Our ‘last chance’ to get the future right

Drawing on 50 years of experience as a physician and medical specialist, Toronto environmentalist Dr. Murray M. (Woody) Fisher offered a diagnosis, prognosis and prescription for Earth during a speech at York’s Spring Convocation yesterday.

At ceremonies for graduates of the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) and the Faculty of Science & Engineering, York conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree on Fisher for his work on behalf of humanity and the environment. In addition to his role as a physician, Fisher is also a biochemical medical researcher and the co-founder of the Canadian Liver Foundation. He is an ardent environmentalist and passionate advocate for the planet. Over a decade ago, he purchased a tract of threatened rainforest in Costa Rica in order to preserve it. In 1998, he donated the 133 hectares of land, known as Las Nubes (The Clouds) Rainforest to the University. The land and its ecology form the basis of a world-renowned research and conservation program in FES.

Right: York honorary degree recipient Dr. Murray M. (Woody) Fisher

Fisher gave a grim diagnosis and prognosis for his patient. He attributed the planet’s ill health to humanity and its traditions, and warned that if these traditions and behaviours were not changed, the consequences for the planet’s long-term survival would be dire.

Prior to outlining his treatment plan and prescription, Fisher took a few minutes to highlight his delight at the degree conferred by York. "This is a tremendous honour for me," said Fisher. "I have gained from York much more than I have given. Accordingly, I state that this is not a ‘smash and grab’ degree. I am here for the long haul.

"York is big without being pushy. York is fine without being arrogant. York is ambitious without being insensitive. York is very special and I love being part of it," said Fisher, who paid special tribute to FES Professor Howard Daugherty, who has played a key role in York’s Las Nubes Rainforest project and its associated neotropical research.

Disease, lack of sanitation, lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and destruction of the Earth’s precious reserves of soil and rainforests are making the planet sick, said Fisher. "Disease and poverty go hand-in-hand," he said.

He called for adequate sanitation and clean drinking water to help alleviate the disease burden of the planet. "Adequate sanitation is by far the most effective tool the world community has to combat disease," said Fisher. "Forty per cent of the world’s population has no access to effective sanitation. Twenty per cent of the world’s population has no clean drinking water and far more people are affected by lack of sanitation and clean drinking water than by the combined effects of war, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction."

Right: Fisher (centre) is congratulated by York Chancellor Roy McMurtry as Professor Brenda Spotton-Visano (left), chair of the York Senate, and York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri (right) look on

Humanity’s waste of the Earth’s resources is also causing its current state of ill health, said Fisher. Citing the examples of previous traditions of behaviour by the peoples of Easter Island and ancient Sumeria, both populations now extinct, Fisher urged those present not repeat the mistakes and traditions on a grand scale. "Is our personality always the same?" he asked.

He spoke of deforestation of the world and the resulting agrarian and population failures. "Rich tropical rainforests are disappearing," said Fisher. "The health of the land and the water are the only measures for a civilization’s success. Our civilization is running out of both land and water. Collapse will be global. Now is our last chance to get the future right."

Fisher’s prescription focused on elimination of extreme poverty, appreciation by humanity of the land, and conservation and wise use of the planet’s resources that would extend our own lives. He urged a focus on innovation and research to help the world’s poorest populations.

After 50 years of its own history, York University is at a very important crossing, said Fisher. One route would see the University taking a more traditional path, the other speaks to York’s focus on redefining the possible. "Your generation can provide the world with an enlightened value system that it needs right now," said Fisher, stating that redefining the world’s values would do much to cure the current ills experienced by the planet.

He urged graduates to continue to work on changing poverty and over-population; not to settle for being mediocre and to strive to do their very best to relieve burden on the planet through their knowledge, youth and understanding.

For a complete listing of the ceremony schedule, click here. York University’s spring convocation ceremonies will be streamed live over the Internet.