Ron Arnold's Left Tracking Library

Opening remarks by David Suzuki:
2000: The Challenge Ahead


Environmental Grantmakers Association Fall Retreat, October 1992
Session 1: "2000: The Challenge Ahead"
David Suzuki

Emory Bundy [Bullitt Foundation, Seattle, Washington]: I'm pleased to be able to introduce David Suzuki, an eminent Canadian scientist, environmental activist...

Audience member: Turn on the microphone.

Emory Bundy: Sorry. Do I have to start from the beginning?

Audience in chorus: Yes!

Emory Bundy: I'm here to introduce David Suzuki, who is an eminent Canadian scientist, environmental activist and media personality. David was born and raised in Vancouver, except for the years where his family, like other Canadian-Japanese families, were moved to Ontario during World War II. He was educated in Amherst College and did his post graduate work at the University of Chicago and is currently professor of zoology at University of British Columbia.

David is not tremendously well-known in the United States, but is known internationally as a man who wears many hats. He is principally a geneticist with over 150 major and minor articles to his name. He is a popularizer of science of the highest order and has been active for 30 years in television, radio, film, as a writer of book, newspaper columnist, and a producer of records. He has written over 300 popular articles, has written 17 book, seven of which are for children. In the television he is perhaps best known in this country for his work on his weekly series The Nature of Things, which he's been doing for 8 years?

David Suzuki: Fifteen.

Emory Bundy: Fifteen?

Audience laughter.

Emory Bundy: And for his 8-hour series A Planet for the Taking. He's been active in the Civil Liberties Movement in Canada for many years, and for ten years has been working with Native People in his native land, and Australia, Latin American and elsewhere. And most importantly perhaps for this group he has been an advocate for environmental sanity for many years focusing primarily on changes in our economic system, in our economic assumptions which somehow seem to project growth endlessly into the future. I'm pleased to introduce David and ask you to give him a warm welcome.

Audience Applause.

David Suzuki: Thank you very much. I see I've lost 25 minutes of the hour and a half that I thought I had. So I'll shuck a lot of what I had to say and...

Audience: No, no.

Suzuki: [chortles] Thank you. When Vicki Husband called me and said a guy named Bill Lazar of EGA was going to be calling me, I said, "Who? What organization?" I didn't know about this group and I must say that I've been absolutely electrified to come here last night, because the groups that I hang out with, of course, have very little money, just a lot of enthusiasm and commitment. And it's nice to realize that there is some money available in the fight. So I thank you very much for inviting me.

I would like to add to what Emory said and hope some of you will get a chance to go further north of the 49th and see why British Columbia is now being called the Brazil of the North, although from my viewpoint that's a real insult to the Brazilians, if you see the kind of devastation that's going on on Vancouver Island.

We, what I'm going to talk about, I hasten to say, is from a Canadian perspective. I've spent most of my life, except for 8 years when I lived in the States, in Canada. And uh but I think we share many of the same problems and the same vision.

I think human beings like to have occasions, anniversaries, to celebrate or to reflect on various things, and so in 1992, what has been very important for me is to realize that this has been the quincenetnnary of the arrival in North America of Christopher Columbus. That 1992 is the 30th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. That 1992 is the 20th anniversary of the first major global conference on the environment in Stockholm. So it is a time to pause and reflect on how we got here and where we're going.

In North America, well certainly in Canada, for the last decade the environment has repeatedly polled at the very top of Canadians' agenda of their concerns and priorities. To me what has been astounding is that in the last year or so with the major recession that afflicts us as it has the United States, the polls indicate that the environment has dropped practically out of sight, that economics, jobs seem to be the major preoccupation. I don't believe that for a minute, but that certainly is what the media are now announcing.

And in our, my country it's reflected in the fact that a number of major environmental groups are in deep trouble, they've had to lay off a large number of staff -- that's Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth -- and in British Columbia the Western Canada Wilderness Committee has been chronically in deep trouble even though they have great support within the Province.

And increasingly we hear the kind of right wing attacks on environmentalists as typified as Rush Limbaugh, and his -- where we're being portrayed as -- and it's the same in Canada -- sentimental, romantic, commies, or dupes of the communists -- and Ron Arnold of the United States of the wise use group has had a major impact in British Columbia by establishing a series of Share the Forest groups throughout the Province, and they've been a very disruptive element.

Many environmental groups and individuals held high hopes I think for Rio, put a lot of effort into the Prep-Con process before Rio and went down there with great expectations, hoping for a major shift after Rio. And clearly the Rio Conference was a dismal failure. I think nothing reflected its failure more than the meeting of the G-7, the Group of Seven industrial countries, in Munich two weeks later, in which there was not a mention of Rio or the environment. It was simply let's get on with business as ususal.

So I think what we have to do then as increasingly there are vocal opponents of the environmental movement, as the environmental movement itself appears to be stalled in terms of support, and as we see the terrible failure of Rio, It's time to rethink our priorities: what are we doing wrong, what has to now be the major focus of our efforts as we rush towards the end of this millennium.

Now at the risk of covering territory that's very familiar to most of you, I would to just go over the kinds of crises that we face, that really, I think, have to underlie our sense of urgency, that we don't have a huge amount of time and that we have to be very focused in the direction that we're going. So let me very quickly discuss what are the basic facts that really confront us. This isn't speculation or conjecture, these are what are agreed to be the bottom line of the crisis. And of course the first issue we confront over and over is the same issue that Paul Ehrlich raised at the Stockholm meeting in 1972, and that is the incredible impact of population on the planet.

I remind you that every second three human being are added to the global population and that number is increasing. That's over a quarter of a million human beings a day, that's over 90 million people a year are being and have to be fed, clothed and housed. And this burst of population increase of population increase is a very recent phenomenon. If we as a species have been on this planet for 800,000 years, and you can do this for yourself, just as an exercize, plot out 800,000 years on a piece of graph paper divided into 8 sections on the x axis here and each section represents a hundred thosuadn years, and you that right up until the very end of that graph, right up to almost the present, there weren't a billion human beings on the earth.

It took all of the 800,000 years of our species to reach about a quarter of a billion human beings at the time of Jesus Christ's birth. And after that it took another two millenia to finally reach a billion people about 1830. And then suddenly, of course, the rate of increase now is in that exponential phase and it simply burst up.

I was born in 1936 and in my lifetime the population of the planet has tripled. We're now at 5.5 billion and it's said that we'll reach 10 billion in another 40 years. Mind you, that in the time since I've been born the population of California has gone up twelve-fold. So you see that, and on this curve, this graph paper, the curve literally leaps straight off the page, right in the very last second, essentially, of our existence here. And anyone who looks at that curve will say, nothing in the universe can continue to climb as it has.

At the very time that our numbers are skyrocketing, since 1984 total gloabl food production has been declining every year, and that's because we're losing of the order of 25 billion tons of agricultural topsoil a year. The entire wheat growing capacity of Australia is being lost every year.


What you see then is that the planet is under siege by the deadliest predator ever known in the history of life on earth...

We see the world through filters that are shaped by our own personal experiences, and that I think is the challenge that we have to overcome -- that we have to confront the perceptual filters that are preventing us from even recognizing the severity of the global eco-crisis, let alone taking serious action. So I'd like to spend the bulk of my time discussing what I call 'sacred truths'. And I say that ironically because they are neither sacred nor are they true. But they are deeply held notions that we take so much for granted that we never even question them. And they lie at the heart of what I think the environmental crisis is all about.

And I think the first sacred truth that we have to deal with is a belief -- and it's easy to understand why we believe this sacred truth because in Canada 80% of Canadians live in urban centers. We live in a human-created environment. And it becomes easy to believe, then, that we are not like other organisms, that we're different and special, that human beings by virtue of their great intelligence lie outside of the natural world, that we control our environment and manipulate it. And I think that's at the heart of this deadly problem that we face."

Now we know that over 90% of described species are insects.

Now the most critical sacred truth that we have to face, one which you're all involved in, are the, is the fundamental belief that economics must be the driving engine of our society, that economics must be the highest priority on which our governments are organized, which our industrial sector is based, that economics must have the highest -- be the great preoccupation of our society. Well, economics is very important, and no one denies that, but let us understand that economics is a very chauvinistic invention -- and I don't mean male chauvinistic, it is a species chauvinistic idea. No other species on earth -- and there may be 30 million of them -- has had the nerve to put forth a concept called economics, in which one species, us, declares the right to put value on everything else on earth, in the living and non-living world. If we have -- find a use for it, we declare that it has value; if we don't have a use for it, we declare that it's worthless.

... [side 2]

I think that growth is the most critical issue that we have to confront. Can we continue to press for steady growth as the salvation of our society?

You know very well that your profession shapes the way that you look at the world. And I'm always struck by that. My whole background as a professional is as a geneticist. And any time I get up in front of an audience like this I can't help myself -- I see mutants everywhere.

Now I think that there's another major problem that we face with our democracy. And that is, the way that we divvy the world up to deal with it politically means that we never assess our surroundings in any kind of holistic way, so that we understand the interconnectedness of everything...

And I think that was the signal failure of Rio -- was the failure to recognize that humans must rein in their demands and pay much greater attention to the ecological needs of the rest of the, the forms of life on earth, for the very future of the quality of our lives.

I think it gives you the idea of what I want to get across though, that we can run off attempting to save the planet, but until we come to an understanding of some of the deeply held assumptions that we all carry around, and understand where they don't make any sense, realize that there are conflicts between our presumed values and beliefs and what we are trying to do, and then bring them into greater conformity, then we're not going to seriously deal with the crisis. So that I think is the most important challenge, to confront the sacred truths, debunk them, and begin to reconstruct values and priorities. We have to think much more about children and the quality of life, not in terms of more, but in terms of real quality of the way we live. We have to take for granted that there are indeed limits to growth, in spite of what people like Julian Simon say, there are limits. We are terrestrial creatures and we live within a finite world, and we are very close to the upper edge of what that world can yield...

We have to each of us begin to live more lightly on the planet, and I don't have to tell you all about that, not because we're going to save the planet at all, but because we need time now, we desperately need time to really find the solutions. We are in a period of transition now. There's no question, these [growth] curves which are all going up are going to come down, and they're going to start coming down within our life times. What we have to work on now is how to minimize the destructive impact of that impact both on ourselves and on the other plants and animals we share the planet with.

What I am involved in now is trying to establish the evidence that we are living in a completely unsustainable way, I think that sustainable development is a swiz, it's a terrible hoax that's been foisted on us, because we equate development with progress and usually growth. And even Bruntland herself, in Our Common Future, predicted a five-fold increase in the global economy which is madness, I think. We are trying to establish what we call the ecological footprint of our species on earth...

So once you establish the reality of the ecological footprint of our species, especially coming form the industrialized world, you recognize that we are past 59 minutes, and there is no alternative but to rapidly decrease the consumption of our population. Now that is absolute anathema to the powers of our countries, our respective countries, but until we begin to talk about limits to growth and the need to de-develop -- and believe me, the major cutbacks will be easy ...

We've got, it seems to me, begin to create an alternate vision. Rio's failure must be the challenge for us. We have to accept that we're past the 59th minute, and that we're in a period of transition. And what is needed now, I think, and this is what our commitment is, is to attempt to define what are the ecological ground rules of truly sustainable living, and I don't think that'll be hard. What are the ecological ground rules? Once you have that what is a vision of a sustainable future?

Over and over again people come up to me and say, 'Look, I agree with what you are saying, but what do guys want? Do you want us to live in caves? Do we have to back to living in houses with dirt floors and out houses?' People are afraid because they don't know what the future will bring, and I understand that. We now have to begin to define a vision of a sustainable future. And then we have to say, how do we make a transition in ten to fifteen years, from the way we are now, to something approximating that sustainable way of living. What are the concrete steps to make the transition.

And then what we want to do is fund Suzuki samauri all across Canada, who are going to take the ground rules, the vision and the strategy, and sell it at the grass roots. Because if Rio told us anything, it is that we are not going to get the profound changes from the top down, that you can't -- because of the game they're playing -- you can not get the real leadership coming from industry or politics, it's got to come from the ground up.

And I've talked to Al Gore about this many, many times, and he understands clearly. He said that when the public understands profoundly the change that's needed, politicians will fall all over themselves to get aboard. They don't lead. They are smart at following the thrust.

And as long as the environment continues to be a political football we're not being serious. And I believe the challenge is to raise the playing field, so that it is taken for granted that we have certain ground rules that are ecological, that it will not be a political issue, that it will be a social value on which our politics is built. And that's the challenge for the 1990's. Thank you.

[thunderous applause]