Re­flec­tions of an Eco-War­rier

Cli­mate change is real, and it’s hap­pen­ing now. Yet, writes Cana­dian en­vi­ron­men­tal icon David Suzuki, there is still hope

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS -

David Suzuki’s open let­ter to Cana­di­ans

HUMANKIND IS at a crit­i­cal mo­ment. What we do or fail to do over the next few years will de­ter­mine whether we be­come ex­tinct by the end of this cen­tury. That’s a melo­dra­matic state­ment, but some sci­en­tists now sug­gest we have passed too many crit­i­cal tip­ping points to avoid this pos­si­bil­ity.

Al­though I agree with the sense of ur­gency, I don’t un­der­stand the point of say­ing it’s too late. That will hin­der or de­stroy the mo­ti­va­tion to find so­lu­tions. Be­sides, I don’t think we know enough to make such a dire pre­dic­tion. So let’s get on with seek­ing so­lu­tions. Ur­gently. Where to be­gin? We are in the An­thro­pocene: the pe­riod in ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory when hu­mans have be­come the dom­i­nant force shap­ing the phys­i­cal, chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal prop­er­ties of the planet. Through the sud­den conjunction of pop­u­la­tion growth, ex­plo­sive tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, hy­per-con­sump­tion and a glob­al­ized econ­omy, our im­pact on the bio­sphere is without prece­dent. The prob­lem is that we don’t know enough to avoid the un­in­tended con­se­quences of much of what we do.

Some cases in point: Swiss chemist Paul Mueller dis­cov­ered in 1939 that DDT was a po­tent in­sec­ti­cide and was re­warded with a No­bel Prize in 1948. Years later, sci­en­tists tracked down the cause of cat­a­strophic de­cline in birds: bio­mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of chem­i­cals such as DDT up the food chain, a phe­nom­e­non only dis­cov­ered when ea­gles be­gan to dis­ap­pear. When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Ja­pan in 1945, we didn’t know about ra­dioac­tive fall­out. Af­ter peo­ple started us­ing chlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bons, sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered they were de­stroy­ing the ozone layer.

Over and over, we de­velop new tech­nolo­gies, only to dis­cover we can’t pre­dict their con­se­quences be­cause we don’t know enough about them. Yet, rather than halt­ing their use un­til we learn more, cor­po­ra­tions fight to con­tinue mak­ing money. A cur­rent ex­am­ple: neon­i­coti­noids are po­tent in­sec­ti­cides to which pol­li­nat­ing bees are par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive. The Euro­pean Union has banned them, but chem­i­cal com­pa­nies are fight­ing to keep us­ing them in North Amer­ica.

De­spite this his­tory of un­in­tended con­se­quences of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, we con­tinue to rush to em­brace in­no­va­tion – nan­otech­nol­ogy, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing. And now, un­will­ing to aban­don fos­sil fu­els to avoid fur­ther dis­rup­tion of weather and cli­mate, cor­po­ra­tions pro­pose geo­engi­neer­ing as a so­lu­tion – tak­ing over the at­mos­phere and re­duc­ing warm­ing by ma­nip­u­lat­ing na­ture.

The ques­tion most of­ten posed to me is whether cli­mate change is the big­gest threat we con­front. Even if we were to re­solve it, we face enor­mous chal­lenges from toxic air, wa­ter and soil pol­lu­tion, species ex­tinc­tion, ocean degra­da­tion and much more. The root cause of all these prob­lems is the hu­man mind, the be­liefs and values that de­ter­mine the way we see the world and mo­ti­vate our ac­tions.

By the time my par­ents mar­ried, they had been deeply scarred by the Great De­pres­sion. As a re­sult, they con­stantly re­peated apho­risms: save some for to­mor­row; live within your means; share, don’t be greedy; work hard for money to buy the ne­ces­si­ties in life, but don’t run af­ter money as if hav­ing more makes you a more im­por­tant per­son. When the Sec­ond World War ended the De­pres­sion, Amer­i­cans chose to shift from a war-based econ­omy to a peace­time econ­omy based on con­sump­tion. It worked! Seventy per cent of the North Amer­i­can econ­omy now rests on con­sump­tion, serv­ing our “wants,” not our “needs.” How did we get here? The word eco­nom­ics comes from the Greek word oikos, mean­ing house­hold or do­main, the same root word in ecol­ogy. Ecol­o­gists study life forms to find the rules and prin­ci­ples un­der­ly­ing their sur­vival. Eco­nom­ics is the man­age­ment of home, which should be con­ducted within the con­straints of eco­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples.

But over the past cen­tury, hu­man­ity has dis­tanced it­self from the nat­u­ral world, as we moved from ru­ral vil­lages to cities. Farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties know that weather and cli­mate are crit­i­cal for agri­cul­ture,

in­sects are es­sen­tial for pol­li­na­tion, cer­tain plants fix ni­tro­gen from the air as fer­til­izer in soil, win­ter snow pro­vides sum­mer mois­ture. In short, farm­ers un­der­stand that we are deeply em­bed­ded in and de­pen­dent on na­ture. In cities, we live in hu­man-cre­ated en­vi­ron­ments where our high­est con­cern be­comes jobs.

Stephen Harper was prime min­is­ter for nearly 10 years. He de­lib­er­ately avoided dis­cussing cli­mate change be­cause he be­lieved act­ing to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions was “crazy eco­nom­ics” and would “de­stroy the econ­omy,” claims that have been dis­proved by Ger­many, Den­mark, Swe­den and other coun­tries that have taken the threat of cli­mate change se­ri­ously. Harper el­e­vated the econ­omy above the very at­mos­phere that keeps us alive.

In deal­ing with en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, I of­ten hear that we must choose be­tween the econ­omy and the en­vi­ron­ment. This is in­sane. The en­vi­ron­ment – air, wa­ter, soil, other species – keeps us alive and healthy. The econ­omy is a hu­man con­struct. It can and must be changed to con­form to the re­al­i­ties of na­ture.

To­day we are bom­barded with the de­mand for eco­nomic growth, which has be­come the very def­i­ni­tion of progress. But growth by it­self is just a de­scrip­tion of a sys­tem’s state. The idea that we must main­tain con­stant growth pre­vents us from ask­ing fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant ques­tions: What is an econ­omy? What is its pur­pose? Are there no lim­its? How much is enough? Are we hap­pier or health­ier with all this stuff?

We live within a fixed and fi­nite bio­sphere. Noth­ing within it can grow for­ever. Steady, end­less growth is the creed of can­cer and will have the same re­sult: death. Eco­log­i­cal econ­o­mists sug­gest that the cur­rent global econ­omy is grow­ing by us­ing up our bi­o­log­i­cal cap­i­tal. It can’t be sus­tained. It’s time we lis­tened. So what is the so­lu­tion? In the 1970s and ’80s, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists cel­e­brated af­ter stop­ping dams, su­per­tanker traf­fic along coasts and drilling in crit­i­cal ar­eas, only to find they had to fight the same bat­tles again 30 or 40 years later. In other words, what seemed like vic­to­ries have turned out to be pyrrhic be­cause we failed to shift the way peo­ple see the world.

In the late 1970s, I in­ter­viewed an In­dige­nous per­son who fought log­ging in his ter­ri­tory de­spite his tribe’s poverty and des­per­a­tion for jobs. I asked what dif­fer­ence it would make to him if the de­struc­tive log­ging con­tin­ued un­til the trees were all gone. He an­swered, “Then we’ll be like every­body else, I guess.” He meant that he didn’t end at his skin or fin­ger­tips. Trees, fish, air, wa­ter and ev­ery­thing around him made him and his peo­ple spe­cial. Without those sur­round­ings, his peo­ple be­come “like every­body else.”

As I re­flected on this, I re­al­ized that In­dige­nous cul­ture rep­re­sents the ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge of thou­sands of years of tri­umphs and mis­takes, suc­cesses and fail­ures. Those cul­tures have a record of liv­ing in bal­ance with their sur­round­ings for mil­len­nia. Ex­tinc­tion of In­dige­nous cul­tures and lan­guages is a tragic loss of price­less knowl­edge that sci­ence can never re­place or du­pli­cate.

I be­gan a per­sonal jour­ney of dis­cov­ery among In­dige­nous peo­ples in many parts of the world. Ev­ery­where it’s the same. They re­fer to Earth as their mother and speak of be­ing cre­ated from her body through air, wa­ter, soil, food and en­ergy from the sun. These es­sen­tial el­e­ments are cre­ated, cleansed and re­plen­ished by the web of liv­ing things.

That is the fun­da­men­tal foun­da­tion on which all so­ci­eties, gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions are built, and pro­tect­ing these sa­cred el­e­ments that give life to all species – earth, air, fire, wa­ter, bio­di­ver­sity – should be every­one’s re­spon­si­bil­ity.

I am now an el­der in the “death zone,” near­ing the end of life. This is not mor­bid, but rather a re­al­is­tic state­ment. This is the most im­por­tant stage of my life. I am free from the con­straints of seek­ing a job, raise or pro­mo­tion. I am no longer driven by a need for more money, fame or power. I can speak the truth from my heart. If that of­fends, it’s not my prob­lem. I have lived an en­tire life. I’ve suf­fered fail­ures, made mis­takes and cel­e­brated suc­cesses. I’ve learned a lot, and now I can sift through those hard-won life lessons for im­por­tant nuggets worth pass­ing on, like what re­ally mat­ters most, what has been the great­est plea­sure, what gives us pride and what we hope for our grand­chil­dren.

My bet is these lessons won’t be about con­sump­tion, ma­te­ri­al­ism or dom­i­nance over our nat­u­ral world. My bet is they will be about com­ing to­gether, to live in­ter­de­pen­dently with one an­other and with na­ture. About choos­ing sus­tain­abil­ity over short-sight­ed­ness and truth over false nar­ra­tives. About choos­ing love and re­spect over fear and hate.

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