Hearing David Suzuki

I had the opportunity through work to attend the 2009 Canadian Public Relations Society Conference in Vancouver this past June. The second afternoon luncheon was delivered by David Suzuki. I was so inspired and impressed by his talk. Now, that I have finally gotten around to writing my report on that conference and the Suzuki talk, I would like to offer it here for your reading pleasure.
The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Bottom line – David Suzuki

I have never had an opportunity to hear David Suzuki speak and it was by far the highlight of this conference. He was very well received, in particular given the corporate community that was gathered for the event and how his message often conflicted with corporate interests. My notes became sparser as the talk went on and I became more enthralled in the presentation, I apologise in advance for gaps.

Suzuki opened by stating that the environment and health care are the same issue, so if health care is ranked as the number one issue with Canadians, then the environment must be part of that discussion. He expanded to point out that if we are going to talk about climate change then we will have to talk about energy. All of these issues are interconnected and all of them have economic implications. There is little doubt that the future economy will be in green jobs.

Suzuki shared warning signs about how our environment is being affected by human activity. He shared about how his father and he would row out along the edges of English Bay and fish, and how that is impossible today due to overfishing. In fact, we’re fishing our way down the food chain: sardines and anchovies are the next big culinary delicacy because 90% of the big fish are gone. He talked about floating islands of debris, 150 feet thick, as large as Texas, existing in the middle of the oceans and how carbon dioxide is settling over the ocean, getting absorbed and converted into carbonic acid. He said every human has over 5 pounds of plastic absorbed within us.

Humans were once a local tribal people and we now have to ask ourselves what the collective impact of 6.7 billion of us is. Humans are now the most numerous mammal on the planet and carrying out the simple act of living comes with a massive ecological footprint. But, we don’t just carry on with simple living – technology amplifies the problem. Over 90% of teenage girls rate shopping as their number one leisure activity. We have an economy now that is so far beyond our necessities in life; that has shifted from providing our basic needs to servicing our extravagant wants. We buy all of our goods without any notion of where it comes from.

He then described how all human DNA can be traced back to Africa and he asked the audience to think about the first generation of naked hairless apes – who would have thought that they would become the dominant animal the whole world over. He argued that the only reason humans have become so dominant over the next 150,000 years is because of our superior intellect. Humans are curious and inventive. It is with that inventiveness that we have created this environmental problem, but it is also how we will solve it. We can affect the future by our behaviours of today; we can avoid the dangers and exploit the opportunities.

He criticized climate change deniers, saying that in this age of information explosion, you can find information to verify any misguided belief. Of note for educators, he argued that we need to have a greater degree of literacy to help them manage the information they receive.

In 1900, there were only 14 cities in the world with over a million people. In 1936, the world population was $1.4 billion and most people were farmers, who have an intimate understanding of the direct impacts of nature and climate. Now, there are 6.7 billion people and 400 cities that have a population of over a million. We don’t have a strong understanding of where our food comes from and where our garbage goes; as long as we have a strong economy, we don’t have to worry about it because it happens.

He noted that economy and ecology have the same root word (ecos, which means home) and we need to put the eco back into economics. He said the economic system is so fundamentally flawed that it can’t be fixed and that the last thing we should be doing is trying to get it up and running again the way it was.

Suzuki concluded by talking about how the economy can be structured to benefit the envioronment. He pointed out that Sweden has had a carbon tax since the early 1990s and while BCs tax is $10 per Tonne, Sweden’s is $100 per Tonne and its economy has actually grown by 44% in that time. He said we have to look at our natural resources differently. As long as forests are standing they are providing all sorts of functions from providing shelter for animals that we eat, to aiding the water cycle and converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Yet, a logger once pointed out to him, “what you environmentalists have to understand is that unless you’re willing to pay to keep those trees, then you can’t save them – they’re not worth anything until they are cut down.” After hearing that, Suzuki realized that the logger was right and he reiterated his thesis that environment and economy are the same issue and we will need an economic solution to solve the environmental problem.

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