-term con­se­quences might be. Throw­ing more money into can­cer treat­ment and re­search will not alone stem the dis­ease. To ar­rest the can­cer cri­sis (and it is a cri­sis), we must stop us­ing the bio­sphere as a garbage can or sewer for th­ese new mol­e­cules.

We’re clever an­i­mals — so smart that we think we’re in com­mand. We for­get that our in­ven­tions have cre­ated many crises. Atomic bombs rep­re­sented an in­cred­i­ble sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ment, re­leas­ing the power within atoms. But when the U.S. dropped them on Ja­pan in 1945, sci­en­tists didn’t know about ra­dioac­tive fall­out, elec­tro­mag­netic pulses or the po­ten­tial for nu­clear win­ter. Those were dis­cov­ered after we used the weapons.

Swiss chemist Paul Mueller won a No­bel Prize in 1948 for his dis­cov­ery that DDT was a po­tent in­sec­ti­cide. Many years after the com­pound was put into wide­spread use, bi­ol­o­gists dis­cov­ered a pre­vi­ously un­known phe­nom­e­non: bio­mag­ni­fi­ca­tion up the food chain.

When peo­ple started us­ing chlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bons, no one knew they would per­sist in the en­vi­ron­ment and float into the up­per at­mos­phere where the sun’s ul­tra­vi­o­let rays would cleave away chlo­rine-free rad­i­cals. As a ge­neti­cist, I only learned about the pro­tec­tive ozone layer when other sci­en­tists re­ported that chlo­rine from CFCs was break­ing it down.

Our knowl­edge of the bi­o­log­i­cal, chem­i­cal and phys­i­cal com­po­nents of the bio­sphere and their in­ter­con­nec­tions and in­ter­ac­tions is too lim­ited to en­able us to an­tic­i­pate the con­se­quences of our in­ven­tions and in­tru­sions.

Nev­er­the­less, we look to our cre­ativ­ity to lead us to a bet­ter world with nan­otech­nol­ogy, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, geo­engi­neer­ing and space travel.

What we need is hu­mil­ity. Clever as we are, nature is far more cre­ative. Over 3.8 bil­lion years, ev­ery species has had to evolve ways to find food, wa­ter and en­ergy and to dis­pose of wastes, find mates, re­pro­duce, avoid preda­tors and fend off par­a­sites and in­fec­tions. Nature of­fers myr­iad so­lu­tions that we have yet to dis­cover. If we had the hu­mil­ity to learn from nature, us­ing an ap­proach called “biomimicry,” we would find far more and bet­ter so­lu­tions.

Along with hu­mil­ity, we should be grate­ful for nature’s gen­eros­ity, some­thing I’ve learned from In­dige­nous peo­ples. They ac­knowl­edge the source of their well-be­ing, clean air, clean wa­ter, clean food and clean en­ergy — all things that are cre­ated, cleansed or re­plen­ished by the web of life around us.

In the ur­ban­ized in­dus­trial world we in­habit, we tend to think the econ­omy is the source of all that mat­ters to us, and so we have lit­tle re­gard for what we’re do­ing to the nat­u­ral sys­tems that sus­tain us. It’s time to see with new eyes.


David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things and au­thor of more than 30 books on ecol­ogy.

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