Suzuki warns that humans are on the brink

For most of his professional life, eminent Canadian scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki (left) has worked to educate generations on the perils of pollution and the consequences of mankind’s unsustainable practices. In opening the Research in Society lecture convened for the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Suzuki did not stray from that message. 

In fact, there was a renewed urgency in his remarks, punctuated by a number of influences which he laid out to the audience. He recently celebrated his 70th birthday, he noted. He has no hidden agenda because he does not accept any compensation from any organization. Instead he is motivated by the future faced by his grandchildren and the work he feels he has to do following the move by the newly elected Harper government to turn its back on the environment and focus on the economy.

Suzuki spoke with the force of an evangelical preacher to a capacity crowd which gathered on June 1 for the lecture, hosted by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences at York’s Keele campus. His message: humankind has let go of the very attribute that made it a super species. The ability to see the future, the foresight which set Homo sapiens apart from its mammal counterparts, has been abandoned.

In its place unsustainable consumerism and a lack of leadership on environmental issues have blinkered humankind’s ability to understand the consequences of its actions. “Today, our politicians tell us the economy is the bottom line, you have to sacrifice for the bottom line, your community has to give up some social services for the bottom line,” said Suzuki. “Long before the economy, human beings lived on this planet. They had needs that were very fundamental. Our bottom line is that we need clean air, clean soil, energy from the sun and without these things, we don’t live. How can anyone say the economy comes before that? We use air, water and we need to live in a world where we can love, a world free from terror, genocide and war and a world free from pollution. That is the bottom line.

“Right now we’ve got it upside down and it does not make sense,” said Suzuki. “We are now at a critical point in the 3.8 billion years that life has existed on our planet. In all that time, there was never a single species able to alter the physical, chemical and biological features of the planet as we are doing today. We have become a super species. Today we are the most numerous mammals on the planet. Each of us uses on our behalf an enormous amount of technology. Our clothing, food and housing gives us a much greater ecological footprint than any other mammal on the planet and we are today afflicted with an enormous appetite for consumption.”

The average size of the Canadian family has decreased by 50 per cent, said Suzuki, while the average size of the Canadian house has doubled. “Why do we need all that space? Well, it’s because we have all this stuff. In the 19th century, consumption referred to wasting away from tuberculosis. Now we are wasting away from our own consumption.”

Humans, said Suzuki, learned to shape their future by making decisions based on learned experiences and past knowledge. Now the very future of humankind is threatened. “Our behaviour reflects that we were intelligent. We were curious and creative. We invented the idea called the future. We are the only animal on the planet that recognizes that we can shape the future by what we are doing today,” said Suzuki. “The key strategy of survival of our species is the fact that we used foresight to survive. We remembered, we looked ahead and took advantage of the best passage for survival.

“Today we have now all the amplified predictive capacity offered by scientists, computers and technology and yet we no longer seem to be able to do what got us to this point. We are turning our backs on that very essence of our strategy for our survival.”

For over 40 years, humans have been warned of their doom, starting with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which warned of the threat posed by pesticides. In 1992, leading scientists of the world signed a collective document warning of the consequences of humankind’s unsustainable behaviour, which they called the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”.  The paper focused on the destructive forces at work in all areas of the environment and warned that the world had only a few decades to try to reverse the damage before it became permanent.

“The leading scientists of the world, including over half of the world’s Nobel Prize winners, signed the document,” said Suzuki. “They are not in the habit of signing such documents. While this document was frightening, the response of the media was even more so because they deemed it not newsworthy and it received no coverage.”

Angrily, Suzuki highlighted the media and public’s obsession with the antics of celebrities, and yet, he said, the reports of destruction of the environment received no coverage. “What is going on? We are turning our backs on the very strategy that got us here. If the survival characteristic of our species is our foresight, why are we not acting on what scientists are telling us?” said Suzuki. “We pay no attention to these warnings and we are paying the price. The consequences of not acting, I believe, will be catastrophic.”

To close his comments, Suzuki urged those in attendance to use their scholarly skills to lobby governments and the media for more attention to the environmental catastrophe that man is creating. He highlighted the role that political scientists, social scientists and humanists should play in developing public policy, and their function in creating scholarly essays, articles and letters to newspapers. He urged thoughtful reflection about the next election and asked those in attendance to “make sure you demand that the environment is a priority of any government you choose.”

This 2006 Congress Research in Society lecture was sponsored by Cotton Ginny, a manufacturer of women’s casual clothing. The company is a leader in adopting sustainable manufacturing processes. It switched to organic cotton for all of its garments preventing the release into the environment of the equivalent of one swimming pool of pesticides.