ET - Environment Topic - Doctor Suzuki Down Under : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Doctor Suzuki Down Under

Story Link

All is not lost
Monday 6 March 2000

From the 50th floor of the Sofitel, all looks well in the heat-hazy, leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

That's the problem in Western societies, contends the evergreen Dr David Suzuki, glancing out at the view. Too many illusions, starting with the benefits of globalisation.

It's the kind of blunt observation that strikes popular chords but which has also earnt the Canadian geneticist-turned-broadcaster a reputation as a doomsayer. He nods and readily agrees to the charge.

On the face of it, perhaps his critics even have a point.

For all the predictions that the ecological apocalypse is nigh, starting with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring 40 years ago, we humans do seem to be still here, muddling through as always. But if it looks that way from where we in the West are sitting, Suzuki says that's because we have distanced ourselves from the ecological, human and economic degradation on which our culture of consumption depends. In short: "We are living in a fool's paradise."

Suzuki knows his message sounds particularly churlish to the ears of true believers in the free market. After all, the world has enjoyed unprecedented, sustained trade expansion since World War II _ and never more so than in the past decade, the era of globalisation.

Corporations and shareholders are making dizzying amounts of money, and consumer goods are more plentiful and cheaper than ever.

"And so when people like me come and say there is a crisis, people say, 'What are you talking about?' " Suzuki says. "Everybody is making lots of money. They don't realise that it is all coming at the expense of the large support systems of the Earth, so we are now using air, water and soil just to dump our industrial effluent.

"If you go through your stores here and buy products, most of them aren't raised or made in Australia. They are coming from around the world. That is called globalisation. So you can trash Indonesia, you can trash Malaysia, you can trash Africa, but you have the illusion that we have enormous wealth. You only have to go to the slums of Shanghai or Bombay, and you see the other side of the (level of) wealth that we are living at."

Such is the uncomfortable big picture painted by scientists, activists and economists interviewed in Suzuki's latest book, Naked Ape to Superspecies, co-written with journalist and researcher Holly Dressel. By turning the spotlight on the global dynamics of trade, finance, culture, science and technology, Suzuki illuminates the paradox of our times. For despite widespread community awareness of environmental issues, the major global indicators _ climate change, pervasive air, soil and water pollution, biodiversity collapse _ continue to spiral down.

"The problem is we measure our success by how rich we are and how many people are billionaires, but we don't measure it by how well our most vulnerable, our most impoverished people are doing," Suzuki says. "If they are not part of the economic growth, what kind of an economic system is that? And we in the rich countries have accumulated the vast bulk of the wealth on the planet while the rest of the world has gone to hell.

"You could say, how can we live so well? We don't see any detriment around us. Well, the fact is you do see detriment. One out of every four children under the age of five in Australia has asthma. Our own children are the canaries in the coal mine. They are telling us something is wrong; you look at allergies. One out of eight women in Canada has breast cancer. That is not normal. We have epidemic levels of prostate cancer, of lymphoma.

``So what do we think we're doing? We think that we are living well.'' Among ordinary people, however, Suzuki detects a growing discomfort about the values underpinning the direction in which globalisation is taking humanity. He has lost count of his visits to Australia over the past 12 years _ between 15 and 20, he thinks _ but is more in demand than ever. In his first four days, he packed in 47 media interviews and six public lectures.

One was in Bendigo, where 700 people paid $100 a head to sit down to dinner and listen to Suzuki speak. He was invited by the publishing editor of the Castlemaine-based Green Connections magazine, Joy Finch, who started out four months ago with a dream of bringing together local government, business and community in central Victoria to make ecological sustainability work. Finch met Suzuki during a previous visit and thought he could be the drawcard to articulate the common goal for all those diverse interests and get the ball rolling. The response was overwhelming.

The event was intended as a showcase of how things ought to be done. All produce in the three- course dinner, plus wines and juices, was organic. The cavernous, salmon- hued convention centre was lit by green power for the night; the menus were on recycled paper. Proceedings opened with a performance and welcome by the region's traditional owners, the Dja Dja Warung people.

Members of the Alternative Technology Association and CERES Environment Park even drove up from Melbourne in a modified van fuelled by used fish-and-chip oil.

Just as prescient, perhaps, was the eclectic audience packed around the tables _ a melting pot of stiff blue suits and open-weave shirts, cocktail dresses and loose florals. Many more gathered at 16 tertiary education institutes around the state to watch and ask questions via the Internet. Suzuki told the audience he was overwhelmed by the public interest. "I thought Australians were bored with hearing from me," he says later, shrugging when asked why his star refuses to wane. "I don't know what it is. I just seem to strike a particular chord in Australians. I think it is because Australians have a strong green core."

The pendulum may well be swinging globally, too. Suzuki regards the riots over environmental, human and labor rights that preceded the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle last December as a turning point.

In the scenes of burly longshore unionists linked arm in arm in the streets with indigenous people, farmers and teenagers dressed in butterfly and turtle costumes, Suzuki sees the future of environmental activism. Rather than being about saving this or that bit of forest or furry animal, it will be a more holistic approach that addresses the root causes of degradation.

"For me, one of the biggest realisations was that someone who is starving, if he comes on a plant or an animal he can eat, he is not going to say 'Oh, I wonder if this endangered?' He is going to eat it. If we don't deal with poverty, we are not going to deal with the environment. Poverty and social justice issues are every bit as relevant to my interests as protecting the environment, because they are interlinked."

Suzuki says he is not against globalisation if it means globalising the highest standards in environmental care, labor conditions and human rights. The problem is that globalisation as practised by the WTO means the few profit by exploiting the lowest common denominator. He is scathing about the free marketeers' trickle-down defence, as in if the rich get rich enough, their wealth will trickle down to benefit the poor.

"Bullshit!" he says. "Wealth rushes up. It doesn't trickle down.

"About 1.3 billion people live on less than $1 a day. Three billion people _ half the population of the planet _ live on less than $3 a day. We have had 40 years of spectacular growth, and these people have only been getting further down.''

He cites the arresting statistic that the richest 20 per cent of the world's population consumes more than 80 per cent of Earth's resources and generates more than 80 per cent of the toxic chemicals. ``We live at a level of affluence that is simply impossible for everyone on the planet to achieve. And yet the argument is always we have got to keep getting wealthier so the benefits to the other people will raise up. To raise everybody to our standards will simply doom everyone on Earth.''

Suzuki is reluctant to put deadlines on turning the ship around. Ten years ago, the Worldwatch Institute said the 1990s were the crucial decade for institutional and political change to save the environment. After then, it would be too late to stop the momentum of decline. Leaders everywhere seemed to agree at the 1992 Earth Summit _ and then nothing happened except an acceleration in the rate of decline. It is the stuff of despair and Suzuki knows too many activists who have burnt out, sometimes fatally.

"I personally think we are past it, past a critical period. I mean, the loss of biodiversity, especially in forests and in the oceans, is just immense. I don't want to say it is too late, but I know that my grandchildren have a future that is far more impoverished than anything I ever knew in my childhood.

"But you can't carry the burden of this whole issue on your back. I now know that I am not going to save the world. I am insignificant. The reason I am doing it is I don't ever want my grandchildren to say, 'Grandpa, you should have done more.' I want to do the best I can, so at least they know I tried.

"But I don't take the weight of the world on my shoulders. I don't feel that (the worst) is not going to happen, but I try get out and celebrate and enjoy the thing I am fighting to save. If you don't go out camping and kayaking and backpacking, what's it all about? It is to revel in it. The least we can do is revel in the biodiversity that remains. It renews you."

If there is a final word, it is to keep a sense of humor. Suzuki says environmentalists cannot afford to be dour. He points to the example of indigenous peoples the world over who in the face of losing their land, dignity, identity and cohesion still manage to keep a sense of humor. "I think it has allowed them to survive."


"Bullshit!" he says. "Wealth rushes up. It doesn't trickle down.

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (, March 06, 2000


Pieter, thanks for this article. As an environmentalist, who is very concerned about the future of my grandchildren, I applaud Suzuki. But I don't think we can put a timetable on when things will be past the point of no return.

The earth is rather like the human body. Sometimes doctors tell a cancer patient that he only has six months to live. Often they're wrong; sometimes patients die sooner, or later, or not at all. I think it's the same with the earth.

No one can doubt that while there have been certain successes to restoring the environment, the rate of destruction is much higher. And since corporations really do rule the rule, and shopping is the highest entertainment, and the mall the destination of choice, I don't see much changing concerning consumerism.

Recently I was at an enviornmental meeting, and a happy face member was extolling how successful we had been. Another man spoke up, a farmer by the way, and said, "Look around this room and tell me why you think we are making such strides cleaning up the enviornment when several of you here are carrying a message that says otherwise?" Some thought he was talking about all of us having decent clothes, cars etc.

"Then he said, "What are you drinking?" Nearly all of us had bottled water, because the city water, although treated, is so awful no one drinks it unless they have to. Several times it has been under a boil order. I read that in every state there is never a day goes by but what some town or city is under a boil order.

Dr. Theo Colburn, author of Stolen Future, has said that our chromosomes are being altered by the pollution and it is affecting the chromosome which determines the sex of a baby. Now it isn't developing correctly and is causing all kinds of problems in males, from sterility to a tendency to be gay.

I've explained this badly. But if it sounds too famtastic, read her book. Also I will look up the article in Mother Jones Magazine which interviewed her and in it she states the same thing.

-- gilda (, March 06, 2000.

Theo Colborn: A controversial scientist speaks on plastics, IQ, and the womb by Marilyn Berlin Snell

-- Jim Morris (, March 06, 2000.

Thanks so much Jim. Stupidity is such a handicap.

-- gilda (, March 06, 2000.

No problem, Gilda. And don't be so hard on yourself - I was pretty sure of which article you were talking about so I thought I'd give a helping hand. :-)


-- Jim Morris (, March 06, 2000.

Thanks for the link Gilda & Jim. Good one.

Enviromental issues are going to be election issues in OZ, especially those dealing with water. I'll post the really good ones as they pop up...

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (, March 06, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ