Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hearing David Suzuki

I had the opportunity through work to attend the 2009 Canadian Public Relations Society Conference in Vancouver this past June. The second afternoon luncheon was delivered by David Suzuki. I was so inspired and impressed by his talk. Now, that I have finally gotten around to writing my report on that conference and the Suzuki talk, I would like to offer it here for your reading pleasure.

The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Bottom line – David Suzuki

I have never had an opportunity to hear David Suzuki speak and it was by far the highlight of this conference. He was very well received, in particular given the corporate community that was gathered for the event and how his message often conflicted with corporate interests. My notes became sparser as the talk went on and I became more enthralled in the presentation, I apologise in advance for gaps.

Suzuki opened by stating that the environment and health care are the same issue, so if health care is ranked as the number one issue with Canadians, then the environment must be part of that discussion. He expanded to point out that if we are going to talk about climate change then we will have to talk about energy. All of these issues are interconnected and all of them have economic implications. There is little doubt that the future economy will be in green jobs.

Suzuki shared warning signs about how our environment is being affected by human activity. He shared about how his father and he would row out along the edges of English Bay and fish, and how that is impossible today due to overfishing. In fact, we’re fishing our way down the food chain: sardines and anchovies are the next big culinary delicacy because 90% of the big fish are gone. He talked about floating islands of debris, 150 feet thick, as large as Texas, existing in the middle of the oceans and how carbon dioxide is settling over the ocean, getting absorbed and converted into carbonic acid. He said every human has over 5 pounds of plastic absorbed within us.

Humans were once a local tribal people and we now have to ask ourselves what the collective impact of 6.7 billion of us is. Humans are now the most numerous mammal on the planet and carrying out the simple act of living comes with a massive ecological footprint. But, we don’t just carry on with simple living – technology amplifies the problem. Over 90% of teenage girls rate shopping as their number one leisure activity. We have an economy now that is so far beyond our necessities in life; that has shifted from providing our basic needs to servicing our extravagant wants. We buy all of our goods without any notion of where it comes from.

He then described how all human DNA can be traced back to Africa and he asked the audience to think about the first generation of naked hairless apes - who would have thought that they would become the dominant animal the whole world over. He argued that the only reason humans have become so dominant over the next 150,000 years is because of our superior intellect. Humans are curious and inventive. It is with that inventiveness that we have created this environmental problem, but it is also how we will solve it. We can affect the future by our behaviours of today; we can avoid the dangers and exploit the opportunities.

He criticized climate change deniers, saying that in this age of information explosion, you can find information to verify any misguided belief. Of note for educators, he argued that we need to have a greater degree of literacy to help them manage the information they receive.

In 1900, there were only 14 cities in the world with over a million people. In 1936, the world population was $1.4 billion and most people were farmers, who have an intimate understanding of the direct impacts of nature and climate. Now, there are 6.7 billion people and 400 cities that have a population of over a million. We don’t have a strong understanding of where our food comes from and where our garbage goes; as long as we have a strong economy, we don’t have to worry about it because it happens.

He noted that economy and ecology have the same root word (ecos, which means home) and we need to put the eco back into economics. He said the economic system is so fundamentally flawed that it can’t be fixed and that the last thing we should be doing is trying to get it up and running again the way it was.

Suzuki concluded by talking about how the economy can be structured to benefit the envioronment. He pointed out that Sweden has had a carbon tax since the early 1990s and while BCs tax is $10 per Tonne, Sweden’s is $100 per Tonne and its economy has actually grown by 44% in that time. He said we have to look at our natural resources differently. As long as forests are standing they are providing all sorts of functions from providing shelter for animals that we eat, to aiding the water cycle and converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Yet, a logger once pointed out to him, “what you environmentalists have to understand is that unless you’re willing to pay to keep those trees, then you can’t save them – they’re not worth anything until they are cut down.” After hearing that, Suzuki realized that the logger was right and he reiterated his thesis that environment and economy are the same issue and we will need an economic solution to solve the environmental problem.

What it means to be a progressive.

Happy New Year everyone. Welcome to 2010. Is it everything you thought it would look like?

I remember the new year of 1990 very well. I was 10 and it was the first time in my memory that we were celebrating the start of a decade. I remember vividly thinking about the future - the nineties - and what they would hold. I think that was the first time I really thought about the year 2000.

As a ten year old dreaming about ten years into the future, your imagination runs wild with possibilities. Sure there are no flying cars, but I do remember imagining boxes that sat on your hip that could do anything you needed it to. It was a phone, a calculator, a watch and a walkman; whatever you wanted it to do, it could do it. I think it was even a candy dispenser and a grappling hook. I'm so glad those geniuses at Apple keep thinking about the future and all its possibilities. (I can't wait for the grappling hook app to come out!)

Nonetheless, there is a point to me telling you about how I was a nerdy kid with a vivid imagination, because I want to talk about what it means to be a progressive and the most important thing about being a progressive is dreaming about the future and imagining all of the possibilities it brings. I also think that being a progressive means understanding that we are all in this world together and thinking about others.

Planning for the future.

A progressive takes the long range view on issues, assessing what the needs of society will be in 5, 10, 20 or 100 years. We look at the world that exists today and compare that to the world that we want our kids to grow up in. We understand cause-and-effect relationships and consider the consequences of our decisions.

In the context of Alberta today, progressives think seriously about the long range implications of energy management. We have a clear understanding that burning fossil fuels negatively affects our environment and we, as living creatures, depend on our environment to sustain life. We also understand that we are lucky to be sitting atop the amount of oil that we do and that that oil will be in greater and greater demand as global supply decreases. In other words, the oil under us will be worth more in the future than it is now and therefore we shouldn't be in such a rush to get it out of the ground and sell it off at the lowest price.

Planning for the future also means making smart investments that you know you will need down the road. First off, that means investing in education. The best thing we can do for ourselves and our children is to ensure that those children are as smart as they possibly can be. The world is changing rapidly and the rate of change is increasing. The issues of tomorrow will be solved by the children of today. But smart investments also includes public transportation and sound urban planning. Through migration and reproduction, Alberta's population is exploding and most of those people will live in our cities. We need to plan today for Calgary and Edmontons of 2 - 5 million people. But we can't keep expanding out because we need to maintain and invest in agriculture - that many people need lots of food. We need to look at major centres around the world to see how they have managed large populations and large population densities.

We are all in this together.

The politics of us and them is over. The world is a finite space and we are approaching 7 Billion people. The population density of Canada is 3 people per square kilometer, but the global population density is 45 people per square kilometer. We have one world that we increasingly realize is a place that we have to share. We can no longer afford to think about our friends and enemies, because we need to think about all of us.

The advent of the internet and cell phone have allowed us to understand how close we are to one another as human beings. Last year, millions of North Americans had the ability to join an uprising on the streets of Tehran via Twitter. A conflict half way around the world was humanized through the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, recorded on a cell phone and delivered to our desktops. Real people connected in real time.

Progressives understand this deep inter-connectivity of humans, whether its within our communities, cities, province, country, region or world. Facebook allows us to share our lives with hundreds of our friends and acquaintances all the time and it allows us to rally around causes and issues with the click of a mouse. There are multiple layers of community that exist and regardless of our differences, we have to live together and look out for one another.

Understanding that we are all in this together means replacing politics (which is about power) with processes for collaboration (which is about problem solving). Progressives are looking to step past the Cold War rhetoric of us versus them, east versus west or capitalists versus socialists and are looking to talk about how to establish meaningful systems to solve the problems that impact our lives.

Thinking about others.

If you have a sense that everyone is in this game of life together, you start to think about how you are the same as others and how you are different. Progressives think about the plights of others and think about those that have a different path or perspective on life. We understand that there are two types of issues: issues for individuals and issues for the collective.

Issues for individuals are those matters of personal choice for which your choices have little to no impact on others. While it is difficult to explore this area in its entirety, I am referring to issues related to religion, sexuality, morality, censorship and personal freedoms. To speak very generally, progressives feel that individuals should be free to do what they wish, so long as they are not bringing harm or risk to others. In short, issues for the individual should be settled privately and should not be part of public discourse.

I think its important at this point to talk about the progressive value of diversity and how it relates to citizenship. At some point, given the size of the global population and the variations in population density, we must understand that Canada will be a destination for many for a very long time. Progressives understand this and value the diversity and varied perspectives that immigrants (and other minorities) bring. We go past the ideas of tolerance, acceptance and melting pots to the values of respect, understanding and multiculturalism.

Issues for the collective refer to those issues where public value or public impacts exist. On these public issues, debate needs to occur in order to come to settlement on the issue. As I said, today's progressives understand and appreciate differences and individuality and therefore recognize the value of open, honest and respectful debate. Settling issues is not about power, it is about searching for the common good and determining solutions to help get us there. It also means that those people who are "in-power" have an obligation to use it wisely, to consult and to respect the perspectives of the minority opinion.

Finally, progressives understand that matters for the public interest which have costs associated with them, need to have those costs adequately funded. We do not begrudge paying reasonable taxes because we recognize that they fund important programs that benefit all of us like, roads, schools, hospitals and policing. I believe as well (although I am loath to attach this belief to other progressives) that these obligations should be borne to a greater extent by those of greater wealth. I believe this simply because they are in a better position to afford the expense and they will benefit through the economic well-being of others.

It is not easy to try and describe what it means to be the person you are. In many ways this felt like writing the executive summary to my manifesto. Ultimately, many of the ideas I expressed in this post have not been fleshed out, but hopefully I can do that over time on this space.

Thanks for reading.