DAVID SUZUKI: We must put the 'eco' back into economics

Posted: 25 March 2008

The world's 6.6 billion people "are now altering the chemical, physical and biological makeup of the planet on a geological scale" warned David Suzuki, giving the 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London earlier this month. " In the 4 billion years that life has existed on earth there was never a single species able to do what we are now doing today."

Dr Suzuki, Emeritus Professor in Sustainable Developme at the University of British Columbia and Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, said "Human beings are a truly remarkable species. We are able to conceive notions like democracy, science, equality before the law, justice and morality - concepts that have no counterpart in nature itself - but we have our shortcomings too. We demarcate borders that often make no ecological sense: dissecting watersheds, fragmenting forests, disrupting animal migratory routes. These human boundaries mean nothing to the flow of water, the atmosphere or oceans, yet we try to manage these resources within these confines.

Dr David Suzuki
Dr David Suzuki
"When human numbers were small, our technology simple, and our consumption mainly for survival, nature was generally able to absorb our impact. Even so, it is believed that with simple stone spears and axes the Palaeolithic people that migrated across the Bering Strait and down towards South America extinguished slow moving mammals in their path.

"As is well documented by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse and Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress cultures have arisen, flourished and disappeared as human demands outstripped the carrying capacity of surrounding areas. In pre-history and even medieval times, humans were essentially tribal animals, confined to their tribal territory, perhaps meeting a couple of hundred people in a lifetime. They did not have to worry what tribes were doing on the other side of the ocean or giant lakes, or over mountains and deserts. But humanity has undergone an explosive transformation in the past century.

"Consider this: in 1900 there were only a billion and a half human beings in the world. In a mere one hundred years, the population of the planet has quadrupled. Almost all the modern technology we take for granted has been developed and expanded since the late 1800s. Our consumptive appetite has grown rapidly since World War II so today over 60 per cent of the North American economy is built on our consumption and ever since the end of World War II, economic globalisation has dominated the political and corporate agenda.

All of these factors - population, technology, consumption and the global economy - have amplified humanity's ecological footprint, the amount of land and sea that it takes to provide for our needs and demands. The consequence is that we are now altering the chemical, physical and biological makeup of the planet on a geological scale. In the 4 billion years that life has existed on earth there was never a single species able to do what we are now doing today.

Toxic debris

"The famous Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future which came out in 1987 coined the phrase 'sustainable development' and called for the protection of 12 per cent of the land in all countries, a target which has absolutely no scientific basis and yet which very few countries have managed to achieve. But we are one species out of 15-30 million species on the planet and setting a target of protection of 12 per cent of our land base for all the other species means that we seem to take it for granted that we can take over 88 per cent of the land. And we seem determined to do it, to take over that 88 per cent , destroying habitat and ecosystems around the world while driving tens of thousands of species to the brink of extinction every year.

"We protect tiny patches of oceans as marine protected areas, whilst slaughtering fish and accidentally killing turtles, birds and marine mammals with long lines, drift nets and bottom trawlers. Boris Worm and his co-workers at Dalhousie University in Canada predict that if we continue to overfish, pollute and destroy habitat in the oceans, as we are today, every fish species currently exploited will be commercially extinct by 2048 .

"We have spread our toxic debris in the air, water and soil so that every one of us now carries dozens of toxic compounds in our bodies. A few months ago in Canada three members of parliament volunteered to be tested for a battery of over eighty toxic substances. They were shocked to find that all three of them carried dozens of these in their bodies. Our use of the air as a dumping ground for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, which in turn is now acidifying the oceans as carbon dioxide dissolves as carbonic acid.

Tribal animals

We have no means of dealing with these global issues with the level of urgency now required. For the first time in history we have to ask what the collective impact of all 6.6 billion human beings on earth will be. We have never had to do this before. We are tribal animals and it is difficult for us to get our heads around this task. We need the perspective of many of the small island states in the Commonwealth, states that are in imminent danger of being submerged by sea level rise from global warming. The metaphor of the canary in the coalmine is very apt. I was there in Kyoto in 1997 when island states pleaded for action to protect their land, but to no avail. Perhaps that should not surprise us. Many of the rich industrialised nations who created the problem of climate change through the use of fossil fuels for their economic growth, some in the Commonwealth, are themselves in great danger from climate change, yet are very slow to respond.

"Australians elected four consecutive Conservative governments that denied the reality of human-induced climate change and refused to ratify Kyoto even though the country suffered severe drought for years. Australia is an island continent with most of its population living along the edges where sea level rise will have its greatest impact. My own country, Canada, is extremely vulnerable. We are a northern country and warming, we know, is going on more than twice as rapidly in the north as it is in temperate and equatorial areas. For decades Inuit people of the Arctic have begged for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they can see the changes, but they have been ignored.

Canada has the longest marine coastline of any country in the world and simple sea level rise through thermal expansion will impact Canada more than any other nation on earth. And Canada's economy continues to depend on climate-sensitive activities like agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism, and winter sports.

"I was very proud when Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but our current government has turned its back on our Kyoto obligations and cancelled all the previous government's programmes to reduce emissions. Indeed, until very recently, it denied the reality of human-induced climate change and continues to support the rapid expansion of Alberta's tar sands, which is the most polluting activity in the country.

"North America along with Europe, Japan, Australia and other industrialised countries created the problem of climate change. Our industrial and economic growth now serves as a model for the developing world to follow. If a rich country like Canada or the United States cannot cap its emissions and bring them down, why should countries like India or China or any of the other developing nations pay the slightest attention to the demands to reduce theirs?

Mother Earth

"I deliberately chose the title The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line because in Canada, the media, politicians and corporate executives repeat over and over again the mantra that the economy is the bottom line. I believe that this is totally misdirected attention...

"In the late '70s I began to see that there was a different perspective on the whole issue [of managing the unpredictable impacts of science and technology]. When my wife, Tara, and I began to work with first nations people I would hear them talk about Mother Earth and the sacred elements. To me this was a nice metaphoric or poetic way of speaking but they would correct me and insist that they meant it literally. The Earth, they said, is our mother because it gives birth to us, creating us out of the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water. On reflection I realised they were absolutely right, and that science corroborates these ancient wisdoms. We environmentalists had framed the problem the wrong way. There is no environment out there separate from us here and no way to manage our interaction with it. There is no separation. We are the environment because we are created out of those elements of the Earth.

Now that may seem obscure but let me illustrate. When we were born and left our mother's body, the very first thing we needed was a breath of air. From that moment, 15-40 times a minute, we need air until the last breath we take before we die. We do not even think about it. But let me ask you for the next minute and a half just to think about what happens when you take a breath. 1-3 litres of air sucked deep down into the most moist and warm parts of our bodies, our lungs. If you have ever looked at a fresh kill of an animal and touched lungs, you will know that they are primarily made up of air.

"Our lungs are made up of about 300 million capsules, or alveoli, and they are clustered around an alveolar stem like grapes. We have lots of these clusters in our lungs and we need them all to provide the surface area needed to come into contact with the air. If you flatten the alveoli of our lungs out into two dimensions, they would cover a tennis court. That is about how much surface area is wrinkled up in our lungs. Each alveolus is lined by a surfactant that reduces surface tension so that the air sticks to it. Immediately carbon dioxide rushes out of our bodies, oxygen and whatever else is in the air rushes in, and haemoglobin molecules in red blood cells grab on to the oxygen so that each beat of our heart can transfer that oxygen to every part of our bodies. And when you exhale you do not exhale all the air in your lungs. If you did that your lungs would collapse. About half of the air stays in your lungs even when you exhale.

"The point I am trying to make is that you cannot draw a line that marks where the air ends and I begin. There is no line. The air is stuck to us and circulating through our bodies. We are air. It is a part of us and it is in us. Air is not a vacuum or empty space but a physical substance. We are embedded in a matrix of air and if you are air and I am air then I am you, we are a part of this single layer that encompasses the planet. We are embedded in that air with the trees, the birds, the worms and the snakes, which are all a part of that web of living things, held together by the atmosphere or the air...

"We think we are an intelligent creature, but what intelligent creature, knowing the role that air plays in our lives keeping us alive and connecting us to the past and into the future, would then proceed to use air as a garbage can and refuse to pay for putting carbon and all our pollutants into the atmosphere? We have much to reflect on the way that we use this sacred substance. It hurts me when I see young couples walking with a baby in a stroller and the baby's nose is right at the level of the exhaust pipes of our cars. You might as well put a hose on the exhaust pipe and pump that stuff right into the baby's body. Why are 15 per cent of children in Canada now suffering with asthma? We are using the air as a toxic dump. We are air. Whatever we do to the air we do to ourselves.

"So, you see, for me this is the shift in the way the environmental problem should be viewed. The environmental crisis is a crisis of human beings and we are treating ourselves as a repository for all of the pollution that we send out through our chimneys and tail pipes.

City dwellers

"I will not elaborate on the other elements. Every one of us is at least 60 per cent water by weight; we're just a big blob of water with enough organic thickener added to keep from dribbling away on the floor. When you take a drink of water you think it is London water. But in reality the hydrological cycle cartwheels water around the planet and any drink you take, wherever you are, has [some] molecules from every ocean on the planet, the canopy of the Amazon, the steppes of Russia. We are water. Whatever we do to water we do to ourselves.

We are the earth because every bit of our food was once alive. In North America over 95 per cent of our food is grown on the land. We are the earth through the food that we consume and yet we spray toxic chemicals directly onto the earth and the plants and animals we are going to eat. We even inject it into the creatures we are going to consume. We are the earth, and whatever we do to it we do to ourselves.

"And we are fire because every bit of the energy in our bodies that we need to grow, move or reproduce is sunlight. Sunlight is captured by plants through photosynthesis and we then acquire it by eating the plants or the animals that eat the plants. When we burn that energy we release the sun's energy back into ourselves. We are created by the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water and that is the way that we should frame our approach to 'environmental problems'.

"Why are we failing to respond to this simple truth and acting on it? There are, I believe, a number of factors that blind us to the reality of the problem and prevent us from acting in the way that we should. Two of them stand out for me. In 1900 the world population stood at 1½ billion people. There were only 16 cities with more than a million people. London was the largest with 6½ million people. Tokyo was the 7th largest city in the world with 1½ million people. Most people in the world lived in rural village communities and when you are a farmer you understand the importance of weather and climate. Farmers know about the movement of water and its necessity in the soil. You know how to build topsoil and fight off predators. You are much closer to the natural world when you are a farmer.

"Cut ahead only a hundred years. By the year 2000 the population of the world had quadrupled to 6 billion, but now there were more than 400 cities with more than a million people. The ten largest cities in the year 2000 all had more than 11 million people. Tokyo was the largest city in the world with 26 million people...

"If we are so ignorant of the fact that it is the biosphere, the zone of air, water and land that gives us these services, that gives us our electricity and water and food, and the biosphere that will absorb our waste when we are done with it, it becomes easy to assume and accept that the economy is the real bottom line. If we have got a good economy we have good garbage collection and sewage treatment. It is what fills our stores with all the goods, it gives us a dependable source of electricity, and the economy becomes the highest priority for urban dwellers.

Suicidal growth

"Even Ministers of the Environment buy into this. A couple of years ago I had an encounter with a provincial Environment Minister who told me that we can't afford to protect the environment if we don't have a strong growing economy. I told him that he was Minister of the Environment not the Minister of Finance, and that his job was to protect the environment! But even he believed the economy is the source of everything important because if it is growing we can afford extra money to protect the environment...

"Economists believe the economy can grow forever. Not only do they believe it can grow forever, which it cannot, they believe it must grow forever. Since World War II they have equated economic growth with progress. Nobody wants to stop progress but, if economic growth is what we define as progress, who is ever going to ask what an economy is for? With all this growth are we happier? How much is enough? We do not ask those questions. We have fallen into the trap of believing that economic growth forever is possible and necessary.

"...this is absolutely suicidal. Anything growing steadily over time is called exponential growth and whatever is growing exponentially has a predictable doubling time, whether it is the amount of garbage you make, the number of taxis on the road, the amount of water you use, or the human population. So, if the population is growing at 1 per cent a year it will double in 70 years; 2 per cent a year it will double in 35 years; 3 per cent - 23 years; 4 per cent - in 17.5 years. Anything growing exponentially will double predictably...

"Economics and ecology are words built on the same root - 'eco' - from the Greek word 'oikos' meaning home. Ecology is the study of home. Economics is the management of home. What ecologists try to do is to determine the conditions and principles that govern life's ability to flourish and survive. Now I would have thought any other group in society would want the ecologists to hurry up and find out exactly what those conditions and principles are, so that we can design our systems to live within them. But not economists. We have elevated the economy above everything else and this, I think, is the crisis we face. The economic system that has been foisted on people around the world is so fundamentally flawed that it is inevitably destructive. We must put the 'eco' back into economics and realise what the conditions and principles are for true sustainable living... "

This is a slightly shortened version of David Suzuki's Lecture, "The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line." It was given at the 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London on March 12, 2008, hosted by the Commonwealth Foundation.