Over the span of a lifetime, the world’s population has tripled and consumption has become a way of life. David Suzuki reflects on these changes in his new book “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future.” He tells host Steve Curwood that the path to a sustainable future is to stop elevating economy over ecology and to start imagining a brighter future.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. David Suzuki was a young child when the Canadian government incarcerated his family in a remote camp in the Rockies during World War II. And, because he couldn’t speak Japanese like the other interned kids, he went outside on his own and discovered nature. That experience led to an award-winning career in science and popularity as a nature and environmental storyteller on Canadian radio and television.
Recently David Suzuki compressed a lifetime of learning and doing into a single lecture and a, brief, astonishingly readable and uplifting book called “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for our Sustainable Future.” He joined us to talk about that vision. David Suzuki – welcome to Living on Earth!
CURWOOD: On the cover of your book “The Legacy: an Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future,” you have a maple seed, the little thing that spins as it falls to the ground from a maple tree…
David Suzuki’s new book, “The Legacy: and Elder’s Vision for a Sustainable Future.”
SUZUKI: Right. Yeah, to me, that seed symbolizes an opportunity for us to try to copy nature. You know, trees can’t get up and try to drop their seeds all over the place, like an animal might, and so they’ve got to rely on methods to get their seeds spread away. And, one method of course is to use the wind and the air, and take your seeds and move them by this helicopter-like motion. One of our problems, I think, is that we try to overwhelm nature with the power of our crude technologies, and oftentimes it creates ecological problems. Nature’s had four billion years to evolve basic solutions to the same things you and I have: you know, how to keep from being eaten, what to do if you get sick, how do you get laid, I mean- if we were to look to nature, we could learn a lot with far less deleterious effects.
CURWOOD: Earlier in your book, you mention that the population of the world has tripled in your lifetime. That’s a pretty striking statistic. And, what does it tell us?
SUZUKI: It’s staggering. We appeared as a species in Africa, maybe 150,000 years ago. We wandered nomadically and gathered food and shelter. It was 10,000 years ago that the big change happened when we discovered agriculture. At the beginning of the agricultural revolution it’s estimated that there were about ten million of us on the entire planet. Agriculture heralded a huge shift because we could now grow our food dependably and in only 8,000 years, we increased to another order of magnitude to 100 million people. And then, in just over 1,800 years, we increased to a billion people. And then in less than 200 years we reached six point nine billion people in 2010. And, so, if you were to plot that on a piece of graph paper, the curve is essentially leaping straight off the page in the last pencil width of time. Nothing can go straight up off the page indefinitely. There’s got to be limits, and I fear, that we’re going to have some major problems of a big human die-off.
CURWOOD: So, yes, what is the problem of population? What are the consequences that you are concerned about?
SUZUKI: Well, of course it’s not just a function of number. It’s the amount of stuff that we exploit out of the biosphere, per person. So, if we in North American want to compare ourselves to China or India, you’ve got to multiply our populations by at least 20, to get our equivalent impact as Chinese or Indians. If you want to compare us to Bangladesh or Somalia, you’ve got to multiply by at least 60.
And, when you look at it that way, then it’s clear that it’s the industrialized world because of our hyper-consumption. We are consuming over 80 percent of the planet’s resources even though we’re only 20 percent of the world’s population. We are the major predator on the planet.
CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the economy. In your book, you quote a couple of economists and retail analysts. One of them is Victor Lebow. You quote him as saying, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige is now to be found in our consumptive patterns.” And he goes on to say that, “The greater the pressure upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more he does tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats, his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”
SUZUKI: Isn’t that incredible? This is Victor Lebow who is an industrialist. What happened was we all came through the terrible depression after the stock market crashed in 1929. What got us out of the depression was WWII, and by the middle of the war, the American economy was blazing, white hot, pumping out guns and tanks and planes and weapons. And, of course, it was clear by the mid-1940s that the Allies were going to win the war, and people began to say, ‘well, what the heck do we do in peace time?’
And the president of the United States established the council of economic advisors to the president and said, ‘how do we make that transition?’ And the answer came back- consumption. And, Victor Lebow’s statement is just the plainest statement that you can get. We’ve got to make consumption an American way of life. Get people to buy stuff use it up, throw it away, and buy more stuff. And, once you introduce the concept of disposability, use something once and throw it away, you’ve got a perfect system, because you never run out of a market.
But of course, all that stuff is coming out of the biosphere and the emissions to make that stuff goes back into the biosphere, and when you’re finished with these products, you throw it back into the earth, and it’s creating an enormous ecological problem. I’ve got a friend in Toronto, who lives in the outskirts of Toronto in a high-rise apartment building, completely air-conditioned. He goes downstairs into his elevator to his air-conditioned garaged, gets into his air conditioned car, drives down the freeway into the basement of an air conditioned commercial building, up into his office.
That building is connected through a massive set of tunnels to huge shopping centers and food marts. He said, ‘David, I don’t have to go outside, for days on end!’ So, who needs nature? We’ve got our own habitat. And, in a city, our highest priority becomes our jobs. We need our jobs to earn money to buy the things that we want. And, so our economy becomes our highest priority and that’s why we elevate economy above ecology and we think that everything’s gotta be done to service the economy. Even though, the economy now is so big, it is undermining the very life support systems of the planet! It’s using air, water and soil as a garbage can. Each of us now in the industrialized world, carries dozens of toxic chemicals dissolved in our bodies- over a pound of plastic dissolved in our bodies. We are the consequence of this industrial growth, because we have elevated the economy above the very things that keep us alive. And this is madness!
CURWOOD: David, at one point in your book, to explain the relentless need for growth in economies, you compare us to bacteria in a test tube. Can you explain that for us?
SUZUKI: Ok, let me give you some background now. We have come to believe that growth is the very definition of progress. You talk to any businessperson or politician and say, ‘How well did you do last year?’ And, within a picosecond, they will talk about growth in the GDP and the economy in profit, jobs or market share. And, anything in a finite world cannot grow forever. We live within the biosphere, that cannot grow- it’s fixed.
And, I use the analogy of the bacteria in the test tube for why it’s suicidal to look for steady endless growth. Anything growing exponentially has a predictable doubling time. I give you a test tube full of food for bacteria- that’s an analogy with the planet- and I put one bacterial cell in and it is us. It’s going to go into exponential growth and divide every minute. So, at time zero, at the beginning, there is one bacterium. One minute, there are two. Two minutes, four. Three minutes, eight. Four minutes, 16. That’s exponential growth.
And at 60 minutes, the test tube is completely packed with bacteria, and there’s no food left. When is the test tube only half full? And the answer of course, is at 59 minutes. So, at 58 minutes it’s 25 percent full, 57 minutes, 12 and a half percent full. At 55 minutes of the 60-minute cycle, it’s three percent full. So, if at 55 minutes, one of the bacteria looks around and says, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been thinking, we’ve got a population problem.’ The other bacteria would say, ‘Jack, what the hell have you been drinking, man? 97 percent of the test tube is empty, and we’ve been around for 55 minutes!’ And, they’d be five minutes away from filling it.
So, the bacteria are no smarter than humans. At 59 minutes they go, ‘Oh my god! Jack was right! What the hell are we going to do, we’ve got one minute left! Well, don’t give any money to those economists, but why don’t you give it to those scientists?’ And, by God, somehow those bacterial scientists in less than a minute, they invent three tests tubes full of food for bacteria. Now, that would be like us discovering three more planet Earths that we could start using immediately. So, they’re saved, right, they’ve quadrupled the amount of food in space. So what happens? Well, at 60 minutes, the first test tube is full. At 61 minutes, the second is full, and at 62 minutes, all four are full. By quadrupling the amount of food in space, you buy two extra minutes. And, how do you add any more air, water, soil or biodiversity to the biosphere. You can’t, it’s fixed! And, every scientist I’ve talked to agrees with me. We’re already past the 59th minute.
CURWOOD: David Suzuki, this is, I think, one of the most powerful images I have heard of, what some people call the environmental crisis, but I think you probably call it the human crisis.
SUZUKI: It’s a human crisis. We’re at the center of it. You know, for years, we environmentalists thought that humans are taking too much stuff out of the environment, putting too much waste back into it. And, for me, I got a huge shift when I began to work with First Nation, aboriginal people in Canada. And, they showed me, there is no environment out there and we are here. We are created by the Earth by the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. And, the energy in our bodies, it comes from the sun. We are the environment, whatever we do to the environment, we do directly to ourselves.
CURWOOD: One of the most fascinating things in your work, David Suzuki, is the discussion you have of the temperate rainforest and the salmon and its connection to it. I wonder if you can share that with us now.
SUZUKI: That is such a wonderful story. One of the rarest ecosystems on the planet is the temperate rainforest. That’s the very thin strip that extends all the way from Alaska to California pinched between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountain range. The salmon are born in these rivers, they go out to sea, and they grow in the oceans and accumulate the nitrogen from the ocean. And then when they come back the bears, wolves and eagles eat these salmon and they poop and pee all over the woods.
It turns out that the salmon are the biggest pulse of nitrogen fertilizer that the forest gets, and the bears are the vectors to carry the nitrogen. They’ll fish for these salmon, once they grab one, they hike off up to150 meters on either side of the river, they eat the salmon- they eat the best part- and they dump the rest of the carcass on the floor of the forest and go back for another one. As soon as they dump the carcass, well, salamanders and slugs and ravens begin to eat it. But the main things are flies that lay their eggs on the carcass. And, in a few days the carcass is a seething mass of maggots eating that nitrogen from the ocean. They drop onto the forest floor, and they pupate over the winter and the spring trillions of flies loaded with nitrogen from the ocean, from the salmon, hatch at the very time that the birds from South America are migrating through the forest on their way to the Arctic nesting grounds. So the salmon come back and they nourish the flies, which feed the birds.
Now, we know the forest, the salmon need the forest. If you clear-cut the forest, the salmon populations plummet or disappear because the salmon need the forest canopy to keep the waters cool. They need the forest to hold the soil so when it rains it doesn’t run in and spoil the spawning gravels. And the forest feeds the baby salmon on their way to the ocean. So we know the salmon needs the forest, now we know the forest needs the salmon. So you see this beautiful system where the ocean is connected through the salmon to the forest, and the birds from South America are connected to the northern hemisphere.
Humans come along, and we go ‘Oh, well uh, gee there’s a lot of salmon here. That’s a Minister of Fishers and Oceans for the fishing fleet. Oh, the trees, well that’s a Minister of Forestry. And the eagles, bears and the wolves, that’s the Minister of the Environment. Gee, the river that’s managed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. And, the rocks, the mountains, that’s the department of mining. So, what is a single interconnected system, we come along, fragment into different bureaucracies and try to manage a complete system through this fractured way of looking at the world. And, we will never do it in the right way when we look at it that way.
CURWOOD: So, what’s the solution?
SUZUKI: The solution is: our great advantage, what got us to where we are, is our brain. We invented the idea of a future, we could dream of a future in which we could avoid danger and exploit opportunity. I believe foresight was the critical feature that got us out of the plains of Africa to occupy the entire planet. So, what do have to do? Imagine a future that is free of danger and full of opportunity. So, how about this: how about an America, as Canada was as I was a kid, where you can drink the water out of any lake? Where you can catch a fish and eat it without worrying about chemicals are in it. An America where asthma and cancer rates plummet because we no longer use air, water and soil to dump our toxic chemicals. Let’s imagine a future full of opportunity and promise, and then we have a goal that we can work towards, and we know what direction we want to go in, and everybody will be in it together. This is what we’ve done in Canada- we’ve created a vision for one generation away. And, when I presented this to the business community, to the mayors of Canadian cities, to the faith community- everybody says, ‘Well of course, I would love to have a Canada like that.’ So, suddenly, we’re all together, we’re not fighting. We all agree, that’s the kind of country we would like to achieve. So, anything we do today, we say, ‘Okay, that’s an interesting proposal, but does that get us closer or further away from that target that we’re moving towards?’
CURWOOD: You say, so if Canada can make this a target, so can the United States of America.
SUZUKI: Why not in the United States?
CURWOOD: And, what about in the rest of the world?
SUZUKI: Absolutely. I think these movements are all things that we have to begin right away.
CURWOOD: David Suzuki’s new book is called “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future.” Thank you so much David Suzuki.
SUZUKI: Thanks for having me, it’s been fun talking to you.
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