The Challenge of the 21st Century
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 8 Dec 1988, p. 154-167
Suzuki, Dr. David, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Anecdotal examples of the state of our environment, and of our endangered species. Indications of the extent of the problem. Our general blindness to the problems and reasons for it. Consequences of continued apathy. Being driven by the priority of global economics. A look at how economics has changed in the last few decades. Growth, progress and profit: interchangeable terms. Some fundamental problems of our planet, and the way in which we use it. Taking a different approach to the need for growth. The impossibility of continued, steady exponential growth. Negative growth. The lack of understanding of science, particularly by elected representatives, and its implications. The need for a radically different notion of society's priorities. The need for a redefinition of the word progress and of our relationship with nature.
Date of Original
8 Dec 1988
Language of Item
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Full Text
Dr. David Suzuki Scientist and Broadcaster
Chairman: A.A. van Straubenzee President


When I was nine years old, I lived on a farm in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Close by was the Shuswap River.

I was a lucky boy.

One morning I saw 13 deer jumping a high fence. A sight I've never forgotten. l saw black bears eating the fruit in our orchard, coyotes swiping our chickens. One night a cougar stole a steak off our back veranda.

I was a lucky boy.

My mother grew beautiful sweet peas and roses. And my father took me fishing on horseback to the cool lakes in the mountains.

I was a lucky boy.

We used to go skinny dipping in the Shuswap and I remember a lovely girl by the name of Marion. Unfortunately there is no reason for her to remember me.

So what, you might ask.

Well, our children of today are not so lucky, either in seeing and enjoying nature or in being taught it. But there is one area in which we are lucky, and that is being able to see The Nature of Things on TV.

Last night, for example, Dr. Suzuki's wonderful program was entitled The Rivers to the Sea. We saw speckled trout, Atlantic salmon, May flies, small mouth bass and, if you're a fly fisherman, it made your mouth water.

And, of course, he educated us about the lack of conservation on our rivers and the devastating effects of acid rain. Each program should be shown in every primary schoolroom in the world. His work is nothing short of brilliant.

Dr. Suzuki loves the word metamorphosis. He uses his renowned study of fruitflies to explain it in an interview in Quills and Quire:

They go through these remarkable transitions from an egg into a larva: the larva sheds its skin and gets bigger and bigger. Then the larva pupates and from the pupa emerges something looking totally different, with legs and eyes.

The whole process of change is called metamorphosis. He has used the scientific concept of metamorphosis in insects as a metaphor for life in a remarkable autobiography, Metamorphosis: Stages in Life.

As with the annual cycle of the Rivers to the Sea, we have witnessed a four-year metamorphosis in the life of this great Canadian - because it was four years ago, almost to the day, that he last spoke to The Empire Club. Was he a tadpole that has turned into a frog?

No. But as his program said last night, if you keep quiet you find yourself in the middle of an immense amount of activity. So I'd better keep quietand over these four years...

David received:

The 1986 Kalinga Prize, awarded by UNESCO, which he shared with a Soviet physicist.

An ACTRA award for the best host-interviewer, for CBC's Futurescan. The Governor-General's award for Conservation, for a Planet for the Taking.

The World Environment Festival Award for the same eight one-hour shows on CBC.

And he wrote his autobiography. In that same interview I mentioned earlier, he said:

I'm sure that I'm driven to do things not to be a success in the sense of gaining money or reputation, but to affirm that I'm a worthwhile person. I have to keep finding a new challenge.

May his search never end.

David Suzuki:

One of the great parts of being host of a program is that I get Credit for everything that's done on the show, and that show represents an enormous amount of work - often the work of other people. So I'm glad that some of the people from The Nature of Things are here to share at least some of the recognition that you've just given me. Come on guys, stand up so that we can at least say thanks to The Nature of Things people.

You may remember that just over a year ago there was a rather prolonged strike of elementary school teachers. I remember vividly. I had two children in the Toronto school system and I found myself trying to spend some time substituting for those teachers. One of the first things that I did was arrange to take the children to the Toronto Metro Zoo, one of the greatest zoos in North America. l did so with a great deal of excitement because I well remember my first visit to a major zoo. It was one of the great events of my childhood. It was in the late 1940s; we were living in a town called Leamington, Ontario, and we went to the Detroit zoo.

For me it was a real epiphany. It was a point that I remember as a high spot of my childhood because I was overwhelmed with the diversity and abundance of life on this planet. For years I dreamed of visiting the Sarangetty Plains in Africa and the Amazon jungle in South America. And so, it was with that memory that I took the children to the zoo a year ago.

What an incredible difference 40 years make. At every exhibit, my eight-year-old daughter would ask me: "Daddy, are there many of these left?" At the age of eight, she already knows about extinction and it worries her. I found myself at virtually every exhibit having to answer: "No sweetheart, there aren't many of these left. These are rare, these are endangered."

During that day, I had to reflect on the fact that the great rhinoceroses that once numbered in the thousands in the Sarangetty Plains now number fewer than 10. The great Amazon rain forests that I dreamed of visiting are being destroyed at a horrifying rate. I realized that within the lifetime of my children there will be no chimpanzees left in the wild, no Siberian tigers, no elephants, no cheetahs left anywhere in the wild. The only survivors will be kept in zoos. l recall that the great biologist Edward Wilson at Harvard has estimated that in tropical rain forests alone, every year, 17,500 species of animals and plants become extinct. I realized when my five-year-old said at the end of the day: "Daddy, why is it everything is disappearing?"

In that child's question was an obvious recognition that this planet is changing beyond recognition under the assault by the deadliest predator in the history of life on earth. In the last five or six years, I have been very privileged to spend a great deal of time with native people, mainly in B.C. One of the things that they have taught me is to listen to what our elders say and to consider their words very carefully.

I have talked to elders in B.C., people who have lived and fished in B.C. for over 50 years. They tell me about salmon and trees, in numbers and size that loggers and fishermen haven't seen in years. You talk to people in the Prairies about what the waterfowl migrations used to be across the wetlands and they will tell you about migrations that literally darkened the skies for days on end. You talk to Ontario people, they will tell you that not long ago you could go down to one of our major lakes, scoop out a cup of water and drink it.

You know that every one of these cups today contain dozens of different toxic chemicals. You just have to go down to the beach and look at the signs that tell you, if you are a pregnant woman, don't eat anything coming out of this lake. What is that trying to tell us? I have met people that are so old they can remember when air was the way I was taught in high -school, an odourless, tasteless, colourless, invisible gas. It hasn't been that way in Toronto for a long time.

Talk to Maritimers, they will tell you about lobster and cod of size and number that fishermen haven't seen in decades. Our elders are a living record of the enormous changes that have happened in this country within the span of a single human life. We tend to shrug our shoulders and simply say: "Well, those changes are the price of progress." I would suggest that perhaps we need a radically different definition of progress.

It wasn't long ago that miners would take canaries into the coal mines with them. When the canary fell over, they got out of the mine - they knew something was wrong.

Well, today, when 10,000 seals die in the North Sea, those are our canaries. When 400 Beluga whales die in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and they are so toxic you can't touch them with your bare hands, those are canaries. When a Harvard professor tells us two species are going extinct every hour, those are canaries. These canaries indicate that we are faced with enormous global problems today of species extinction, habitat destruction, over-population, massive global pollution, atmospheric degradation, deforestation, desertification. Yet, even in the last election, none of the political parties paid any more than lip service to the importance of these issues.

Why is it that we are unable to see the extent of the enormous changes documented in the lifetimes of our elders? Why are we so blind to it? I think there are a number of reasons: one is purely historical. If you look at human beings the way biologists do, over the entire history of our species existence on our planet, 600,000 to 800,000 years, for 99 per cent of our existence on earth we lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers with very simple technology. For most of our existence, human beings were a tiny factor in our environment. Nature was, it seemed, infinite and endlessly selfrenewing. You could pitch your tent or your camp, live there for a year or two, go away, come back 10 years later and it was as if no one had been there. Nature was vast and resilient. It could absorb what we did.

Even after we invented agriculture 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, for most of our time as farmers, we still lived in a state of nature. Nature was the dominant element determining the quality of our lives. It's only been in the last two centuries that you see a radical shift in the equation of humans in relation to the earth. It took all of human history, 99.9 per cent of our history, to reach one billion people on this planet (about 1830). And yet in the next 150 years, we doubled twice to reach four billion. We're at five now and we'll hit 10 within another 50 years. Now every new increase in numbers means that many more lungs to feed with air. That many more stomachs to fill with food, bodies to clothe and shelter.

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 10 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 per cent of our existence.

So, I think 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. f 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 per cent of the planet's population - North America, Europe and Asia, or Japan at least - now consumes over 80 per cent of the resources of the planet. It produced the vast bulk of toxic waste.

Now, I've been a full professor at U.B.C. since 1969 and every year around salary raise time, I've seen the full professors say: "Well, if we're getting a four-per-cent increase, it's got to be across the board, full professors have to get a four-per-cent increase like the assistant professors." But the full professors are pulling in these huge salaries and the assistant professors are saying: "Wait a minute now; your four-per-cent increase in salary is equal to my whole annual salary."

That's exactly what the Brundtland Commission is saying. We are 20 per cent of the world's population using 80 per cent of its resources and demanding that we still have our threeper-cent and four-per-cent growth every year. Our three-percent and four-per-cent growth is the equivalent of virtually everything that the rest of the world is using. There is something fundamentally inequitable about that. I would suggest then that we have to look at the economics itself and ask where we got off track. If you look at economics, you quickly realize that we are the only species on the planet that has a concept of economics. It's an invention of the human brain and it's fundamentally flawed because economics only sees value in the rest of the planet in terms of human utility. If it's got a use or worth to humans, then we say it has economic value. If it has no use to humans, then it's essentially worthless.

I thought of this a few years ago when the Japanese announced that they had found a way to use penguin skins to make gloves. You could practically hear the world's industrialists saying "Thank God someone found something to do with those bloody birds." Millions of them go to waste every year. That's the economic mentality, one species out of 30 million species defining what has value for the entire rest of the planet. There is something fundamentally wrong about that.

Today, human beings use 40 per cent of the net primary productivity on this planet. That means all of the energy trapped by photosynthesis by plants. One species out of 30 million and we will double in 50 years. Are we going to demand 80 per cent of the net primary production, because it is the removal of net primary productivity from the rest of the eco-system that is directly related to the extinction crisis that is going on. Underlying all of this demand for primary productivity is the need of economics, the need to continue to grow.

Now, I'm going to belabour this a bit because I suspect the vast majority of you are deeply embedded in the basic belief system in the importance of growth and economics. I would suggest that economics is fundamentally flawed because it makes no ecological sense. It is fundamentally flawed because around the world, global economics is addicted to a trillion dollars U.S. in military spending and to me that is a perversion. It is perverse to say that we must spend a trillion dollars in manufacturing and using machines of death. Economics today enslaves much of the Third World. It enslaves a country like Brazil.

Brazil is in such great debt, it is busy converting food crops' to cash crops. It's busy bringing in loans from the international community to finance mega projects to destroy the tropical rain forest, the greatest ecological treasure house anywhere on the planet. When the great Amazon forest is gone, Brazil will be as much in debt as it was before they began to repay the loan. Now, you can't tell me there isn't something fundamentally wrong with that if we are exchanging interest on debt for the greatest eco-system that has ever existed on this planet. We have to find a way of forgiving that debt.

Global economics as we have seen in the last election leads to claims by people like John Crispo at the University of Toronto who said: "If we don't have free trade, Canada is an imminent economic basket case." I heard a lot of that during the argument both for and against free trade.

Let's ask the question, what does it mean to say that we are an imminent economic basket case? Now, I had a long discussion with an eminent American economist, Kenneth Boulding, who said: If you want to get an idea of how rich your country is, try this thought exercise; suppose you go to sleep tonight, you wake up tomorrow and the rest of the world has vanished except for Canada and 200 miles of ocean all around. What would happen? Would we starve? Of course not, we are one of the wealthiest, we are the bread basket of the world. Would we freeze? We have massive deposits of oil, gas, coal and tar sands. Would we lack for anything in the home or workplace? Of course not. By any criterion you want to apply, Canadians are the envy of the vast majority of people on this planet. We have a highly educated population that can make anything that we need. Yet global economics says that we are an imminent economic basket case. What is the great marvel that we should all be following? Why, it's Japan of course. That powerful superpower in the world - that's the country that we have to emulate.

Well, let's try to follow Ken Boulding's thought exercise. Suppose the Japanese wake up tomorrow and discover that the rest of the world has vanished except for Japan and 200 miles of ocean? What would happen? Overnight they would be in deep trouble. They have so polluted the air, water and soil around those islands, they cannot support that country. Their fishing fleet is the equivalent of 20th Century buccaneers. They ply the seven seas raping the oceans to feed a country living very high on the ecological food chain. They have virtually no raw resources except forest. They have virtually no energy except low-grade geothermal energy. Overnight Japan would be plunged into a very primitive agrarian society.

Yet, it is global economics that says we are an imminent basket case and the Japanese are a superpower. I would suggest there are some loony tunes going on here. There is something fundamentally flawed about that.

Now finally, the addiction to growth. As I said, nothing in the universe continues to grow indefinitely. This is called exponential growth. The thing about exponential growth is that whatever is growing, it will double in a certain length of time. At two per cent it will double in 35 years, at three per cent it will double in 23 years, at four per cent in 17 years and so on. So everything has a doubling power.

Now, let me give you an example of an exponentially growing system to show you why it is ludicrous to think that we can continue to have steady exponential growth. I am going to give you a test tube full of food for bacteria. I am going to introduce one bacterial cell into this test tube and that cell is going to go through exponential growth. It is going to double every minute. So, at the beginning there is one cell. In one minute there are two, at two minutes there are four, and at three minutes there are eight and so on. That's exponential growth. At 60 minutes the test tube is completely full of bacteria and there is no food left. The question is: when is the test tube half empty? The answer is, of course, 59 minutes. At 59 minutes you still have half a test tube of food but you are going to be one minute away from filling it with bacteria. So at 58 minutes, the test tube is 25 per cent full of bacteria, at 57 minutes, 12.5 per cent. At 55 minutes it is only about three per cent full of bacteria.

If at 55 minutes one of the bacteria said:

"Hey guys, I think we have a population problem, I think we're running out of food and space," any sensible bacteria would say: "What the hell are you talking about? 97 per cent of the test tube is food and we have been here 55 minutes." And they would be five minutes away from filling it.

Now let's suppose bacteria are not much different from us; that at 59 minutes, a few of them finally smarten up and say: "I think we've got a problem, we better put every bit of resource into our genetic engineers and all our high tech guys and they have got to get us out of trouble." You know what they do? These hot shot scientists come up in 30 seconds with three new test tubes full of food and nobody in it. So they have now quadrupled the amount of space and food. What have they got? At 60 minutes the first test tube is full of bacteria, 61 minutes the second is full and at 62 minutes all four are full. Quadruple the space but keep exponential growth you buy two extra minutes. Now I can tell you that no amount of science and technology is going to quadruple our space and resources and that we are long past 55 minutes. We have to be thinking not of continued growth, or sustainable growth, or even zero growth, we have to talk about negative growth.

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 per cent 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. As animals, we depend for our nutrition on animals or plants that were once themselves living. Anyone who reflects on what we eat for food quickly has to realize that everything in our diet was itself once living. All our food needed 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. We as animals depend on clean air, we have sat in this room together for over an hour now and as Johnny Biosphere, a man at the Centre for Inland Waters, likes to tell children: "Having spent an hour here together, we now have in each of our bodies atoms that were once a part of everyone else in this room."

Air doesn't form this little bubble around our noses so that we only breathe in an out what is ours. Air is shared by everyone. Because air doesn't disappear after we've used it, it's finite and it's cycled back and forth again and again. We have air or atoms that were once in worms and birds and trees and fish. When I tell children this they almost always go: "Uh, Yech " They don't want to breathe that stuff.

It is a wonderful illustration of the fact that we don't in any way transcend our animalism. We are animals and the same applies to the water and again Jack Valentine, Mr. Johnny Biosphere, illustrates this with a story on Lake Superior 500 years ago when an Indian man was walking along the shores of Lake Superior on a hot summer day. He was sweating, so he dove into the lake to cool off and the sweat from his body washed into the lake with sodium and chloride ions. Five hundred years later when you take a drink of water from the tap in Toronto you're drinking sodium and chloride that came from the sweat of that man's body.

I'll run through this very quickly. Science, anyone who knows anything about science understands that it differs from all other ways of knowing because it focuses on a tiny part of nature. It separates it and isolates it from anything else. That's the power of science, its ability to concentrate on an isolated fragment of nature. Now, ever since Isaac Newton's time we have assumed that nature is like a big jigsaw puzzle. If you look at enough jigsaw puzzles you'll be able to put them all back together and get the complete picture. Physicists have known for a long time that if you look at a piece here and a piece there, when they come together they react with each other in ways that you cannot predict beforehand. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So we will never through scientific reductionism, reducing nature to small parts, be able to comprehend whole systems. We believe we can predict and manage the consequences of new technology. I won't go through that, let me just mention one other sacred truth and then I'll quit.

We believe, because we are in a democracy, we elect people to lead us into the future. Now, all of us look at the world in a very special way. We look at the world through the lenses of our own professions. So if you're a banker, if you're a lawyer, if you're a doctor, you look at the world through specialized eyes. I gave a talk in June in Montreal to the American Dental Association and every person I met first looked at my mouth and then at my eyes. It is perfectly understandable. My area is genetics. Whenever I look at a group like this I see mutants everywhere; I can't help it, so we all look at the world through this special lens.

Well, when you then look at who are our elected representatives in Ottawa, and I did this last year, over 70 per cent 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 and 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.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Bart Mindszenthy, Executive Vice-President of the Beloff Group Inc., and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Challenge of the 21st Century

Anecdotal examples of the state of our environment, and of our endangered species. Indications of the extent of the problem. Our general blindness to the problems and reasons for it. Consequences of continued apathy. Being driven by the priority of global economics. A look at how economics has changed in the last few decades. Growth, progress and profit: interchangeable terms. Some fundamental problems of our planet, and the way in which we use it. Taking a different approach to the need for growth. The impossibility of continued, steady exponential growth. Negative growth. The lack of understanding of science, particularly by elected representatives, and its implications. The need for a radically different notion of society's priorities. The need for a redefinition of the word progress and of our relationship with nature.