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Dr. David Suzuki Gives Plant Lecture at Hamilton

Suzuki is Geneticist, Broadcaster and Foundation Head

By Laura Trubiano '07
Posted January 23, 2007
Tags Plant Lecture
Dr. David Suzuki, scientist and broadcaster gave the James S. Plant Distinguished Scientist Lecture at Hamilton College on Monday, Jan. 22. His lecture was titled "The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line." Suzuki is well known as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, "The Nature of Things." Suzuki's eight part series, A Planet for the Taking won an award from the United Nations. An internationally respected geneticist, he also heads the David Suzuki Foundation, which, since 1990 has worked to find ways for society to live in balance with the natural world.

When humans emerged as a species 150,000 years ago, "we weren't very impressive," said Suzuki. The secret to our success was "a two-kilogram organ hidden inside our skulls." The human brain endowed us with a "tremendous memory" and made us "insatiably curious." The brain is responsible for the idea of the future; it is because of this notion that humans are the only animals that realized we are able to affect the future. The human brain gives us foresight, which, according to Suzuki, "is the very definition of what we are as a species."

Now, humans are the most numerous mammals on the planet and have an enormous ecological impact. "We have an enormous appetite for consumption, now driven by a global economy," said Suzuki. "No other species can alter the features of the planet like we do." It is very difficult to determine and try to curb the destructive aspects of human activity. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was significant, according to Suzuki, because the industrialized world finally acknowledged that we can not do this forever. The United States and Australia are the only two industrialized countries that have not signed.

For more than 40 years, scientists have been warning us that we are heading down a dangerous path. In 1992 the top scientists in the world signed a document warning about the damage human consumption is causing to the environment. The document warned that only "one or a few" decades remain to take action before the damage is irreversible. There was very little response to the warning by the media and therefore the message was not widespread. Suzuki was part of a UN committee called the Millennium Ecological Assessment that studied the state of ecosystems around the world. The results were "absolutely devastating," said Suzuki. This report also got very little media attention.

"Why aren't we using our foresight?" asked Suzuki. "The same thing that got us where we are today. The human brain is hard-wired for order. We developed a world view in which everything is connected. In such a world, everything you do has consequences, and therefore responsibilities. Why can't we see the interconnections,?" Suzuki offered several reasons.

First is population size. As the population increases rapidly, the average age gets younger and younger. The vast majority of the population was born after 1950 and therefore spent their entire lives in an "unprecedented period of growth and change—and demand it keeps going up." Suzuki referred to this as a "perceptual blindness that results from an increase in youth.

A second reason, according to Suzuki, is science itself. In 1962 Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring," which warned that the real world is more complicated than the lab. In a lab, scientists simplify and remove a part of nature. We can not necessarily predict what will happen in the real world based on the results in an isolated experiment, and the results of this can be harmful to the environment. Suzuki fears that many of his colleagues have not gotten the simple message. "Science fragments the world," he said.

The third reason is that we are overwhelmed with information. There are so many opinions and sides of arguments available and easy to access that it is difficult to determine what is legitimate and what is not. "How do we navigate this information?' asked Suzuki.

A fourth reason is the move from a farming culture to an urban species over the last century. Cities are so separate from nature that people do not understand the connections or the ultimate source of most things that they use. Urban life gives the impression that we are somehow separate or different and do not depend on nature.

Finally, Suzuki cited the economic system itself as a major reason. According to Suzuki, "Economists think the most important thing on the planet is us…the economy is based on humans." However, as animals, we still have to live within the boundaries of the atmosphere, biosphere and other resources. Economists think that growth forever is necessary, but we live in a finite world which can not grow forever. Suzuki fears that by putting all of our effort into growing we are monoculturing the planet, which, as we know from other species in nature, is very dangerous.

In closing, Suzuki said, "We have to face the crisis and get on with doing something about it." He cited the space race as a time when the United States faced a difficult task but made the commitment to do it and succeeded. "It is un-American to say there's nothing we can do about it," he said. "We have to reconnect ourselves to the world."

--by Laura Trubiano '07


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