HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
Suzuki's passionate plea for change
Environmentalist, winner of Peterson medal calls for true stewardship of Earth
By Ruth Walker
Special to the Harvard News Office
David Suzuki, the Japanese-Canadian scientist and environmentalist, professed astonishment at having been awarded this year's Roger Tory Peterson medal from the Harvard Museum of Natural History. "I'm not a birder," Suzuki said, referring to the great ornithologist for whom the medal is named. "I've always been an insect and fish guy myself," he told his audience for the Peterson Memorial Lecture at the Science Center Sunday afternoon (March 19).
But in a lecture that brought Hall B about as close as it's likely to get to the atmosphere of a revival meeting, Suzuki made a passionate plea for radical change in human stewardship of the Earth - away from the view of Earth as a repository of natural resources to be exploited, away from the view of continuous economic growth as the ultimate measure of human success. "This is a remarkable moment in the history of life on Earth."
He called on his audience, and beyond that, the developed world, to embrace the environmental agenda he's been promoting in Canada under the name of "sustainability within a generation." He also has 180,000 Canadians committed to "the Nature Challenge," a 10-point program of steps that individuals can take toward sustainability.
The same superior brain that has enabled humans to dominate - and in many ways despoil - the planet can also produce solutions to the problems it has helped create. "The human brain invented the notion of the future," Suzuki said, adding "Foresight is the very definition of what it means to be human." He invoked the biblical stories of Joseph, protecting Egypt from famine by storing excess grain during seven bountiful years, and of Noah building his ark to protect a remnant, at least, of life on Earth from the flood.
The human footprint on the Earth is very different from what might have been surmised when modern humans first emerged on the African savanna 150,000 years ago, Suzuki suggested, as not-very-impressive creatures who walked upright and didn't have much hair.
"If any human being in those early days had said, 'Ha! Piece of cake, we're going to take over this whole savanna, we're going to take over this planet,' we would have laughed him into a cave and said, 'Don't listen to him, he's nuts.'"
But "take over" is exactly what humans have done. The human population of the Earth has more than tripled just since Suzuki was born in the 1930s, he said. Air and water have been polluted, species killed off, soil eroded. Even an activity as apparently innocuous as growing cotton can have devastating local environmental effects, as in the Aral Sea, which Soviet-era industrial-scale cotton production has reduced to a pit of toxins.
For more than two decades, Suzuki noted, scientists have been warning about impending global environmental crisis. In 1992, a group of leading scientists of the world, including half the world's living Nobel laureates, issued a warning to humanity: "'Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about,'" he quoted from their statement. "No more than one or a few decades remain ... . A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and of life upon it is required."
"The media response was terrifying," Suzuki said, pausing for effect: "There was none."
More recently, he participated in a United Nations undertaking called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It was a project involving 1,300 scientists from 60 different countries. Two days after the group's report was published last March, Pope John Paul II took ill, and the story of his illness, death, and succession wiped the larger ecosystem off the news agenda for weeks, he said.
In addition to the news media, Suzuki also blasted conventional economics as "not a science but a set of values posing as a science," which tends to dismiss concerns like the ozone layer and underground aquifers as mere "externalities."
But, he emphasized, "There is no environment out there. We are the Earth."
Suzuki said that what he has learned from his time with Canada's indigenous peoples - First Nations, as they are known - is the need to belong to and be in harmony with the Earth. Given the fundamental importance of air and water to human beings - from the first breath an infant draws - Suzuki has come to believe, he said, that "the Earth is our mother, not poetically, not metaphorically, but literally."Invoking the American national experience after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, which led to the space race and ultimately a man on the moon, the global telecommunications revolution, and other beneficial developments, Suzuki suggested that a major push onto the path of sustainability could provide a similar economic impetus. "There's huge opportunity in doing the right thing," he said.