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Reinventing the Future
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Scientists think that our species, Homo sapiens, emerged about 100,000 years ago somewhere in Africa.
Imagine that back at the time, scientists in another galaxy had been searching the cosmos for life and discovered our solar system and Earth. They park their spaceship above the Rift Valley in Africa and gaze at the vast expanse of lush forests, plains teeming with wildebeest, zebras, elephants and gazelles and rivers filled with hippos, crocs and flamingoes.
Those extragalactic scientists would no doubt notice small family groups of a two-legged, upright, furless ape, but I doubt that anyone would point to them and say, "Watch that one. That's the creature of destiny!" After all, we weren't that impressive in size, speed, sensory acuity, strength or beauty.
But if they watched our behavior, they would realize that our advantage wasn't visible from the outside. We seemed to be acting deliberatelypreparing shelter, seeking food, and avoiding predators. We made up for our physical deficits with the two-kilogram organ locked in our skulls.
The human brain was the key to our survival. It endowed us with curiosity, inventiveness and a massive memory. The French Nobel laureate, François Jacob, says the human brain has an inbuilt need for order. We find chaos frightening and there is an innate tendency to try to organize our observations and speculations so it all makes sense. We recognized patterns, cycles and rhythms in natureday and night, seasons, tides, lunar cycles, movement of stars, animal migration, plant successionand that knowledge gave us some predictive capacity that was useful.
The human brain invented an amazing concept: a future. Because we had a notion of future, we (I believe uniquely among all animals) recognized that we could deliberately choose a path into the future. We understood causal relations (If I do this, this will happen; if I don't do that, something else might occur) and deliberately chose, from a number of options, the kind of future we were heading for. And it worked. It got us to where we are.
All people since the earliest times integrated their observations, speculations, insights and superstitions into worldviews, the sum total of their culture, in which nothing existed in isolation or apart; everything was connected to everything else. In such a world, everything we do has repercussions and therefore, every act carries responsibilities lest order be disrupted.
Even today, traditional and aboriginal people constantly remind us who they are and where they belong on this earth. They tell their stories, sing their songs and offer their prayers to thank their Creator for nature's generosity and abundance, acknowledge that they are part of nature and therefore have responsibilities, and promise to act properly to keep everything in order. That's just the way it has always been.
Until now. Today, most of us live in a shattered world, a world of disconnected bits and pieces. It is no longer easy to recognize our place. And when we can't see the connections, we fail to recognize causal relationships and therefore feel no responsibility.
When we shop at GAP, NIKE or ROOTS, we don't usually ask where the cotton, wool, rubber or leather came from, the working conditions and pay of the workers who harvested the raw materials and whether pesticides and other pollutants were used. We just want a garment to wear.
Similarly, upon purchase of an IBM computer, SONY television or GM car, we don't wonder about the dozens of different metals in the components or the consequences of mining, manufacturing, transporting and using the product. We just want to watch TV or get around.
In Canada in the middle of winter, as we buy fresh papayas, lettuce or bananas, we seldom wonder where they were grown or how they got here. Yet every purchase and every use of a purchase has consequences that reverberate around the world. We just aren't seeing them. And that's the problem.
Time To Reinvent Our Future
So how have we come to this state? I believe it has been the sudden confluence of a number of factors that have had the collective effect of shattering the world we perceive.
Too often, urban children are warned not to touch something because "it might bite" or "it's dirty." We teach our children to fear nature and fail to make connections with the natural world.
The most obvious factor is population. Human numbers have exploded in the past century, rising from a billion and a half people in 1900 to more than six billion in 2000. When populations grow so rapidly, it means the average age declines. Most people on Earth today were born after 1950. They have lived their entire lives in an absolutely unprecedented and totally unsustainable period of growth and change. But because that is all they've ever known, it seems the norm and must be maintained.
Likewise, most scientists who have ever lived are alive and practicing today. Scientists focus on a part of nature, separate that part, control everything impinging on it and measure everything within it, thereby acquiring insights into that part of nature. But in the process of focusing, we lose sight of the contextthe rhythms, patterns and cycleswithin which that fragment exists and functions. So we fragment the whole into isolated bits and pieces.
Ideas from science are applied as technology, which can be extremely powerful, yet furthers the disconnect between us and our world and fosters the illusion that it is technology and not nature that provides us with what we need to survive. As an unexpected side-effect, rather than freeing us from work and responsibility to give more leisure, it has sped up time, allowing us to jam more and more things to do into a shorter period and rewarding us with a river of new toys and stuff, instead of free time to enjoy life.
In my experience in television, the rapid growth in available channels has resulted in shorter, more sensational reports that contain less and less information or context and more and more factoids or visual images. When a radio or TV announcer says, "And now for an in-depth report," it may be two minutes long. So information, as typified by the news, is increasingly chopped into short sound bites that fail to include the context, history, or suggestions as to what can be done, thereby again shattering the world we are seeing.
The twentieth century also brought about a stunning shift in the way humans live. In 1900, most people lived in rural villages; we were an agrarian species. Only a hundred years later, most of us live in large cities as urbanites. This transformation has severed our connection with nature, leading us to assume that the "economy" is the source of everything, as if it exists independent of the world around us.
Urban children today don't recognize that wieners and hamburgers are the muscles of an animal. They don't know where water and electricity come from or where the toilet flushes to or garbage ends up.
We in developed countries are lucky because most of us don't have to worry about day-to-day survival. With 80 percent of us in cities, our world is largely of concrete and steel, and all the amenities we could ever want are at our disposal 24 hours a day. The goods we need come in on trucks and our wastes go out on trucks or through pipes. We don't have to think about these things.
Or do we? We are now paying the price for our disconnect from the natural world. Global warming, species extinction and a gradual erosion of our quality of life are all symptoms of the problem. But there is a way out. We can reinvent our future and choose a new path to sustainability.
Sustainability: A New Bottom Line
As currently constructed, the global economy exists in isolation. It exists in a world without limits, without constraints on growth, pollution or exploitation. The trouble is, there is no such world. Our world (the only planet that we know of in the entire universe that is capable of supporting life) is finite. Our resources are limited. Our little planet can only provide so many goods and absorb so much of our waste. Given these constraints, our current economy, which is predicated on relentless growth, is unsustainable. Something has to give.
Under the current economic system, essential aspects of the natural world like air, the ozone layer, water, topsoil, biodiversity, and many others are considered "externalities," that is, outside the economy. But it is through these features that nature performs vital services, such as filtering water, pollinating flowering plants, composting vegetation, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, and much more. Many of these critical services could never be duplicated by human technology, yet because they are provided for free by nature, they are essentially ignored as though they were worthless.
The biosphere (the zone of air, water and land where life exists) is a thin band that surrounds the earth. If the earth were reduced to the size of a basketball, the biosphere would be thinner than a layer of plastic wrap. That layer is fixed. It can't grow. And that thin layer is where we derive our existence, where we deposit all the emissions from our machines, and where we get our air, water and food. It is what makes our lives and an economy possible.
According to standard economic theory, none of that matters. Instead, human inventiveness and productivity are seen as the basis of the economy. And since there is no limit to human creativity, it is often assumed that the economy can grow forever. A growing economy is therefore equated with progress. No one wants to stop progress, but when it is so narrowly defined, we never ask "How much is enough?", "Why do we need all this?" or "What is an economy for?"
When we stand back and ask these questions it becomes clear that what we want out of an economy is to be able to lead a high quality of life and to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities. That means the standard for measuring economic growth, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is woefully inadequate. GDP measures all the money that changes hands in a country. This includes money to clean up oil spills, treat illness caused by smog, clean up car accidents and more. So oil spills, smog and car accidents are good for the economy, but bad for us.
We need a new bottom line that recognizes that we are embedded in the natural world and therefore acknowledges the value of its services for our health and quality of life. We need to recognize that our world is finite and that it is in our best interest to find ways for us to lead fulfilling lives without depleting the natural services upon which we ultimately depend. In short, we need to find sustainability.
The survival attribute of our species was our brain. We used it to look ahead, recognize dangers and take appropriate action to ensure survival. It's time we began to use that brain again and rediscover the real world that sustains us and set the real bottom line for our quality of life and, ultimately, for our survival.
Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster and chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian charity working through science and education to protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life.
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