At home with nature
Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.
At home with nature
Life is believed to have arisen on Earth some four billion years ago. DNA probes reveal that humans originated as a species in Africa some 150,000 years ago, which makes us evolutionary infants. For most of our brief time here, we understood that we were deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on nature for our survival and well-being. That reality hasn’t changed, but our perception of it has.
For most of our existence, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, following useful plants and animals through the seasons. Our ecological footprint (the amount of land and water required to fulfill our needs) was slight because when you have to carry everything you own you tend to lug only the bare necessities. People understood and were grateful for nature’s abundance and generosity.
About 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution signalled a monumental shift in human existence. By deliberately planting and growing food, we could settle in one place and establish roots. Civilizations rose and fell relatively rapidly in evolutionary time, but until the past century, most people lived in rural communities and were involved in growing food.
Farmers watch the seasons carefully. They understand the relationship between winter snow and summer moisture, and they know which plants and insects are beneficial and which are pests. Nature is a dominant reality for farmers, and because so many people were connected to farming in 1900, it was a dominant reality for the world.
In the 20th century humankind underwent a profound transformation. From1900 to 2000, the world’s population grew fourfold to six billion people, and cities of more than a million exploded by a factor of 30 to more than 400. More than 80 per cent of people in industrialized nations and more than half of the Earth’s total population now live in cities. This has resulted in a corresponding change in our relationship with nature.
This generation of children spends less time outdoors than any generation in human history. Why are we surprised? Today in Toronto, a person living in an air-conditioned apartment can take an elevator to the basement parking lot and drive an air-conditioned car to a garage in a downtown building to work all day in an air-conditioned office. Shopping, eating, and recreation can all be done within interconnected buildings, so there’s no need to go outside for days!
I once hosted a television series in which we filmed 10- to 12-year-old city kids in different locations. For one show, we took a boy and girl to a farm outside of Toronto, where for two days we gathered eggs, milked cows, fed pigs, and rode horses. On the third day, we took the kids to a slaughterhouse where the 12-year-old boy was upset to learn that hamburgers and wieners were made from the muscles of an animal! City kids often don’t know the source of electricity or tap water or the destination of a flushed toilet or garbage on the curb.
Nature is the ultimate source of our water and electricity, and nature absorbs our waste. But in our globalized world, we believe the economy takes precedence over nature, a notion that a provincial environment minister reinforced when he chastised me, saying, “We can’t afford to protect the environment if we don’t have a strong, growing economy.” We hear it in the many arguments that our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although necessary, must not inhibit the economy. But the economy is a human invention, while nature is what all life depends on.
Economics and ecology are based on the same root word, eco, from the Greek oikos, meaning “home”. Ecology is the study of home while economics is its management. Ecologists study the conditions and principles that determine the long-term survival of species. It seems obvious that managing our “home” would depend on understanding these conditions and principles. But in elevating economics above everything else, we ignore the reality that we live within and make a living from the finite confines of the biosphere – the thin layer of air, water, and soil where all life exists.
Nothing within a finite world can grow indefinitely; there are limits. If we are to find a truly sustainable future, we have to put the eco back into economics.
Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.