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The challenge of the 21st century: setting the real bottom line - part 1

By David Suzuki - posted Monday, 31 March 2008

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 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.

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 US it is hard to maintain independent values. We now have a minority government that has repudiated our Kyoto commitment and gutted programs to reduce emissions.


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 confines.

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 migrating Palaeolithic people extinguished slow moving mammals in their path.

As is well documented by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse and Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress 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. But humanity has undergone an explosive transformation in the past century.

Consider this: in 1900 there were only a billion and a half human beings in the world. In a mere 100 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 more than 60 per cent 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.

These factors have amplified humanity’s ecological footprint, the amount of land and sea that it takes to provide for our needs and demands. Consequently 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 doing today.

The famous Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future which came out in 1987 coined the phrase “sustainable development” and called for the protection of 12 per cent of the land in all countries, a target which has no scientific basis and which few countries have managed to achieve. We are one species out of 15-30 million species on the planet and setting aside just 12 per cent of our land for all the other species means that we seem to take it for granted that we can use the 88 per cent. And we seem determined to do it destroying habitat and ecosystems while driving tens of thousands of species to the brink of extinction every year.


We protect tiny patches of oceans as marine protected areas, while slaughtering fish and accidentally killing turtles, birds and marine mammals with long lines, drift nets and bottom trawlers. It is predicted 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.

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 more than 80 toxic substances. They were shocked to find that they 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 acid.

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. It is difficult for us to get our heads around this task. We need the perspective of many of the small island 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.

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This is an edited version of David Suzuki’s Lecture, “The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line”, which was given at the 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London, England, hosted by the inter-governmental organisation the Commonwealth Foundation. The full transcript can be found here. See part 2 here.

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About the Author

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

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