Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.
It’s all about the biosphere
All life exists is the biosphere, the zone of air, water and land that
envelops the planet. We often think of the atmosphere as extending to
the heavens when in fact, it is only about ten kilometers thick. The
biosphere, astronomer Carl Sagan used to say, is as thick as a layer of
varnish painted on a basketball. That is where all life flourishes.
Beyond it, there is only space.
has become so numerous and powerful that we are now altering the
biological, physical and chemical makeup of the biosphere. Everything
we do has repercussions throughout it because everything is
interconnected. If, for example, we pour toxins into air, water or
soil, it’s clear that these same toxins will end up in us. This is
exactly what we learned from Rachel Carson when she wrote her
influential 1962 book Silent Spring, about the effects of the pesticide
DDT in the biosphere. Carson explained how DDT, sprayed onto farmers’
fields, killed insects as it was supposed to. But the pesticide also
had unintended effects, such as ending up in fish, birds and
Since the initial publication of Silent Spring, it has become
increasingly difficult to recognize how we are connected to the rest of
the world because of globalization. And this has profound implications
for the biosphere, and by extension all of humanity.
When I get
up in the morning, I stagger into the kitchen where I perform my ritual
of grinding a few coffee beans for a wakeup shot of caffeine before
hitting the shower. As I wait for the coffee to steep, I don’t reflect
on the fact that Canada is a northern country. So where did the coffee
come from? How were they grown? What were the conditions and incomes of
the people who picked the beans? How did the beans get to my home?
simple act of buying a pound of coffee at the local grocery store has
ecological and social repercussions that extend around the planet. Yet
they are not obvious.
Now imagine a television set, car or
computer. Each has dozens of components made of many different minerals
and materials. Where were the original metals mined? What was the
ecological impact? What were the working conditions of the people who
processed, manufactured and assembled the various components? The list
of questions goes on.
Considered this way, it becomes clear that
when we purchase a product, it is far more than the simple exchange of
money for goods. The very act of purchasing an item means that we are
supporting a host of activities, ranging from digging the raw materials
out of the planet, to processing, manufacturing, transporting and
selling. Yet the ecologically destructive or socially exploitive costs
of our products are seldom visible.
the identity of local ecosystems and local communities. The entire
planet becomes a source of raw materials while the “market” is no
longer a local village place. Instead the market is potentially all 6.6
billion of us. And the effects of what we purchase become magnified on
a global scale, having profound effects on the biosphere, and all of us
who depend on it for survival.
So where do we begin? It would
help if we had more information available to us to consider the full
costs of the items we purchase. For example, the labels of processed
foods or pharmaceutical drugs help us take responsibility for deciding
whether to put the ingredients listed into our bodies. The same could
be done with other products.
In most products, the social and
ecological costs that went into them are never presented. The real
costs are disguised in slick package design and smart advertising
slogans. They are sold without any information other than where they
Living as we do, divorced from the production of the
goods we purchase each day, it is easy to forget how interconnected we
are to the rest of the world. Economic globalization has meant that
even a northern country like Canada can benefit from products like
coffee from far away places in different seasons.
We devote a
considerable amount of our lives working to earn the money to buy
stuff. But in this globalized world, there should be a responsibility
that accompanies our purchases, a responsibility to understand the
ecological, social and spiritual repercussions of each item. The
biosphere depends on it. And we depend on the biosphere.
Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.