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The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line - part 3

By Dr David Suzuki
May 16, 2008

There is a wonderful thought exercise which the American astronomer, Harlow Shapley, did many years ago. He asked "What happens to one breath of air?" How do you follow a breath of air? You breathe it, oxygen and nitrogen go into your body. When you breathe out, a lot of the oxygen never comes back out because we need it, and some of the nitrogen, which is 80 per cent of the air, stays in your body too.

About 1 per cent of the air is an element called argon, which is inert and does not react chemically with anything. You breathe it in, it goes into your body, and when you breathe out, it comes right back out. So argon is a very good marker or indicator for a breath of air. How many atoms of argon are there in one breath of air? Shapley calculates 3 x 1019. That means three followed by 19 zeros. Take it from me, that is a lot of argon!

If we follow one of my breaths of air it eventually diffuses across London, then England, and finally around the world. According to Shapley one year later, no matter where you are, every breath you take will have about 15 argon atoms from that original breath a year before. On that basis Shapley calculates every breath we take has millions of argon atoms that were once in the bodies of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ.

Every breath you take has millions of argon atoms that were in the bodies of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Every breath you take will suffuse life forms as far as we can see into the future. So air, surely, deserves to be seen as a sacred substance.

We think we are an intelligent creature, but what intelligent creature, knowing the role that air plays in our lives keeping us alive and connecting us to the past and into the future, would then proceed to use air as a garbage can and refuse to pay for putting carbon and all our pollutants into the atmosphere? We are using the air as a toxic dump. Whatever we do to the air we do to ourselves. So, you see, for me this is the shift in the way the environmental problem should be viewed.

I will not elaborate on the other elements. Every one of us is at least 60 per cent water by weight, we're just a blob of water with enough organic thickener added to keep from dribbling away on the floor. Any drink you take, wherever you are, has [some] molecules from every ocean on the planet, the canopy of the Amazon, the steppes of Russia. We are water. Whatever we do to water we do to ourselves.

We are the earth because every bit of our food was once alive. We are the earth through the food that we consume and yet we spray toxic chemicals directly onto the earth and the plants and animals we are going to eat. We even inject it into the creatures we are going to consume. We are the earth, and whatever we do to it we do to ourselves.

And we are fire because every bit of the energy in our bodies that we need to grow, move or reproduce is sunlight. Sunlight is captured by plants through photosynthesis and we then acquire it by eating the plants or the animals that eat the plants. When we burn that energy we release the sun's energy back into ourselves.

We are created by the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water and that is the way that we should frame our approach to "environmental problems".

Why are we failing to respond to this simple truth and acting on it? There are, I believe, a number of factors that blind us to reality and prevent us from acting in as we should. Two of them stand out for me. In 1900 the world population stood at 1½ billion people. There were only 16 cities with more than a million people. Most people in the world lived in rural village communities and when you are a farmer you understand the importance of weather and climate. You are much closer to the natural world when you are a farmer.

By the year 2000 the population of the world quadrupled to 6 billion, but now there were more than 400 cities with more than a million people and 80-85 per cent of us live in large cities. We have been transformed from farmers into urban dwellers. We are city animals and live in a human-created environment where it seems we do not need nature.

It becomes easy to assume and accept that the economy is the real bottom line. If we have a good economy we have good garbage collection and sewage treatment. It is what fills our stores with goods, it gives us electricity. The economy becomes the highest priority for urban dwellers.

Economics and ecology are words built on the same root - "eco" - from the Greek word "oikos" meaning home. Ecology is the study of home. Economics is the management of home. What ecologists try to do is to determine the conditions and principles that govern life's ability to flourish and survive. But not economists. We have elevated the economy above everything else and this, I think, is the crisis we face.

The economic system foisted on people around the world is fundamentally flawed and inevitably destructive. We must put the "eco" back into economics and realise what the conditions and principles are for true sustainable living. Here is why economics is out of sync.

First of all, nature performs all kinds of services. Nature pollinates the flowering plants, it is nature that decays material, returns it to the earth. It creates soil, participates in the nitrogen, carbon and water cycles. All of these are economically valuable services performed by nature but economists called them "externalities", by which they mean that they are not in the economic equation.

Economists externalise the real world that keeps us alive. I confronted this when we were fighting to prevent logging in a valley where my government had granted permission to a forest company. The native community said they did not want the trees cut so I went to help them fight for their forest and I encountered an executive of the forest company. He asked me whether "tree huggers" like me would be willing to pay for the trees in the valley, because if we were not, those trees would not have any value until someone cut them down. Of course, he was absolutely right!

You see, as long as those trees are alive, they are taking carbon dioxide out of the air and putting oxygen back. Not a bad service for an animal like us who depend on it, you might think. But to an economist that is an externality.

Those trees are clinging to the soil so when it rains the soil does not erode into and destroy the salmon spawning beds. That is an externality.

Those trees pump hundreds of gallons of water out of the soil, transpire it into the air to affect weather and climate. That is an externality. That tree provides habitat to countless bacteria, fungi, insects, mammals and birds. That is an externality. So in our crazy system the forest, as long as it is standing, performing all of those functions, has no economic value.

Economists believe the economy can and must grow forever. Since World War II they have equated economic growth with progress. If economic growth is what we define as progress, who is ever going to ask what an economy is for? How much is enough? We have fallen into the trap of believing that economic growth forever is possible and necessary.

I am going to show you why this is absolutely suicidal. Anything growing steadily over time is called exponential growth and whatever is growing exponentially has a predictable doubling time, whether it is the amount of garbage you make, the amount of water you use, or the human population. So, if the population is growing at 1 per cent a year it will double in 70 years; 2 per cent a year it will double in 35 years; 3 per cent - 23 years; 4 per cent in 17.5 years. Anything growing exponentially will double predictably.

I am going to show you why it is suicidal to think we can keep growing forever. Let me give you a test tube full of food for bacteria; this represents our world. I am going to put one bacterial cell into that test tube (representing us), and it is going to divide every minute; that is exponential growth. So at time zero you have one cell; one minute you have two; two minutes you have four; three minutes you have eight; four minutes you have 16. That is exponential growth and at 60 minutes the test tube is completely full of bacteria and there is no food left, a 60-minute cycle.

When is the test tube only half full? Well the answer of course is at 59 minutes; but a minute later it is filled. So at 58 minutes it is 25 per cent full; 57 minutes 12½ per cent full. At 55 minutes of the 60-minute cycle it is only 3 per cent full. So, if at 55 minutes one of the bacteria said to its companions that they have a population problem, the other bacteria would be incredulous because 97 per cent of the test tube would be empty and they had been around for 55 minutes. Yet they would have only 5 minutes left.

So bacteria are no smarter than humans and at 59 minutes they realise they only have a minute left. So they give massive amounts of money to scientists, and in less than a minute those bacterial scientists invent three test tubes full of food. That would be like adding three more planets for our use. So it would seem that they (and we) would be saved.

What actually happens is this - at 60 minutes the first tube is full; at 61 minutes the second is full; and at 62 minutes all four are full. By quadrupling the amount of food and space, you buy two extra minutes!

The biosphere is fixed and finite and we are past the 59th minute. We are accelerating down what is a suicidal path. We have created a system that is completely out of balance with the real world that keeps us alive, and climate change is a part of the problem that we have created with this kind of economic system.

We have to set a new bottom line, a bottom line dictated by the reality that we are biological creatures, completely dependent for our survival and well being on clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity. We are social animals who need strong families and supportive communities, full employment, justice, equity and security and freedom from racism, terror, war and genocide. And we remain spiritual beings who need sacred places in the natural world that gave us birth.

To the many individuals who ask me whether there are effective things they can do to reduce their personal ecological footprint, the David Suzuki Foundation, working with the Union of Concerned Scientists, came up with a list of ten effective actions that we call the Nature Challenge.

We are challenging individuals to commit to doing at least three of the suggested steps in the coming year and to date have more than 365,000 Canadians signed on.

It is clear that political and corporate priorities are focused on too short a timescale, the political agenda being determined by elections and corporate priorities by the quarterly reports. We suggested looking ahead a generation and deciding the kind of future we would like: where the air is clean and children no longer come down with asthma; a country with forests that can be logged forever because it is being done properly; where we can drink water from any river and lake as I did as a child; a place where we can catch and eat a fish without worrying about what contaminants are in it.

In the nine categories of action, achieving genuine wealth, efficiency, clean energy, waste and pollution, water, healthy food, conserving nature, sustainable cities and promoting global sustainability, we believe we can achieve the desired goal in each. So what are we waiting for?

Source: This is the final part of an edited speech given by Dr David Suzuki at 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London, in March 2008.

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