David Suzuki: an elder’s vision

David Suzuki says by ignoring warnings of over-consumption and its dire consequences, we are following 99.9999% of our fellow animal species to extinction; and the Greens convene a cross-party economic conference, populated mostly by Greens

David Suzuki chuckles, remembering a sign he saw on a shop door (“no animals allowed”) and parents’ reaction when he told their children that’s what they are: just animals. “Boy, were they pissed off … we don’t like to be told that,” he comments dryly. He told the shop owner, too, who didn’t get the joke.

Asked to speak to the working title ‘a sustainable economy for the world’, he says he’s a scientist, not an economist — and, more crucially, what he terms an ‘elder’. So instead, he talks about what we need, not want, to hear, which was animals: frogs, and ostriches, and us — the naked ape.

However, his key note address to Friday’s meeting at Parliament, ‘A Sustainable Economy for New Zealand’, was right on song, because it came round, in the end, to an economic prescription, too.

So: animals, starting with the apocryphal frog, who doesn’t notice her water warming, from 97, to 98, to 99 degrees. A young skipper, harvesting swordfish out of Boston, describes her trips up around Newfoundland, and boasts of big fish, like the 200 pound one the other day. Her older colleague used to fish a few miles out of Boston and if he caught anything under 200 pounds, threw it back.

Suzuki and his wife have a holiday cabin on an island. Arriving from the city, he says it seems a paradise. Their elderly neighbour, in his eighties, remembers bounty beyond imagining, when they would rake in herring out of the kelp beds to fill a basket, and salmon were so many, you could hear them running up the river.

And ostriches: scientists, he says, have warned for forty years that we would, about now, be falling off a cliff, citing Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, The Population Bomb, the Club of Rome.

He holds up a pamphlet issued in November 1992, signed by over 1500 eminent scientists, over half the Nobel Prize winners alive at that time. Scientists don't, he said, routinely go around signing documents like this. It said if growth continues unchecked, it risks irreversible change, to the point where the planet may not sustain life. It said no more than “one or a few decades remain” before the chance to avert this threat is lost, and prospects for humanity diminished. It said great change in our stewardship is required, to avoid great misery.

If it was a frightening document, he says, the response of the media was terrifying: there wasn’t one. However, 1992 was the year of the so-called Rio ‘Earth Summit’, and two decades on, we know its ambivalent results: Copenhagen, and Nagoya.

Suzuki sat on the board of the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which reported in 2005. The newspaper put it on page three; the day after that, the Pope got sick and died, and so did the story of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Before he came here, he toured Australia. On the day he arrived, the Global Biodiversity Outlook had been issued, estimating nearly a quarter of all plant species to be at risk of extinction. The Aussie dollar had also reached parity with the US. The media was very excited, about the second story; not so much, or at all, the first.

We used to believe in dragons and demon spirits, he says; now we follow the economy like a witch doctor with the chicken entrails. We define ourselves as ‘consumers’, and consumption is seen as a public good: after 9/11, George Bush told people to go out and shop, for their country, as it were.

Suzuki didn’t, in fact, explicitly mention either frogs or ostriches (let alone frogs, ostriches, and us in the same sentence) — but take from those anecdotes what you will.

He did call us ‘naked apes’, with the largest brain to brawn ratio in biological history — hardly a new observation. The resulting memory, curiosity, and inventiveness, he says, has more than compensated for our lack of other gifts: mankind is the most numerous mammal, there have never been as many of one mammalian species.

He describes the ‘hockey stick’ graph of our population explosion (100,000 years to reach a billion, and a further 200 years to multiply that by 6.9). On to that ‘hockey stick’, he claims, you can pretty much superimpose all of the other variables (carbon emissions, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and so on); they all follow roughly the same now-familiar pattern.

It’s been called the ‘Anthropocene’, as opposed to the Holocene: the period in which man began affecting environmental stability on a geological scale. However, unlike the other 99.9999% of species that ever existed — that have gone extinct (extinction of species, he comments, is normal) — we alone know we can change the future, by what we do today.

Having done so much of this already, accidentally, some are now devising further, quite deliberate, interventions, to save us from rethinking other habits. Suzuki said this to Kim Hill, in interview a few weeks ago:

… and now scientists are seriously discussing actually trying to manipulate the climate itself, the climate engine, with further technology, but this is mega technology, called geo-engineering. This has got to be the most dangerous, I think immoral, thing that I can imagine. … We think that we know so much that we can actually control these massive complex forces that are what we call the atmosphere? I think this is absolute madness.

We think we’re so bloody important, so damn clever, he added — warming to his theme on Friday — but this is the definition of insanity, doing what you’ve always done and expecting to get different results.

Suzuki is, as he said, a scientist, who knows that we live in a world shaped and controlled by scientific realities: natural physical principles, that cannot be exceeded or changed. At Nagoya, parties resolved to try to protect 17% of the biosphere. Suzuki says, if earth was shrunk to basketball size, the biosphere would be a layer of varnish on the outside of it. We are one species, out of 30 million, seeking to occupy 83% of that, not whatever a 30-millionth would be.

His economic prescription, therefore, was the need to bow to ecological reality, and remember our place in the scheme of things. And having rhetorically set that key note, he left — leaving us to try to work out what that means in practice, for New Zealand.

So we know the problem: the collateral problem now is what to do about it. Green MP Kennedy Graham organised the conference, to talk about economic theory, and how to write sustainable policy, in the light of the environmental problem.

As an aside, it was yet another example (and I could point to half a dozen) of so-called green ‘naysayers’ trying harder to confront, collectively and constructively, the issues of our time, than any of those other ‘naysayers’ on other parts of the political spectrum, who fail to perceive any problem ... or to attend the conference.

Is there agreement the carrying capacity of the planet has reached its limits? How might ‘neoclassical’ and ‘ecological’ economic theories connect, if at all? Is ‘strong sustainability’ (where econo- and sociospheres are subsets of the biosphere) accepted as a model? What is the place of growth, and does it differ for developed and developing countries?

Rod Oram, Brian Fallow, and Colin James (with apologies from Bryan Gould) convened. Speakers addressed, briefly, all sorts of perspectives on what a sustainable economy might look like: business, labour, agriculture, trade, conservation, and more.

But all day, it tended towards rehearsing well-known Green policies. It sketched out a sort of proposition or vision, but not one very likely to be challenged by the largely green (and Green) audience, who were more inclined to treat their favourites to bursts of applause. Cross-party and public debate on the theory, and the putting of it into practice, was for another day.

Still, you have to start somewhere; and believe me, I sympathised, because it struck me as kind of like writing a Pundit post: chipping away, foundation-laying, mostly on your own. You never know: today might be the day the conversation starts.