Hundreds of government representatives are meeting in Katowice, Poland to agree on how to enforce action to limit further global warming. Sadly, some of the world’s largest oil and gas producers — the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait — are trying to block progress at Katowice. Canada’s most prominent environmentalist David Suzuki has been sounding the warning for over 30 years. He gave this speech to the Empire Club in Toronto in December 1988, cautioning that continued high levels of economic growth are not environmentally sustainable.
“We need a radically different notion of society’s priorities”
We now are the most numerous, ubiquitous large mammal on the planet, but we are like no other animal that ever existed, because we are armed with the incredible muscle power of science and technology. Armed with that kind of muscle power, and our numbers and demands, we now assault the environment, and the environment can no longer take it and bounce back.
I think of the increase in muscle power out our way in the Queen Charlotte Islands where the people have lived for thousands of years. They tell me that before contact with Europeans, it took them up to a year and a half to cut down a single cedar or spruce tree. It took so long for those trees to fall, they would build cradles to cradle them as they were starting to lean. After contact with Europeans, two men and a saw and axe could take ten days. Now, one man and a chainsaw can repeat the job in minutes. It’s that incredible increase in muscle power that is at the base of what we are facing today. We continue to attack the environment as if it were the way it has been for 99.9 percent of our existence.
There are historical reasons why we seem blind to what is going on. I think even more important than that, we continue as a society to cling to beliefs and values that are so deeply embedded in our culture that we never question them. I call them sacred truths. And yet, in many cases, these sacred truths are the very cause of the problems that we are trying to deal with, and I’d like to spend the rest of the time discussing a few of these sacred truths. I think the most important one that we have to face is that we now are driven by the priority of global economics. Global economics has become the reason why governments exist, to deal with global economics and to carve out our place in the market.
I would suggest that we have to look at the way that economics has changed in the last few decades. We have come as a society to equate progress with economic growth. If there is no economic growth, we say that we have stagnated, that we have a crisis, we have a recession. Growth and progress have become equivalent and most of the growth we deal with is in terms of profit. So growth, progress and profit have become interchangeable terms; growth has become an end in itself. If we don’t grow, we don’t progress. The problem with that is that nothing in the universe continues to grow in that way indefinitely, exponentially. It’s a ludicrous kind of notion. If growth becomes an end in itself, then there is no further end.
I can tell you there is something fundamentally wrong with that, fundamentally wrong because, according to the Brundtland Commission , 20 percent of the planet’s population—North America, Europe and Asia, or Japan at least—now consumes over 80 percent of the resources of the planet. It produces the vast bulk of toxic waste . . .
Now I know your eyeballs are all rolling up and you think I’m nuts. But I would suggest that if you are seriously concerned with where we are going in the next few decades, you cannot continue to cling to the notion that we can have steady exponential growth in the coming years.
Let me just skim through some other sacred truths. We believe that we as a species lie outside nature, above nature; that we are somehow different from other creatures and it’s easy to see why we believe that. Eighty percent of Canadians live in urban settings, in a man-made environment, and even those of us who live in the country live in what is essentially a “manscaped” landscape.
We have created the area around us the way that we want. It is easy to feel a sense or an illusion that we now are somehow controlling the world around us. We forget this at great peril. We forget that we are still, at its absolute fundamental level, animals. We are animals who for our health and longevity require clean air, clean water and clean food . . .
It’s a ludicrous idea to think that we can use air, water and soil as a dumping ground for our effluents and not ultimately pay for that in some way. We live in a finite world in which all that we eat and depend on must derive its nutrition and survival out of the air, water and soil around . . .
When you then look at who are our elected representatives in Ottawa, and I did this last year, over 70 percent of cabinet members came from two professions. They came from business and they came from law. Now I have nothing against business people and lawyers. I’m not going to speak to a group like this and say I’ve got anything against lawyers and business people, but the fact that you have such a disproportionate representation from two professions skews government perceptions of priorities. It’s not an accident that Meech Lake jurisdictional and free trade economics have dominated the thinking of our politicians. Most of them are business people and lawyers. And business people and lawyers are scientifically illiterate and they are the people who are going to have to make decisions about the future of our forests, about the atmospheric degradation, about the ocean pollution, about desertification, and so on.
How can you make a wise decision about that when you can’t assess the technical advice that you get from your experts. We aren’t led into the future by our leaders, we back into the future because the people we elect to office are scientifically illiterate.
I usually talk about what we can do about it, but I don’t have time. I’ve tried to challenge you by saying that we face a massive unprecedented crisis, an ecological crisis, on this planet, that we are currently blinded to the immensity of it and the importance of it by many of our most deeply held sacred truths. And to challenge them, what I have tried to do in this time is to provide you with some insight into questions about those sacred truths. We cannot continue to mortgage our children’s futures by opting for short-term profit and power. We need a radically different notion of society’s priorities. A redefinition of the word progress and of our relationship with nature.
Source: Empire Club of Canada
Photo: David Suzuki Foundation