“We must put the ‘eco’ back in economics”

Today is Earth Day. What does the future hold for the planet? In the 2008 Commonwealth Lecture, David Suzuki argued that using up the rightful legacy of future generations reflects a suicidal illusion – and that a new “bottom line” is needed.

[Excerpts from David Suzuki’s lecture, “The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line”, are published here with the permission of Dr Suzuki and the inter-governmental organisation the Commonwealth Foundation, which hosted his address.]

Human beings are a truly remarkable species. We are able to conceive notions like democracy, science, equality before the law, justice and morality – concepts that have no counterpart in nature itself – but we have our shortcomings, too. We demarcate borders that often make no ecological sense: dissecting watersheds, fragmenting forests, disrupting animal migratory routes. These human boundaries mean nothing to the flow of water, the atmosphere or oceans, yet we try to manage these resources within these confines.

When human numbers were small, our technology simple and our consumption mainly for survival, nature was generally able to absorb our impact. Even so, it is believed that with simple stone spears and axes, the Palaeolithic people that migrated across the Bering Strait and down towards South America extinguished slow-moving mammals in their path.

As is well documented by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse and Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress, cultures have arisen, flourished and disappeared as human demands outstripped the carrying capacity of surrounding areas. In pre-history and even medieval times, humans were essentially tribal animals, confined to their tribal territory, perhaps meeting a couple of hundred people in a lifetime. They did not have to worry what tribes were doing on the other side of the ocean or giant lakes, or over mountains and deserts. But humanity has undergone an explosive transformation in the past century.

Consider this: in 1900 there were only a billion and a half human beings in the world. In a mere one hundred years, the population of the planet has quadrupled. Almost all the modern technology we take for granted has been developed and expanded since the late 1800s. Our consumptive appetite has grown rapidly since World War II, so today over 60% of the North American economy is built on our consumption, and ever since the end of World War II, economic globalisation has dominated the political and corporate agenda.

All of these factors – population, technology, consumption and the global economy – have amplified humanity’s ecological footprint, the amount of land and sea that it takes to provide for our needs and demands. The consequence is that we are now altering the chemical, physical and biological makeup of the planet on a geological scale. In the four billion years that life has existed on earth, there was never a single species able to do what we are now doing today.

The famous Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future, which came out in 1987, coined the phrase “sustainable development” and called for the protection of 12% of the land in all countries, a target which has absolutely no scientific basis and yet which very few countries have managed to achieve. But we are one species out of 15 to 30 million species on the planet and setting a target of protection of 12% of our land base for all the other species means that we seem to take it for granted that we can take over 88% of the land. And we seem determined to do it, to take over that 88%, destroying habitat and ecosystems around the world while driving tens of thousands of species to the brink of extinction every year.

We protect tiny patches of oceans as marine protected areas, while slaughtering fish and accidentally killing turtles, birds and marine mammals with long lines, drift nets and bottom trawlers. Boris Worm and his co-workers at Dalhousie University in Canada predict that if we continue to overfish, pollute and destroy habitat in the oceans, as we are today, every fish species currently exploited will be commercially extinct by 2048.

We have spread our toxic debris in the air, water and soil so that every one of us now carries dozens of toxic compounds in our bodies. … Our use of the air as a dumping ground for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, which in turn is now acidifying the oceans as carbon dioxide dissolves as carbonic acid.

We have no means of dealing with these global issues with the level of urgency now required. For the first time in history, we have to ask what the collective impact of all 6.6 billion human beings on earth will be. We have never had to do this before. We are tribal animals and it is difficult for us to get our heads around this task. We need the perspective of many of the small island states in the Commonwealth, states that are in imminent danger of being submerged by sea level rise from global warming.

The metaphor of the canary in the coal mine is very apt. I was there in Kyoto in 1997 when island states pleaded for action to protect their land, but to no avail. Perhaps that should not surprise us. Many of the rich industrialised nations who created the problem of climate change through the use of fossil fuels for their economic growth — some in the Commonwealth — are themselves in great danger from climate change, yet are very slow to respond. […]

My own country, Canada, is extremely vulnerable. We are a northern country and warming, we know, is going on more than twice as rapidly in the north as it is in temperate and equatorial areas. For decades Inuit people of the Arctic have begged for action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions because they can see the changes, but they have been ignored. Canada has the longest marine coastline of any country in the world and simple sea-level rise through thermal expansion will impact Canada more than any other nation on earth. And Canada’s economy continues to depend on climate-sensitive activities like agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism and winter sports. […]

I deliberately chose the title The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line because in Canada, the media, politicians and corporate executives repeat over and over again the mantra that the economy is the bottom line. I believe that this is totally misdirected attention. […]

In the late ’70s, I began to see that there was a different perspective on the whole issue. When my wife, Tara, and I began to work with First Nations [indigenous] people, I would hear them talk about Mother Earth and the sacred elements. To me, this was a nice metaphoric or poetic way of speaking, but they would correct me and insist that they meant it literally. The earth, they said, is our mother because it gives birth to us, creating us out of the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water.

On reflection, I realised they were absolutely right, and that science corroborates these ancient wisdoms. We environmentalists had framed the problem the wrong way. There is no environment out there separate from us here and no way to manage our interaction with it. There is no separation. We are the environment because we are created out of those elements of the earth.

Now that may seem obscure, but let me illustrate. When we were born and left our mother’s body, the very first thing we needed was a breath of air. From that moment, 15 to 40 times a minute, we need air until the last breath we take before we die. We do not even think about it. But let me ask you for the next minute and a half just to think about what happens when you take a breath. One to three litres of air sucked deep down into the most moist and warm parts of our bodies, our lungs. […] And when you exhale, you do not exhale all the air in your lungs. If you did that your lungs would collapse. About half of the air stays in your lungs even when you exhale.

The point I am trying to make is that you cannot draw a line that marks where the air ends and I begin. There is no line. The air is stuck to us and circulating through our bodies. We are air. It is a part of us and it is in us. Air is not a vacuum or empty space but a physical substance. We are embedded in a matrix of air and if you are air and I am air, then I am you; we are a part of this single layer that encompasses the planet. We are embedded in that air with the trees, the birds, the worms and the snakes, which are all a part of that web of living things held together by the atmosphere or the air. […]

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. We are air. 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. The environmental crisis is a crisis of human beings and we are treating ourselves as a repository for all of the pollution that we send out through our chimneys and tail pipes.

I will not elaborate on the other elements. Every one of us is at least 60% water by weight; we’re just a big blob of water with enough organic thickener added to keep from dribbling away on the floor. When you take a drink of water, you think it is London water. But in reality the hydrological cycle cartwheels water around the planet and 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. In North America, over 95% of our food is grown on the land. 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 the reality of the problem and prevent us from acting in the way that 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. London was the largest with 6½ million people. Tokyo was the seventh largest city in the world with 1½ 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. Farmers know about the movement of water and its necessity in the soil. You know how to build topsoil and fight off predators. You are much closer to the natural world when you are a farmer.

Cut ahead only a hundred years. By the year 2000, the population of the world had quadrupled to six billion, but now there were more than 400 cities with more than a million people. The ten largest cities in the year 2000 all had more than 11 million people. Tokyo was the largest city in the world with 26 million people. Can you imagine in a hundred years going from 1½ million to 26 million people? By the year 2000, especially in the industrialised nations, where 80% to 85% of us live in large cities, we have been transformed from a farming species into a large urban dweller.

We are city animals now, and in a city we live in a human-created environment where it becomes easy to think that we are special and different. We are so clever, we create our own habitat; we do not need nature. […]

If we are so ignorant of the fact that it is the biosphere, the zone of air, water and land that gives us … our electricity and water and food, and the biosphere that will absorb our waste when we are done with it, it becomes easy to assume and accept that the economy is the real bottom line. If we have got a good economy, we have good garbage collection and sewage treatment. It is what fills our stores with all the goods, it gives us a dependable source of electricity, and 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. Now I would have thought any other group in society would want the ecologists to hurry up and find out exactly what those conditions and principles are, so that we can design our systems to live within them.

But not economists. We have elevated the economy above everything else and this, I think, is the crisis we face. The economic system that has been foisted on people around the world is so fundamentally flawed that it is inevitably destructive. We must put the “eco” back into economics and realise what the conditions and principles are for true sustainable living. Let me just take a minute to give you the reasons why economics is out of sync.

First of all, nature performs all kinds of services. Nature pollinates all of the flowering plants; it is nature that decays material, returns it to the earth. It creates soil, participates in the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle and the water cycle. 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 that forest, as long as it is standing, performing all of those functions, has no economic value.

Economists believe the economy can grow forever. Not only do they believe it can grow forever, which it cannot, they believe it must grow forever. Since World War II, they have equated economic growth with progress. Nobody wants to stop progress, but if economic growth is what we define as progress, who is ever going to ask what an economy is for? With all this growth, are we happier? How much is enough? We do not ask those questions. We have fallen into the trap of believing that economic growth forever is possible and necessary. […]

We are promulgating an illusion that everything is all right by using up the rightful legacy of our children and grandchildren. That is not sustainable; it is suicidal. I believe that is the challenge for our time. 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.

Are there alternatives to the way we are living that allow us to live rich full lives without undermining the very life support systems of the planet?  There are plenty of answers and different paths to follow, as shown by individuals, organisations, corporations and governments in different parts of the world. …

All we need is the recognition that it is absolutelyurgent that we begin to make change and the will toworktowards the goal.

Excerpts from David Suzuki’s lecture are published here with the permission of Dr Suzuki and the Commonwealth Foundation. To read the full text of the lecture, presented in London in March 2008, see here.

David Suzuki is emeritus professor in sustainable development at the University of British Columbia and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, based in Vancouver, Canada.