Dr. David Suzuki’s 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London, England


“We demarcate borders that often make no
ecological sense: dissecting watersheds,
fragmenting forests, disrupting animal migratory
routes. …. setting a target of protection of
12% of our land base for all the other species
means that we seem to take it for granted that we
can take over 88% of the land. …. We have
spread our toxic debris in the air, water and
soil so that every one of us now carries dozens
of toxic compounds in our bodies.”

” … Shapley calculates every breath we take has
millions of argon atoms that were once in the
bodies of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ. Every
breath you take has millions of argon atoms that
were in the bodies of dinosaurs 65 million years

“Consider this: in 1900 there were only a billion
and a half human beings in the world. In a mere
one hundred years, the population of the planet
has quadrupled. …. Australians elected four
consecutive Conservative governments that denied
the reality of human-induced climate change and
refused to ratify Kyoto even though the country
suffered severe drought for years.”

“I am a geneticist by training, and history
indicates we are in for similar surprises with
genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. We are
now manipulating the very blueprint of life,
creating organisms that have never existed
before. Any scientist who tells you they know
that GMOs are safe and not to worry about it is
either ignorant of the history of science or is
deliberately lying.”

” … the David Suzuki Foundation, working with
the Union of Concerned Scientists, came up with a
list of ten effective actions that we call the
Nature Challenge [8].  We are challenging
individuals to commit to doing at least three of
the suggested steps in the coming year and to
date have more than 365,000 Canadians signed on.”


the 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London, England

“The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line”
– Dr David Suzuki

I am a born and bred Canadian (although I did
spend eight years in the United States for my
university education in the 1950s and early ’60s)
and that shapes my perspective on the world.
Although Canada is a sovereign nation, the
country’s border allows the influx of American
movies, television and products that do influence
us greatly. We Canadians have struggled to
maintain our values and identity in the face of
the most powerful nation on earth. So I was proud
when Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002
and I’d like to believe that our ratification
influenced Mr Putin to sign on as well and make
it international law.

Last year I spent thirty days on a bus going from
St Johns, Newfoundland, on the east coast, all
the way across Canada to Victoria in British
Columbia on the west coast. I spoke in 41
communities to more than 30,000 people and also
taped more than 600 interviews with people across
the country telling me what they would do for the
environment if they were Prime Minister of
Canada. What I learned is that Canadians value
nature as a part of who we are; they want it
protected and they are willing to pay more taxes
to do that. They want Canada to meet its Kyoto
obligations. They want efficient, affordable
public transportation. They want a carbon tax but
they also want government and the corporate
community to do their share.

When you are cheek to cheek with the United
States it is hard to maintain independent values.
We now have a minority government that has
repudiated our Kyoto commitment and gutted
programmes to reduce emissions. I would plead for
the Commonwealth to remind my nation that Canada
has been a good global citizen and that you
expect us to fulfil our promises and obligations
in the future.

It may interest you to know that I spent three
years in an internment camp in British Columbia
for being Japanese-Canadian, despite the fact
that I was born and raised in Canada, as were
both of my parents. My grandparents immigrated to
Canada where they met and married. Yet we were
all deprived of our rights of citizenship, lost
all of our property, were incarcerated for the
duration of the war and then were expelled from
British Columbia at its end. So I am sensitive to
the rights of the underdog and the fragility of
our democratic promises.

I also treasure diversity. I, as a
Japanese-Canadian, come before you in a shirt
that wears the emblem of the Haida first nations
people who have adopted me and my family. My half
English/half Japanese daughter is going to marry
a Haida this summer. So the Commonwealth
Foundation’s three pillars – governance and
democracy, culture and diversity and sustainable
development – are of great interest to me. I
congratulate you for the theme of Commonwealth
Day, The Environment, Our Future, because I
believe this is the most important and urgent
issue of our time.

Human beings are a truly remarkable species. We
are able to conceive notions like democracy,
science, equality before the law, justice and
morality – concepts that have no counterpart in
nature itself – but we have our shortcomings too.
We demarcate borders that often make no
ecological sense: dissecting watersheds,
fragmenting forests, disrupting animal migratory
routes. These human boundaries mean nothing to
the flow of water, the atmosphere or oceans, yet
we try to manage these resources within these

When human numbers were small, our technology
simple, and our consumption mainly for survival,
nature was generally able to absorb our impact.
Even so, it is believed that with simple stone
spears and axes the Palaeolithic people that
migrated across the Bering Strait and down
towards South America extinguished slow moving
mammals in their path.

As is well documented by Jared Diamond in his
book Collapse[1] and Ronald Wright in A Short
History of Progress[2] cultures have arisen,
flourished and disappeared as human demands
outstripped the carrying capacity of surrounding
areas. In pre-history and even medieval times,
humans were essentially tribal animals, confined
to their tribal territory, perhaps meeting a
couple of hundred people in a lifetime. They did
not have to worry what tribes were doing on the
other side of the ocean or giant lakes, or over
mountains and deserts.  But humanity has
undergone an explosive transformation in the past

Consider this: in 1900 there were only a billion
and a half human beings in the world. In a mere
one hundred years, the population of the planet
has quadrupled. Almost all the modern technology
we take for granted has been developed and
expanded since the late 1800s. Our consumptive
appetite has grown rapidly since World War II so
today over 60% of the North American economy is
built on our consumption and ever since the end
of World War II, economic globalisation has
dominated the political and corporate agenda. All
of these factors – population, technology,
consumption and the global economy – have
amplified humanity’s ecological footprint, the
amount of land and sea that it takes to provide
for our needs and demands. The consequence is
that we are now altering the chemical, physical
and biological makeup of the planet on a
geological scale. In the 4 billion years that
life has existed on earth there was never a
single species able to do what we are now doing

The famous Brundtland Commission report Our
Common Future[3] which came out in 1987 coined
the phrase ‘sustainable development’ and called
for the protection of 12% of the land in all
countries, a target which has absolutely no
scientific basis and yet which very few countries
have managed to achieve. But we are one species
out of 15-30 million species on the planet and
setting a target of protection of 12% of our land
base for all the other species means that we seem
to take it for granted that we can take over 88%
of the land. And we seem determined to do it, to
take over that 88%, destroying habitat and
ecosystems around the world while driving tens of
thousands of species to the brink of extinction
every year.

We protect tiny patches of oceans as marine
protected areas, whilst slaughtering fish and
accidentally killing turtles, birds and marine
mammals with long lines, drift nets and bottom
trawlers. Boris Worm and his co-workers at
Dalhousie University in Canada predict that if we
continue to overfish, pollute and destroy habitat
in the oceans, as we are today, every fish
species currently exploited will be commercially
extinct by 2048[4].

We have spread our toxic debris in the air, water
and soil so that every one of us now carries
dozens of toxic compounds in our bodies. A few
months ago in Canada three members of parliament
volunteered to be tested for a battery of over
eighty toxic substances. They were shocked to
find that all three of them carried dozens of
these in their bodies. Our use of the air as a
dumping ground for carbon dioxide and other
greenhouse gases has altered the chemistry of the
atmosphere which in turn is now acidifying the
oceans as carbon dioxide dissolves as carbonic

We have no means of dealing with these global
issues with the level of urgency now required.
For the first time in history we have to ask what
the collective impact of all 6.6 billion human
beings on earth will be. We have never had to do
this before. We are tribal animals and it is
difficult for us to get our heads around this
task. We need the perspective of many of the
small island states in the Commonwealth, states
that are in imminent danger of being submerged by
sea level rise from global warming. The metaphor
of the canary in the coal mine is very apt. I was
there in Kyoto in 1997 when island states pleaded
for action to protect their land, but to no
avail.  Perhaps that should not surprise us. Many
of the rich industrialised nations who created
the problem of climate change through the use of
fossil fuels for their economic growth, some in
the Commonwealth, are themselves in great danger
from climate change, yet are very slow to respond.

Australians elected four consecutive Conservative
governments that denied the reality of
human-induced climate change and refused to
ratify Kyoto even though the country suffered
severe drought for years. Australia is an island
continent with most of its population living
along the edges where sea level rise will have
its greatest impact. My own country, Canada, is
extremely vulnerable. We are a northern country
and warming, we know, is going on more than twice
as rapidly in the north as it is in temperate and
equatorial areas. For decades Inuit people of the
Arctic have begged for action to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions because they can see the
changes, but they have been ignored. Canada has
the longest marine coastline of any country in
the world and simple sea level rise through
thermal expansion will impact Canada more than
any other nation on earth. And Canada’s economy
continues to depend on climate-sensitive
activities like agriculture, forestry, fisheries,
tourism, and winter sports.

I was very proud when Canada ratified the Kyoto
Protocol, but our current government has turned
its back on our Kyoto obligations and cancelled
all the previous government’s programmes to
reduce emissions. Indeed, until very recently, it
denied the reality of human-induced climate
change and continues to support the rapid
expansion of Alberta’s tar sands, which is the
most polluting activity in the country.

North America along with Europe, Japan, Australia
and other industrialised countries created the
problem of climate change.  Our industrial and
economic growth now serves as a model for the
developing world to follow. If a rich country
like Canada or the United States cannot cap its
emissions and bring them down, why should
countries like India or China or any of the other
developing nations pay the slightest attention to
the demands to reduce theirs?

I deliberately chose the title The Challenge of
the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line
because in Canada, the media, politicians and
corporate executives repeat over and over again
the mantra that the economy is the bottom line. I
believe that this is totally misdirected

What is the environmental crisis that we are
talking about? What does it mean? In 1962, I was
galvanised to join what became the environmental
movement when Rachel Carson published Silent
Spring[5], a book about the unexpected effects of
pesticides. It is hard to imagine what the world
was like in 1962, but when her book came out
there was not a single Department or Ministry of
Environment in any government on the planet.
Rachel Carson put the environment on the agenda
around the world.

As I was swept up in the movement, along with
millions of others around the world, I felt  that
human beings were removing too much from the
environment, and returning too much waste and
toxic material back into it.  At that time the
solution was to create an infrastructure of
government departments of the environment, to
enforce laws to protect endangered species and
regulate the quality of air and water. But by the
early 1970s I realised it would not work this way
because we do not know enough to be able to
regulate new technologies as they develop.

Let me give you a couple of examples. DDT had
been synthesised in the 1800s but it wasn’t until
the 1930s  that Paul Müller showed that DDT kills
insects and could solve a lot of problems.  This
seemed a way to control pests that had plagued
humankind while offering corporations an
opportunity to make money.  Müller won a Nobel
Prize for his discovery in 1948.  Then in the
1950s birdwatchers observed that predatory birds
in particular were in decline and biologists
discovered a phenomenon which we did not even
know existed – bio-magnification. They found that
DDT sprayed in concentrations of parts per
millions is absorbed by micro-organisms that are
not killed by it. Instead, it is concentrated so
that at each trophic level up the food chain, DDT
concentration is amplified. Eventually, in the
fatty tissue in shell glands of birds and the
mammary glands of mammals the DDT can become
concentrated tens of thousands of times.

Looking back, could we have avoided DDT damage
with regulations? When DDT began to be used, the
phenomenon of bio-magnification was not even
known to exist. We only discovered it when eagles
began to disappear and scientists tracked it
down. The same happened with chlorofluorocarbons
(CFCs). CFCs seemed to be a wonderful invention –
large ring molecules with chlorine atoms
attached. Chlorine is a highly reactive element
but it becomes inert when part of these ring
molecules. Why does that matter? Well, CFCs seem
to be a perfect additive to spray cans. If you
are going to put, say, deodorant in spray cans
you do not fill the whole can with deodorant, you
do not need that much. You just put a little bit
at the bottom and add a propellant. But if you
put air in, the oxygen is highly reactive and
breaks down the deodorant. CFCs, however, are big
molecules and they are chemically inert.  So we
began to use CFCs by the millions and millions of
pounds. Only years later did scientists discover
that CFCs persist in the environment and in the
upper atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation from the
sun breaks chlorine atoms off the CFCs and the
chlorine free radicals react with ozone and break
it down. When scientists announced this, I had
not even realised that there was an ozone layer
up there to break down. How could we have managed
CFCs when we did not have any idea what their
effect would be in the environment?

Something similar happened with nuclear power.
When the atom bombs were dropped over Japan in
1945, scientists did not even know the existence
of radioactive fallout. They did not know about
electromagnetic pulses of gamma rays that knock
out electrical circuits; neither did we know of
the risk of nuclear winter. How could we manage
these technologies when we are so ignorant of the
way the world works?

I am a geneticist by training, and history
indicates we are in for similar surprises with
genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. We are
now manipulating the very blueprint of life,
creating organisms that have never existed
before. Any scientist who tells you they know
that GMOs are safe and not to worry about it is
either ignorant of the history of science or is
deliberately lying. Nobody knows what the long
term effect will be. Europeans have been much
more conservative about allowing GMOs into their
countries. When I come to Europe,
environmentalists tell me they are watching
Canadians, who have been doing a huge experiment
by eating it for over 5 years!

So for me as a scientist it was a real dilemma.
We often see unpredictable environmental impacts
arising from our use of science and technology.
How can we manage the impact of these new powers
when we are so ignorant about the world around us?

In the late ’70s I began to see that there was a
different perspective on the whole issue. When my
wife, Tara, and I began to work with first
nations people I would hear them talk about
Mother Earth and the sacred elements. To me this
was a nice metaphoric or poetic way of speaking
but they would correct me and insist that they
meant it literally. The Earth, they said, is our
mother because it gives birth to us, creating us
out of the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire
and water. On reflection I realised they were
absolutely right, and that science corroborates
these ancient wisdoms. We environmentalists had
framed the problem the wrong way. There is no
environment out there separate from us here and
no way to manage our interaction with it. There
is no separation. We are the environment because
we are created out of those elements of the Earth.

Now that may seem obscure but let me illustrate.
When we were born and left our mother’s body, the
very first thing we needed was a breath of air.
From that moment, 15-40 times a minute, we need
air until the last breath we take before we die.
We do not even think about it. But let me ask you
for the next minute and a half just to think
about what happens when you take a breath. 1-3
litres of air sucked deep down into the most
moist and warm parts of our bodies, our lungs.
If you have ever looked at a fresh kill of an
animal and touched lungs, you will know that they
are primarily made up of air.

Our lungs are made up of about 300 million
capsules, or alveoli, and they are clustered
around an alveolar stem like grapes. We have lots
of these clusters in our lungs and we need them
all to provide the surface area needed to come
into contact with the air. If you flatten the
alveoli of our lungs out into two dimensions,
they would cover a tennis court. That is about
how much surface area is wrinkled up in our
lungs.  Each alveolus is lined by a surfactant
that reduces surface tension so that the air
sticks to it. Immediately carbon dioxide rushes
out of our bodies, oxygen and whatever else is in
the air rushes in, and haemoglobin molecules in
red blood cells grab on to the oxygen so that
each beat of our heart can transfer that oxygen
to every part of our bodies. And when you exhale
you do not exhale all the air in your lungs. If
you did that your lungs would collapse. About
half of the air stays in your lungs even when you

The point I am trying to make is that you cannot
draw a line that marks where the air ends and I
begin. There is no line. The air is stuck to us
and circulating through our bodies. We are air.
It is a part of us and it is in us. Air is not a
vacuum or empty space but a physical substance.
We are embedded in a matrix of air and if you are
air and I am air then I am you, we are a part of
this single layer that encompasses the planet. We
are embedded in that air with the trees, the
birds, the worms and the snakes, which are all a
part of that web of living things held together
by the atmosphere or the air.

There is a wonderful thought exercise which the
American astronomer, Harlow Shapley, did many
years ago. He asked ‘What happens to one breath
of air?’ How do you follow a breath of air? 98%
of the air is oxygen and nitrogen. You breathe it
in, oxygen and nitrogen go into your body. When
you breathe out, a lot of the oxygen never comes
back out because we need it, and some of the
nitrogen, which is 80% of the air, stays in your
body too. About 1% of the air is an element
called argon, which is inert and does not react
chemically with anything. You breathe it in, it
goes into your body, and when you breathe out, it
comes right back out. So argon is a very good
marker or indicator for a breath of air. How many
atoms of argon are there in one breath of air?
Shapley calculates 3 x 1019. That means three
followed by 19 zeros[6]. Take it from me, that is
a lot of argon!

So if we follow one of my breaths of air it
eventually diffuses across London, then England,
and finally around the world. According to
Shapley one year later, no matter where you are,
because the atmosphere is a single system, every
breath you take will have about 15 argon atoms
from that original breath a year before. On that
basis Shapley calculates every breath we take has
millions of argon atoms that were once in the
bodies of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ. Every
breath you take has millions of argon atoms that
were in the bodies of dinosaurs 65 million years
ago. Every breath you take will suffuse life
forms as far as we can see into the future. So
air, surely, deserves to be seen as a sacred

We think we are an intelligent creature, but what
intelligent creature, knowing the role that air
plays in our lives keeping us alive and
connecting us to the past and into the future,
would then  proceed to use air as a garbage can
and refuse to pay for putting carbon and all our
pollutants into the atmosphere? We have much to
reflect on the way that we use this sacred
substance. It hurts me when I see young couples
walking with a baby in a stroller and the baby’s
nose is right at the level of the exhaust pipes
of our cars. You might as well put a hose on the
exhaust pipe and pump that stuff right into the
baby’s body. Why are 15% of children in Canada
now suffering with asthma? We are using the air
as a toxic dump. We are air. Whatever we do to
the air we do to ourselves.

So, you see, for me this is the shift in the way
the environmental problem should be viewed. The
environmental crisis is a crisis of human beings
and we are treating ourselves as a repository for
all of the pollution that we send out through our
chimneys and tail pipes.

I will not elaborate on the other elements. Every
one of us is at least 60% water by weight, we’re
just a big blob of water with enough organic
thickener added to keep from dribbling away on
the floor.  When you take a drink of water you
think it is London water.  But in reality the
hydrological cycle cartwheels water around the
planet and any drink you take, wherever you are,
has [some] molecules from every ocean on the
planet, the canopy of the Amazon, the steppes of
Russia. We are water. Whatever we do to water we
do to ourselves.

We are the earth because every bit of our food
was once alive. In North America over 95% of our
food is grown on the land. We are the earth
through the food that we consume and yet we
spray toxic chemicals directly onto the earth and
the plants and animals we are going to eat.  We
even inject it into the creatures we are going to
consume. We are the earth, and whatever we do to
it we do to ourselves.

And we are fire because every bit of the energy
in our bodies that we need to grow, move or
reproduce is sunlight. Sunlight is captured by
plants through photosynthesis and we then acquire
it by eating the plants or the animals that eat
the plants. When we burn that energy we release
the sun’s energy back into ourselves. We are
created by the four sacred elements, earth, air,
fire and water and that is the way that we should
frame our approach to ‘environmental problems’.

Why are we failing to respond to this simple
truth and acting on it? There are, I believe, a
number of factors that blind us to the reality of
the problem and prevent us from acting in the way
that we should. Two of them stand out for me. In
1900 the world population stood at 1? billion
people. There were only 16 cities with more than
a million people. London was the largest with 6?
million people. Tokyo was the 7th largest city in
the world with 1? million people. Most people in
the world lived in rural village communities and
when you are a farmer you understand the
importance of weather and climate. Farmers know
about the movement of water and its necessity in
the soil. You know how to build topsoil and fight
off predators. You are much closer to the natural
world when you are a farmer.

Cut ahead only a hundred years. By the year 2000
the population of the world had quadrupled to 6
billion, but now there were more than 400 cities
with more than a million people. The ten largest
cities in the year 2000 all had more than 11
million people. Tokyo was the largest city in the
world with 26 million people. Can you imagine in
a hundred years going from 1? million to 26
million people? By the year 2000, especially in
the industrialised nations, where 80% to 85% of
us live in large cities, we have been transformed
from a farming species into a large urban
dweller. We are city animals now and in a city we
live in a human-created environment where it
becomes easy to think that we are special and
different. We are so clever, we create our own
habitat; we do not need nature.

A few years ago, I did a television series with
10 and 11 year old children called The Nature
Connection. I asked them where they thought
electricity came from when they turned on the
lights, where water came from when they turned on
the tap, and what happened when they flushed the
toilet or put the garbage on the kerb. They did
not know! When I asked where their food came from
they said from the supermarket! Many of them did
not know that vegetables grow in the soil, and
were shocked to be told that hamburgers and hot
dogs are made from the muscles of an animal.

If we are so ignorant of the fact that it is the
biosphere, the zone of air, water and land that
gives us these services, that gives us our
electricity and water and food, and the biosphere
that will absorb our waste when we are done with
it, it becomes easy to assume and accept that the
economy is the real bottom line. If we have got a
good economy we have good garbage collection and
sewage treatment.  It is what fills our stores
with all the goods, it gives us a dependable
source of electricity, and the economy becomes
the highest priority for urban dwellers.

Even Ministers of the Environment buy into this.
A couple of years ago I had an encounter with a
provincial Environment Minister who told me that
we can’t afford to protect the environment if we
don’t have a strong growing economy. I told him
that he was Minister of the Environment not the
Minister of Finance, and that his job was to
protect the environment! But even he believed the
economy is the source of everything important
because if it is growing we can afford extra
money to protect the environment.

Economics and ecology are words built on the same
root – ‘eco’ – from the Greek word ‘oikos’
meaning home. Ecology is the study of home.
Economics is the management of home. What
ecologists try to do is to determine the
conditions and principles that govern life’s
ability to flourish and survive. Now I would have
thought any other group in society would want the
ecologists to hurry up and find out exactly what
those conditions and principles are, so that we
can design our systems to live within them. But
not economists. We have elevated the economy
above everything else and this, I think, is the
crisis we face. The economic system that has been
foisted on people around the world is so
fundamentally flawed that it is inevitably
destructive. We must put the ‘eco’ back into
economics and realise what the conditions and
principles are for true sustainable living. Let
me just take a minute to give you the reasons why
economics is out of sync.

First of all, nature performs all kinds of
services. Nature pollinates all of the flowering
plants, it is nature that decays material,
returns it to the earth. It creates soil,
participates in the nitrogen cycle, the carbon
cycle, and the water cycle. All of these are
economically valuable services performed by
nature but economists called them
‘externalities’, by which they mean that they are
not in the economic equation. Economists
externalise the real world that keeps us alive. I
confronted this when we were fighting to prevent
logging in a valley where my government had
granted permission to a forest company. The
native community said they did not want the trees
cut so I went to help them fight for their forest
and I encountered an executive of the forest
company. He asked me whether “tree huggers” like
me would be willing to pay for the trees in the
valley, because if we were not, those trees would
not have any value until someone cut them down.
Of course, he was absolutely right!

You see, as long as those trees are alive, they
are taking carbon dioxide out of the air and
putting oxygen back. Not a bad service for an
animal like us who depend on it, you might think.
But to an economist that is an externality. Those
trees are clinging to the soil so when it rains
the soil does not erode into and destroy the
salmon spawning beds. That is an externality.
Those trees pump hundreds of gallons of water out
of the soil, transpire it into the air to affect
weather and climate. That is an externality. That
tree provides habitat to countless bacteria,
fungi, insects, mammals and birds. That is an
externality. So in our crazy system that forest,
as long as it is standing, performing all of
those functions, has no economic value.

Economists believe the economy can grow forever.
Not only do they believe it can grow forever,
which it cannot, they believe it must grow
forever.  Since World War II they have equated
economic growth with progress. Nobody wants to
stop progress but, if economic growth is what we
define as progress, who is ever going to ask what
an economy is for? With all this growth are we
happier? How much is enough? We do not ask those
questions. We have fallen into the trap of
believing that economic growth forever is
possible and necessary.

I am going to show you why this is absolutely
suicidal. Anything growing steadily over time is
called exponential growth and whatever is growing
exponentially has a predictable doubling time,
whether it is the amount of garbage you make, the
number of taxis on the road, the amount of water
you use, or the human population. So, if the
population is growing at 1% a year it will double
in 70 years; 2% a year it will double in 35
years; 3% – 23 years; 4%  in 17.5 years. Anything
growing exponentially will double predictably.

I am going to show you why it is suicidal to
think we can keep growing forever. Let me give
you a test tube full of food for bacteria, that
represents our world. I am going to put one
bacterial cell into that test tube (representing
us), and it is going to divide every minute; that
is exponential growth. So at time zero you have
one cell; one minute you have two; two minutes
you have four; three minutes you have eight; four
minutes you have 16. That is exponential growth
and at 60 minutes the test tube is completely
full of bacteria and there is no food left, a
sixty minute cycle.

When is the test tube only half full? Well the
answer of course is at 59 minutes; but a minute
later it is filled. So at 58 minutes it is 25%
full; 57 minutes 12? % full.  At 55 minutes of
the 60 minute cycle it is only 3% full. So, if at
55 minutes one of the bacteria said to its
companions that they had a population problem,
the other bacteria would be incredulous because
97% of the test tube would be empty and they had
been around for 55 minutes. Yet they would have
only 5 minutes left. So bacteria are no smarter
than humans and at 59 minutes they realize they
only have a minute left. So they give massive
amounts of money to scientists, and in less than
a minute those bacterial scientists invent three
test tubes full of food. That would be like
adding three more planets for our use. So it
would seem that they (and we) would be saved.

What actually happens is this – at 60 minutes the
first tube is full; at 61 minutes the second is
full; and at 62 minutes all four are full. By
quadrupling the amount of food and space, you buy
two extra minutes! How do we add even a fraction
of 1% more of air, water, soil or biodiversity?
We cannot. The biosphere is fixed and finite and
every biologist I have talked to agrees with me,
we are past the 59th minute. So all those leaders
saying that we have to keep the economy growing
are saying we have to accelerate down what is a
suicidal path.

Now when I say this to politicians and business
people they get very angry with me. They
remonstrate that our stores are filled, cities
are growing and booming and we’re living longer
and healthier lives. How can we be past the 59th
minute?’ I say it without apology. We are
promulgating an illusion that everything is
alright by using up the rightful legacy of our
children and grandchildren. That is not
sustainable, it is suicidal. I believe that is
the challenge for our time. We have created a
system that is completely out of balance with the
real world that keeps us alive, and climate
change is a part of the problem that we have
created with this kind of economic system.

We have to set a new bottom line, a bottom line
dictated by the reality that we are biological
creatures, completely dependent for our survival
and well being on clean air, clean water, clean
soil, clean energy and biodiversity.  We are
social animals who need strong families and
supportive communities, full employment, justice,
equity and security and freedom from racism,
terror, war and genocide.  And we remain
spiritual beings who need sacred places in the
natural world that gave us birth.

Are there alternatives to the way we are living
that allow us to live rich full lives without
undermining the very life support systems of the
planet?  There are plenty of answers and
different paths to follow as shown by
individuals, organizations, corporations and
governments in different parts of the world.  I
document some of them in Good News for a Change:
Hope for a Troubled Planet[7].

To the many individuals who ask me whether there
are effective things they can do to reduce their
personal ecological footprint, the David Suzuki
Foundation, working with the Union of Concerned
Scientists, came up with a list of ten effective
actions that we call the Nature Challenge[8].  We
are challenging individuals to commit to doing at
least three of the suggested steps in the coming
year and to date have more than 365,000 Canadians
signed on.

Finally, it is clear that political and corporate
priorities are focussed on too short a timescale,
the political agenda being determined by coming
elections while the corporate priorities are
dictated by the quarterly reports.  So we
suggested looking ahead a generation and deciding
the kind of future we would like: a Canada where
the air is clean and 15% of children no longer
come down with asthma; a country covered in
forests that can be logged forever because it is
being done properly; a nation where we can drink
water from any river and lake as I did as a
child; a place where we can catch and eat a fish
without worrying about what contaminants are in

I have taken this vision of what we would like to
business people, municipal politicians and
multi-faith communities and all have
enthusiastically agreed with it.  So by looking
ahead and projecting a future we wish for, we can
agree on a shared vision.  Can it be achieved? We
set concrete targets and deadlines to achieve
what we call Sustainability Within a
Generation[9], and it has received wide interest
and support.   In the nine categories of action,
achieving genuine wealth, efficiency, clean
energy, waste and pollution, water, healthy food,
conserving nature, sustainable cities and
promoting global sustainability, we believe we
can achieve the desired goal in each.  Indeed,
John Godfrey, a Liberal Member of Parliament, has
introduced a Private Member’s Bill calling for
Sustainability Within a Generation as a formal
goal of the Canadian government.  All we need is
the recognition that it is absolutely urgent that
we begin to make change and the will to work
towards the goal.

Dr Suzuki is Emeritus Professor of the
Sustainable Development Research Institute,
University of British Columbia, and Co-Founder,
David Suzuki Foundation

[1]  Diamond, Jared (2005).  Collapse: How
Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  Viking
Books. 592pp.

[2] Wright, R (2005). A Short History of Progress. House of Anansi Press.

[3] World Commission Environment and Development
(1987).  Our Common Future.  Oxford University
Press.383 pp.

[4] Worm B, Barbier EB, Beaumont N, Duffy JE,
Folke C, Halpern BS, Jackson JBC, Lotze HK,
Micheli F, Palumbi SR, Sala E, Selkoe K,
Stachowicz JJ, Watson R (2006) Impacts of
biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services.
Science 314:787-790

[5] Carson, R (1962) Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin. 400 pp.

[6] Shapley, Harlow (1967).  Beyond the Observatory. New York, Scribners.

[7] Suzuki, D.T. & Dressel, H. (2002). Good news
for a change: hope for a troubled planet. Niagara
Falls, New York, USA, Stoddart Pub. 398pp.

[8] http://www.davidsuzuki.org/NatureChallenge/

[9] Boyd, D.R. (2004). Sustainability Within a
Generation: a New Vision for Canada. The David
Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver, Canada. 52 pp.

Tim Hermach
Native Forest Council
PO Box 2190
Eugene, OR 97402
541.461.2156 fax

web page: http://www.forestcouncil.org

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