New elder still asking the same old questions

Vol. 7 No. 29
March 29, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
Last week, I turned 70. For younger people, that may seem impossibly old. But for those of us entering the latter stages of life, we just can’t believe how quickly it came upon us – or how much we hope to accomplish in the time we have left.

Getting older isn’t easy. Our current cultural obsession with youth has turned aging itself into a disease, a form of leprosy that leaves many people increasingly feeling isolated, ostracized and irrelevant.
It doesn’t have to be that way. When I was in my 50s, I co-wrote a book with Peter Knudtson called The Wisdom of the Elders, which examined the role of older people in different societies. We looked at the traditional knowledge of elders and compared it with modern science. We concluded that the two are not incompatible, but rather complementary. Elders in all societies have a largely untapped depth of knowledge and understanding of the world – knowledge that we could use as we rush headlong into the future.
Of course, the irony is that today I find myself an elder, yet I don’t feel all that wise. I spent the first half of my life trying to understand our world and the second half trying to protect it. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done neither job particularly well. But then, there’s still time – time for both me and for the planet.
That’s one of the most important things I have learned over the years – there’s still time. The earth has a remarkable capacity to heal and, had you asked my 20 years ago if we could have maintained our current levels of
population growth and resource extraction for this long, I would have thought it impossible. Today, when I look at the explosion in demand for energy, steel and other resources in places like China, my mind boggles once again. For how long can the earth sustain such pressure?
No one knows. But one thing is for certain – we cannot continue on this relentless march for growth without eventually confronting the biological limits of the planet itself. The question is, will we have turned around
enough by then? Will we learn to live within the planet’s limits before we reach them?
In a society where growth is considered the goal in itself, rather than a means to an end, asking these sorts of questions can actually be considered subversive. Indeed, over the years, people have called me “Dr. Doom” or
versions thereof, more times than I can count. It surprises me still that this “elder” can get the pundits all in a tizzy by simply pointing out obvious problems with our current economic system.
I’m a journalist and a scientist at heart. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have no shortage of questions. In my role as a broadcaster I have interviewed hundreds of scientists from dozens of disciplines. I’ve seen first hand the kind of devastation that environmental degradation can cause – from the deforestation in the Amazon to the shrinking and increasingly toxic Aral Sea.
People often ask what drives me. Well, those interviews, my travels, my reading of science journals, taking part in analyses like the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and especially my children and grandchildren – they are what drives me.
I’m no longer a working scientist. But it’s from the scientists who actually work on these issues that I get my sense of urgency. When atmospheric scientists tell me that if we don’t dramatically reduce our heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, entire countries will disappear under water, I sit up. And when biologists tell me that species extinction has become a crisis, I pay attention.
But you don’t have to listen to me. Listen to them.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at
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