Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Letter to my grandchildren
So here we are, my dears. My generation and the boomers who followed have partied as if there is no tomorrow.
So here we are, my dears. My generation and the boomers who followed have partied as if there is no tomorrow.
My lovely ones,
You are living through a moment unprecedented in all of human existence. The sudden confluence of explosive growth in human numbers, technological dexterity, and consumptive demand is having a huge impact on the properties of the planet itself. Some of the consequences include an alteration in the biological and chemical composition of the atmosphere, water, and soil and massive geophysical change in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. It means that you are heading toward huge changes in weather and climate as well as in the biological productivity of forests, reefs, wetlands, and prairies. The scientific warnings of our potential fate have been issued with increasing urgency over decades, but there has been reluctance to meet the challenge on the scale that is needed. The question is why.
Some reasons are obvious. For one thing, unless faced with an immediate crisis on the order of Pearl Harbor or Fukushima, politicians are extremely risk averse; they don’t want to make commitments that will involve a huge outlay of money or will take many years to complete, though recent history is full of examples of governments jumping into hostilities that consume them for years. For another thing, a corporation’s highest priority is to maximise profit as quickly as possible. To bring about real change, we have to see that the real world—the one that sustains us, that lies beyond politics and economics—is nature, and that the barriers to action are psychological. I love and agree with Murray’s plea that one must make a commitment in confronting a crisis, but that is the hardest thing to do because we all see the world through beliefs and values that are powerfully influenced by politics and economics.
In our struggles to solve problems—like shifting from clear-cut logging to ecosystem-based management, reducing greenhouse gases by moving to renewable energy, or calculating the value of the ecosystem services of nature before building dams or opening a new subdivision, imposing regulations and a tax on market transactions, or moving toward a no-net-growth economy—the most difficult challenge is to overcome the mind-set that does not believe that something is possible or that fears that if that thing is instituted, it will be incredibly destructive. As Al Gore pointed out in his film An Inconvenient Truth, the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of two parts: one meaning “danger” and the other, “opportunity.” This is a profound insight—that a moment of great threat becomes a chance to commit to a different path, to do things differently and avoid exacerbation or repetition of the dangerous situation. Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.”
A crisis provides the chance to get it right. In 2008, the world experienced an economic meltdown after big banks made easy loans to people who could not repay on the faulty assumption that property value would rise forever. When the property buyers defaulted and banks could no longer cover the money paid out, we had a fantastic opportunity to get things right by reining in the banks and their greedy CEOs. Instead, U.S. president George W. Bush, and then President Barack Obama, somehow found hundreds of billions of dollars to give to the banks simply to get them back up and running again—a perfect example of that definition of insanity. Meanwhile, proponents of renewable energy have to beg for crumbs. Think of what could be done if the trillions committed to bailing out banks were committed instead to moving us onto a different path!
Over and over again, when confronted with dangers from our current practices in energy, forestry, mining, pharmaceuticals, and more, we fail to find different ways of approaching the problem. If the use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change, the fossil fuel industry should see its mandate as providing energy, not fossil fuels, and find new sources that do not create greenhouse gases; if clear-cut logging is destructive and unsustainable, the forest industry should look to an ecosystem-based way of harvesting trees and thereby maintaining the integrity of the forests while enabling logging to continue; and so on. But the mind of executives is usually set too strongly to countenance radical change, even when the health of the entire biosphere and your futures are at stake, as they are with climate change.
In 1973, during the Arab–Israeli war, OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum-Exporting Countries), a consortium of mostly Arab states, decided to put pressure on the West by decreasing the amount of oil sent to Western countries. Gas prices skyrocketed, and oil shortages led to long lineups at gas stations. There was real panic as industrialised countries realised how vulnerable they were in their dependence on oil from the Middle East. (As I write this, the power of OPEC is again in view as member nations and the United States have created a glut that has sent prices crashing.)
In response to that crisis, Canada set up a committee under the eminent scientist Ursula Franklin to study how the country should respond to the threat posed by OPEC. In 1977, Franklin completed her report, Canada as a Conserver Society, which recommended that we use our resources much more efficiently, conserve them by reducing waste, and move into renewable energy, such as wind, which would provide an opportunity for Canada to become a world leader in a new area. It was a prescient piece of work, and just think of what could have happened had we made a commitment to those goals! Canada could have been a world leader in an area that is exploding today. Instead, the report was accepted, put on the shelf, and soon forgotten. We reverted to the old ways as soon as the oil flowed again.
Denmark was equally alarmed by the OPEC embargo, but its response was to seek alternative energy sources, most notably, wind. Engineers had scoffed at the notion that windmills could contribute significant amounts of energy, pontificating that it was impossible to produce more than 2 percent of a country’s energy needs with wind. Like the “experts” who pronounced it impossible for machines to fly, those early engineers were expressing limits imposed by their own mind-set, not those set by nature. Denmark made a commitment to reduce dependence on oil and now aims to produce close to half of its electricity from wind.
Over and over, we are told that solutions to problems are “impossible,” usually on the basis of economic cost, but seldom because of real scientific or engineering barriers, and almost always because the blocks are in our minds. Laws of nature do limit what is possible, of course. From physics, for example, we know we can’t build a spaceship that will travel faster than the speed of light, an antigravity machine on Earth, or a perpetual motion machine. Laws of chemistry involving atomic properties and rates of diffusion and reaction dictate the chemical reactions that can be carried out and the kinds of molecules that might be synthesised. And in biology, all species are constrained by their ecosystems’ carrying capacity (the maximum number of a plant or animal species that can be supported indefinitely by a habitat or ecosystem), the species’ energy needs, and their metabolic requirements for air, water, and food. Our species’ ability to adapt to many different ecosystems does not remove us from the constraints of carrying capacity, because it is the bio- sphere that ultimately imposes limits on sustainable populations.
But other things are not fixed and can be changed. Borders delineating human political boundaries, governments, capitalism, the economy, corporations, markets, and currency—these are not forces of nature; they are human constructs and so can be modified and regulated to conform to the boundaries dictated by nature. But we react and respond to those global factors by acting as if our creations somehow are inviolable and must be maintained, so we try to shoehorn nature into our priorities and make her conform to our needs.
For years, the David Suzuki Foundation and I have opposed salmon farms, not because we are against fish farming but because we are against how it’s done and what is farmed. There are three strong reasons for opposing the salmon farms in British Columbia. First, the fish are grown in open net pens. That means that faeces and food pellets fall through the mesh and pollute the ocean, while diseases such as infectious salmon anaemia (ISA), infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN), furunculosis, and bacterial kidney disease, as well as parasites like sea lice, can explode in the cramped nets and spread to infect wild fish in the vicinity.
Second, salmon are carnivores and so have to be fed pellets made of perfectly edible fish. Other than alligators, terrestrial carnivores aren’t farmed for meat. That would be like raising tigers for their meat by feeding them chickens, pigs, or goats. It wouldn’t make sense, but carnivorous fish seem to be acceptable as farm animals. The salmon will eat pellets containing plants, but when the amount of plants reaches a certain level, the salmon flesh is considered unappetising for human consumption. In other words, we can’t convert a carnivore into a herbivore and still want to eat it.
Third, most of the salmon grown in Pacific farms are an Atlantic species. Unlike all of the Pacific salmon species (except for steelheads), Atlantic salmon are repeat spawners, meaning that unlike the Pacific salmon, they don’t die after spawning. Instead they lay their eggs, go back out to sea, and come back again, perhaps as many as three or four times. So they are tough. I once filmed salmon caught in a net that had been put into Lake Ontario. It was a mix of Pacific (coho, chinook) and Atlantic salmon. All of the Pacific fish were dead, but every one of the Atlantics was still alive and kicking. If there are already five species of salmon spawning on the west coast, why on earth deliberately introduce another species with the risk that the fish will escape and outcompete the Pacific salmon? They escape from farms by the thousands every year, but the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has long argued that Atlantic salmon do not reproduce in Pacific rivers. That’s because DFO once deliberately tried to introduce Atlantic salmon in the Pacific by dumping thousands of them into those waters. The fish never managed to spawn successfully, so DFO has repeatedly stated that they simply cannot make it in the Pacific. Then biologist John Volpe found that not only were Atlantic salmon successfully spawning in the Pacific, but two-year-old salmon were being caught at sea. Even though DFO is mandated to protect the wild species, it has never moved to ban raising millions of an alien species.
The solution to all three objections is obvious. First, put the animals in hard containers, either in the water or on land. After years of arguing that that would be too expensive, the salmon-farm industry is being shown that it can be done on land by a First Nations community on Vancouver Island and another operation in the state of Washington.
Second, if carnivores must be raised, then clearly feeding them fish that are caught in other waters is not sustainable. In fact, not only is fish meal fed to salmon and other farmed fish species like cod, it is also a food supplement for chickens. So demand is growing while the population of fish used in the feed is decreasing, and the rapidly rising price of fishmeal reflects that. For years, I proposed that if we must raise salmon, then insects might be a viable alternative feed, something that Brad Marchant, a businessman and entrepreneur, seized on. Today, his company, Enterra, uses waste food, which the city of Vancouver pays him to take, and feeds it to an insect called the soldier fly. Eighty percent of the food waste is water, which evaporates, while the food that goes through the larval digestive tracts comes out as high-grade fertiliser and the larvae provide high-quality feed for fish and chicken alike.
Third, all rearing of Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters should stop, period. Although solutions to each of the problems exist, the mind-set that justifies continuation of the old ways remains the biggest challenge to implementing what must be done.
For years, environmentalists fought the forestry practices of clear-cut logging. If you’ve ever seen a large clear-cut, you know you don’t have to be a forester to feel in the pit of your gut that it’s simply wrong. James Gosnell was one of the great Nisga’a chiefs, a brilliant orator and ferocious fighter for his people. He once told me about his first encounter with a clear-cut forest. He had been walk- ing along a familiar trail when suddenly he came out onto an opening. He said he couldn’t breathe because he felt the earth “had been skinned.” How could anyone treat a forest that way? he wondered. Forest companies argued that to be globally competitive, they had to use clear-cutting; it was too expensive to cut selectively.
To forestry companies, a forest is simply “fibre” (for paper) or lumber, not a complex community of organisms. They treat the forest as an agricultural field, in which all uneconomic species are considered “weed” species. (One of these weeds was yew trees, until they were found to possess a potent anti-cancer compound.) All the debris from clear-cut logging (called “slash”) is collected and burned, then small trees are planted, like so many vegetables. Insecticides are sprayed, fertiliser is spread, and herbicides are often used, all to raise a “crop” of trees. These destructive practices are rationalised by the mind-set that a forest can be simplified into useful tree species. But the forest and all the ecosystem services the intact ecosystem per- forms are ignored and thus lost.
And so it goes. When cars were first devised, all manner of options emerged—steam-driven cars, electric cars, gas-powered cars… Because gas is portable, packed with energy, and cheap, the internal combustion engine took over. Some modifications were made, but still they burned fossil fuel. GM’s ill-fated electric car was a grand experiment that fell victim to a mind-set that simply wouldn’t accept it as a viable alternative. Today, electric vehicles promise to be the future of automobiles, but it has taken decades to reach this point and resistance is still high.
The auto industry prides itself on its creativity and ingenuity, but it should be ashamed of the flimsy excuses it raised against higher emission standards, seat belts, and mileage targets. The same criticism applies to the fossil fuel companies. Refusing to acknowledge that their game is energy, they cling to the notion that fossil fuels are so deeply embedded in our way of life that no other form of energy is realistic.
We boast of our intelligence, and yet the most abundant form of energy, available everywhere on the planet and acknowledged, even worshipped, by cultures of the past, is sunlight. What an opportunity for every human-created surface—buildings, roads, vehicles, clothes—to harvest this form of energy! No need for oil wells in deep waters, distant jungles, or arctic settings; no need for extreme sources like tar sands and shale; no need for transport by long pipelines, ships, trains, or trucks. And no more health costs from emissions after burning or during extraction. All it takes is a mind shift, a look at the problem through other lenses.
But industries are quick to promise that they can find solutions while keeping on the same old path. It’s strange that when industries assure us how wonderful they are, we pay so little heed to their track records. They tell us how marvellous their technology is and how they will use world-class techniques to avoid spills, but if spills happen, don’t worry—they will clean it all up. Really? Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, you just have to turn over a rock in Prince William Sound to find traces of that oil. And in the biggest spill ever, BP’s offshore explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the “solution” to the escaping oil was not capturing it but burning it on the surface of the sea or spreading massive amounts of toxic detergent to break up the slicks so it could sink out of sight. It is mind boggling to think that fossil fuel companies have any credibility worth listening to when they make their submissions about how safe their activity is and how dependable they are now and will be in the future.
Would you believe that nuclear energy was once touted as so cheap it wasn’t worth monitoring how much you use? Today we know that nuclear energy is the most expensive form of energy there is. We have no solution for how to handle waste, yet after the experiences of Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear energy is still put forth as a solution to climate change.
We are told over and over that engineers design these systems to be “foolproof.” Tell that to the people at Fukushima or Chernobyl. And what about Three Mile Island?
Besides, what is a foolproof technology? It’s a system “free of fools.” Yet who among us hasn’t been a fool at some time in our lives? We catch a cold but come to work anyway because we can’t afford to lose a pay-check. We go to a party and drink way too much, so when we go to work, we’re still hungover. We fall in love and lose fifty IQ points. All kinds of circumstances cause us to act foolishly. The only foolproof technology, as HAL, the computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, recognised, is one in which humans are removed from the equation.
There have to be other ways of doing things that do not involve putting whole ecosystems or even the entire biosphere at risk. The most important thing to do is recognise that we cannot continue as we have, that we have to take a different path. Instead of rationalising, justifying, raising phony objections, lying, we need corporations and governments to change their mind-sets and to make the commitment to change their actions. Once the commitment is made, as Murray says, new avenues open up.
Have you ever seen films of penguins, on the edge of the ice, about to leap into the ocean but afraid to because of carnivorous leopard seals waiting for them? I feel we are like that with issues like climate change. The penguins hesitate, diddle around. Finally, one of them takes the plunge, and then all the others follow, because together their risk of being caught and eaten is reduced. The one that is first takes the biggest risk but also has first crack at whatever the group is going after.
Let me end this letter with one final story. I was beginning my last year of college in 1957 when an epidemic of Asian flu hit campus. I caught it and staggered to the infirmary to check in. (A funny thing was all the other guys in the infirmary with the flu hissed at me because I was Asian. Good-naturedly, of course.) I lay there in bed so sick that all I could do was listen to the radio. Suddenly, on October 4, I was electrified to hear that the Soviet Union had launched a satellite into space. It was sensational. I hadn’t even known there was a space program.
This was during the Cold War, and the Soviets were frightening, as they were taking over governments in Africa and South America. For the Americans, every hour and a half, the beep-beep of Sputnik was a reminder of Soviet technological might. As the United States ramped up its space program, recruiting seven “astronauts” with great fanfare, the Soviets piled up one space first after another: the first animal, a dog, Laika; the first man, Yuri Gagarin; the first team of cosmonauts; the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova. It was clear that the USSR was very advanced in science, engineering, and medicine.
Americans didn’t shrink from the challenge, moan about the Soviets’ great lead, or object to the cost of catching up. Instead they threw themselves into the challenge—forming NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Association) in 1958, pouring money into science departments in universities, supporting students in science. It was a glorious time even for a foreign student like me. We just had to indicate an interest in science, and all kinds of opportunities opened up. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a plan to get an American astronaut safely to the moon and back before the end of the decade, thus beating the USSR in a space race. It was an audacious goal, since it was far from clear how or whether the nation could do it. But they made the commitment to try, and on July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the first human landing there.
It was an astounding achievement, because it was accomplished in less than a decade and because the United States was the first—and so far the only—country to land people on the moon. But even more impressive are all the unexpected benefits of the space race. Since 1976, NASA has published Spinoff, listing hundreds of technologies that have resulted from space efforts, ranging from laptop computers and GPS to twenty-four-hour news networks to freeze-dried food, space blankets, cordless vacuums, cochlear implants, and ear thermometers. And Americans still feature prominently every year when Nobel Prize winners are announced—all because in 1957, the United States made the commitment to catch up to and pass the Soviet Union in space. I tell my American friends, “It’s un-American to say ‘meeting the challenge of climate change is too great’ or ‘will cost too much.’ That’s not the American way. The America I knew and admire would seize on this opportunity and commit to solving it in the knowledge that enormous unpredictable benefits will fall out along the way.” The most important thing in meeting any challenge is, as Murray said, to make the commitment.
So here we are, my dears. My generation and the boomers who followed have partied as if there is no tomorrow. We didn’t see that we were leaving you a world depleted of diversity and opportunity and heavy with impending ecological crises. Given the enormous growth in the scientific community and the tools it has to assess the state of the world, we, uniquely among all animals, have the potential to act on our foresight. We know we can affect the future by what we do today. But we have all kinds of cultural and social blinders, such as religion and economics, that make it difficult to recognise the hazards we face.
Youth today are relatively uninvolved in politics, and that’s understandable; without an ability to vote, young people cannot directly affect an election outcome. But you have everything at stake in what is or is not done by politicians today. I believe that the warriors on behalf of your future have to be parents and grandparents. That’s our job—that’s what we commit to when we have children. Parents have to make your future a political issue and demand that politicians act to move along a different path. History informs us that the most important step is to make the commitment to change, to move toward a different future, one that will be richer in opportunity and that will inflict fewer challenges on you and your children. Once a commitment is made, as W.H. Murray says, “all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance” will pop out, and the important thing is, he says, quoting Goethe, to “begin it.”
Published with permission from the book Letters to My Grandchildren by David Suzuki.