Acceptance speech – David Suzuki

Growth is just a description of the state of a system, yet economists equate growth with progress as if growth is the very purpose of economics. So we fail to ask 'how much is enough?', 'what is an economy for?',...

I’d like to begin by thanking the Right Livelihood Foundation for the great honour you have bestowed on me. Thanks too, to Stephen Lewis who put the effort into nominating me.

I would not have been able to do what I have in my life without the efforts of my wife, the brains and the looks beside me, Dr. Tara Cullis.

A lot of people at The Nature of Things and the David Suzuki Foundation, have worked very hard on programs and projects, yet people give me a lot of the credit for their efforts. And the Canadian public by watching my programs in substantial numbers, kept me on air as host of The Nature of Things for thirty years. So I accept this award with gratitude on behalf of all the people who have made me look good.

In a few days, delegates will gather in Copenhagen to try to come to some kind of agreement on how to tackle the challenge of human-induced climate change. Vested interest groups – the fossil fuel and auto industries – and a few dissident petro-states like Canada, will attempt to water down any hard targets and I fear we will not be able to respond adequately to the urgent threats from human activity.

Now it is true, ever since life appeared on the planet some 3.8 billion years ago, living organisms have interacted with and changed the physical and chemical properties of the planet: weathering rock and mountains; absorbing carbon and sequestering it as limestone; creating the oxygen rich atmosphere by photosynthesis; making soil; filtering water; and so on. But those processes took millions of years and involved tens of thousands of species.

Now, we are suddenly and singlehandedly altering the physical, chemical and biological features of the planet on a massive scale. From a plane 10 kilometers above the earth, you can see our impact – immense lakes behind dams, clearcut patches of forest, huge farms and cities. We have become a geological force.

Not long ago, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, forest fires and earthquakes were referred to as “natural disasters” or “acts of God”. Not any more. We have joined god as a major force causing these events.

Human use of fossil fuels is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere; oceans are polluted and depleted of fish; 80% of Earth’s forests are heavily impacted or gone yet their destruction continues. An estimated 50,000 species are driven to extinction each year. We dump millions of tonnes of chemicals, most untested for their biological effects, and many highly toxic, into air, water and soil.

We have created an ecological holocaust. Our very health and survival are at stake, yet we act as if we have plenty of time to respond.

When our species appeared in Africa 150,000 years ago, we were not very impressive. Our advantage over all other species was the human brain that endowed us with a massive memory, curiosity and creativity.

That brain imagined a future and recognized that we could influence that future by using our experience and knowledge to see danger and opportunity. Foresight, the ability to look ahead, was our unique advantage and enabled us to spread across the planet and occupy every continent. We are now the most numerous mammal in the world, and with technology, consumption and a global economy, we are undermining the very things that keep us alive and healthy.

But we have increased our ability to look ahead with scientists, supercomputers and telecommunications. And for over 40 years, leading scientists of the world have been telling us we are on a dangerous path, that there are opportunities if we shift direction. Yet now we turn our backs on the very survival strategy of our species – look ahead to avoid the dangers and exploit the opportunities.

Instead, we complain about the cost of changing our ways. The Prime Minister of Canada has refused to honour the Kyoto protocol and opposes a binding agreement with hard targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. He tells us: “Canada is a northern country so we need to use more fossil fuels. Besides, it will cost too much to reduce emissions”. And to that I say, “thank god for Sweden.” Like Canada, Sweden is a northern country, yet by enacting a carbon tax, you have reduced emissions beyond the Kyoto target while the economy has grown by 44%. So thank you for putting the lie to my Prime Minister’s claims.

For most of human existence, we have been local tribal animals. Now we have to ask, “What is the collective impact of all 6.8 billion people in the world?” But there is no mechanism to act as a single species in our common interests.

Instead, we fiercely defend our boundaries around property, cities, provinces or countries. But human borders mean nothing to air, water, windblown soil or seeds or migrating fish, birds or mammals.

My Prime Minister regards the economy as our highest priority and forgets that economics and ecology are derived from the same Greek word, oikos, meaning household or domain. Ecology is the study of home, while economics is its management. Ecologists try to define the conditions and principles that enable a species to survive and flourish. Yet in elevating the economy above those principles, we seem to think we are immune to the laws of nature. We have to put the “eco” back into economics.

The current economic system is fundamentally flawed and inevitably destructive.  Nature performs “services” that keep the planet habitable for animals like us: photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide and generates oxygen. Nature filters water, creates soil, sequesters carbon, and so on. Yet economists call such ecosystem services “externalities”. They are not considered a part of our economic system.

Now there are some things in the world we can`t change – gravity, entropy, the speed of light, the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die.

Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature, we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere, for example.

Economists think the critical part of our economy is us. We are so clever, creative and productive. And since there is no limit to human imagination and creativity, economists believe the economy can and must grow forever which is an impossibility. Growth is not an end or goal, it’s just a description of a state of a system. Yet if you ask a politician or business executive how well they did last year, they will point to growth in market share, profit or GDP.

If we think growth is progress, well no one wants to impede progress, so we fail to ask the important questions like “What is an economy for?” “Are we happier with all this stuff?” “How much is enough?” “Why does a global economy act as if a Mongolian horseman, a farmer on the Andes and a Papua New Guinean highlander have the same aspirations and needs?”

If we continue to set human borders and the economy as our highest priorities, we will never come to grips with the destructiveness of our activities and institutions.

When our species was born, we looked out at a chaotic world and the human brain imposed order and meaning in myriad ways, looking ahead and imagining the world into being. That was our great gift. So now the challenge is to imagine a different world where our wealth is in human relations and the things we do together, and we learn to live in balance with the rest of nature. By imagining a future, we know where we want to go and then we can marshall our creative abilities to make it happen as we always have.

David Suzuki Foundation
Suite 219
2211 West 4th Ave.
Vancouver, B.C. V6K 4S2