Written by David Suzuki.
This month I reach my 67th birthday. Yikes. I was wondering where the first three months of 2003 went, but I should be asking what happened to my life! I vividly remember those turbulent months after I reached puberty and lost about half of my IQ. As an individual, I’ve grown wiser since then, but as a species we seem stuck in our teenage years.
When I was an adolescent, weeks seemed an eternity and life stretched on without end. I felt invincible and thoughts of retirement or a well-rounded life were the furthest things from my mind. As a young man, I discovered a passion for science and threw myself into research as if there was no tomorrow. As a university professor, genetics was my life – it consumed me and provided my highs and lows. Author Theodore Roszak once described this ability of scientists to be carried away with an idea as a double-edged quality, enchanting for the enthusiasm but frightening for its narrow focus.
Looking back over my life, I realize that it was the willingness to throw everything into the moment that attracted students to the lab. They loved the communal aspect of total engagement. We would work till the early morning hours, excitedly arguing over ideas and results, generating reams of data and dreaming up evermore elaborate experiments.
Today I don’t torment myself with recriminations for what I did. But there were costs – a broken marriage; relationships with lovers, students and children that suffered from inattention; a narrow life. And I recognize that many of my shortcomings – that inward focus on my own passions, the excitement of the moment, the working as if there is no tomorrow – are also features of society as a whole that have created the current ecological crisis.
Humanity is a very young species. Modern humans only appeared about 150,000 years ago, and civilization less than 10,000 years ago. Most of the modern conveniences we take for granted were invented less than a century ago and many of them just a few decades ago! We are still feeling the rush of youth, and it shows.
The immigrants who created the United States began with a vast territory filled with natural resources. The qualities of those settlers – rugged individualism, search for new frontiers to conquer and pride of nation – are deeply embedded in the American psyche. The enormous economic success of the U.S. has served as a model for emulation around the world. Colloquial expressions reveal the attitudes that have come to dominate that society: “full speed ahead,” “sink or swim,” “the sky’s the limit,” “there’s plenty more where that came from,” or “that’s the price of progress.”
My children gave me the greatest gift of my life – grandchildren. When they were born, life suddenly didn’t stretch ahead of me forever. I had reached a later stage of life, and I recognize it as finite and short. Death no longer haunts me, but what does is the legacy left for my grandchildren and their grandchildren. And I’m worried that we aren’t going to leave them much to work with.
They say that with age comes wisdom. For individuals, that gives us 80 or so years to achieve a greater understanding of life and our place in the universe. That isn’t very long. We are a young species being driven by a youth-obsessed society with the throttle wide open. With the world flying by, we haven’t noticed that the fuel gauge is getting low and we’ll be running on empty soon.
So here in the last part of my life, I can only hope that from an elder’s perspective, I can offer a bit of cliched advice. Slow down and smell the roses. Recognize that we live in a world where everything is connected to everything else, so whatever we do has repercussions. There is a tomorrow and what we do now will influence what tomorrow we arrive at. We owe it to future generations to think about them before leaping ahead.
Damn, if I only I knew back in my teen years, what I know now.
Science Matters is published by The David Suzuki Foundation and has been re-syndicated with permission on thegreenpages.ca network since 2000.