Yes, We Still Have to Talk About the Environment

There’s a huge problem, one that puts all our lives at risk, and yet it is a problem that the world we’ve constructed around ourselves won’t let us solve — this world often won’t even let us talk about the problem.

The man who has been trying his whole life to bring nature into the discussion came to Western on November 17th and there wasn’t an empty seat left in Alumni Hall. David Suzuki, the award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster; the face of the self-titled environmental non-profit organization; and the 80-year-old Canadian grandfather had a lot to say to us young up-and-comings.

As university students, we have the tremendous gift of being born into a world that is dying, a world that millions of humans before us have slowly been taking over like a virus, and with that we have inevitably inherited a wasteful, disposable lifestyle. Suzuki sounded like what I’m sure a lot of our grand-parents sound like when they complain about how technology has ruined us, how we’ve lost our sense of value in things, and how crazy it is that we actually buy jeans with rips in them—but this sort of awe at our lifestyles is completely warranted. Within the last hundred years, Suzuki pointed out, we have gone from living in rural villages to densely populated urban cities, and with that came all new urban ideologies.

“Disposable should be an obscene word! Parents should cover their children’s ears if they hear someone say ‘disposable’!” Suzuki shrieked. He is clearly in favour of the way humans used to live, with only the possessions we could carry on our back, and not flitting from store to store every season for something trendier or with more rips. But because our immediate contexts do not demand a direct relationship with nature — we could stay indoors our entire lives if we really wanted to — we aren’t able to see the effects of our actions, and we don’t have to value minimalism. That’s why Suzuki believes that the root cause of all our environmental troubles is not overpopulation, global economy, our consumption habits, or even technology — no, the root cause of the quickening atrophy of our home is: the human mind. Suzuki described humans as a force against nature, the only organism able to affect the entire planet, like an invasive species with a wave of extinction following us even since our species migrated out of Africa and began looking for new resources to deplete.

Something important that Suzuki touched on is that the “developed” world doesn’t necessarily have the solution to our environmental crisis. We do have the most advanced technology and we have access to the most resources, but that doesn’t mean that we’re smart enough to look in the right places or that we’re humble enough to ask for advice. The people who do know how to live sustainably are the Indigenous populations of the world, as Suzuki explained they are the ones that stayed in one place instead of colonising other locations, and they had to learn hard lessons, yes, but their survival has been tested over thousands of years. They do not face problems with global economy, consumption habits, overpopulation, or technology because they have created deep bonds with the land, the animals, and with each other. “How we see the world shapes our actions,” Suzuki warned, and the developed world most definitely sees the world differently than the rest. A fantastic example he gave was how children in a village might treat a neighbouring mountain if they were taught it was a god who would rule over them as long as the village remained in its shadow, compared to how kids in British Columbia might treat the mountains they’ve been told has gold to mine and trees to log. Sacred and ecological language work well together because they value something larger than ourselves, a power that is beyond our own selfish needs and wants. That language doesn’t, however, translate very easily into others.

Politics, business, and economics all use a very particular language — often cold, formal language including man-made concepts and excluding forms of embodied or environmental knowledge. This kind of language calls sacred and ecological claims to land “externalities.” This kind of language makes the environment a mere football to occasionally toss around in political debates. This kind of language makes it hard for the CEO of the largest oil sands company to remove himself from his job title, and it makes it impossible for him to act on saving what he can admit are basic human needs—clean air, water, food, and soil.  One of Suzuki’s greatest frustrations with our fabricated world is that we reify human inventions (including economy, politics, and business) over nature itself. A retail manager will be much more worried about making sales instead of where and how the product itself is made, but that’s the priority they need if they want to get paid and buy more things so they can feel comfortable when they compare themselves to other people in society. Admittedly I’m being a little dry about this, but the reality is true for all of us. Students are more likely to worry about getting good grades instead of how much paper, electricity, or food we’re wasting so that we can get a job and buy more food, use more electricity, waste more paper—so that we can exist in society.

So what the heck do we do? We need to bridge the gap between our languages. But in order to do that we need perspective. We need to change our gaze, disrupt our so-called truths, open our eyes to other realities, and we need to do it soon. And what better avenue than the arts? You’re probably familiar with the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph taken in 1990 of the earth from six billion kilometers away; that single image inspired immense wonder and a major shift in perspective, as Carl Sagan described,

We seem to have forgotten, or become desensitised to, this worldview. Space has become something taken for granted or something we can monopolise on, and our constructed worlds seem to have overgrown our natural one. In the face of an environmental crisis, instead of turning our gaze to our own actions, we’re looking for new planets to inhabit.

It’s not easy to pay attention to something so grave and depressing that requires a major personal mindset and lifestyle change, but it won’t be easy to breathe when we’ve polluted the air, it won’t be easy to access clean water when we’ve ruined our lakes, and it won’t be easy to eat clean and healthy food if our soil becomes infertile or toxic. You can tell why Suzuki quickly becomes frustrated and frantic in his speech—imagine that your career is based on educating people on the fragile state of their basic human needs just to have them turn around and interrogate you on why you have five children if you’re preaching about overpopulation. People are keen to look for change outside of their own personal realm, and they’re even more keen to accept immediate relief rather than invest in a better future. It has always been a matter of long-term versus short term benefits, and humans are all too comfortable with choosing short term again and again.

But the movement is not over, definitely not for Suzuki. He has recently started a project in Canada called Blue Dot which seeks to enshrine the right to a healthy environment — the right to a stable climate, to breathe clean air, drink clean water, eat safe food, and to have a say in decisions that affect our health and well-being — in legal documents at all levels of government. He began by travelling across the country to small municipalities, then started getting larger cities to agree, and his next step is to have provincial and federal decision-makers follow suit and pass environmental bills of rights. His ultimate goal is to amend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and inspire the kind of change Canada needs, especially as a northern country that will feel the effects of climate change first and most drastically. There are already over 105,000 Canadians who have signed the petition for the right to a healthy environment, and you can too at www.bluedot.ca.

Finally, there were two things David Suzuki said that stayed with me as I walked home on that weirdly warm night in November: first, that the sun’s energy runs through us all, constantly seeping into our skin and releasing back into the world as we live our lives inextricably tangled with the universe, and, secondly, that “We’re not that great! We’re not special! We are insignificant! But a lot of insignificant people can make something significant!”

So, on your mark… get set…

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