Let's make the world a better place. *Props to Urban Octopus for the artwork ^
Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a symposium at Case Western University in Cleveland, OH honoring Dr. David Suzuki with the Inamori Prize for Ethics & Excellence.
For those who are not familiar with Dr. Suzuki, he is a world-renowned environmental activist, sustainable ecologist, and Doctor of Zoology.
I’d like to share some of his thoughts through these quotes:
“Thinking we can bioengineer our planet is madness”
This thought came on the subject of innovation. For decades, the dominant American ideology has been that no matter the obstacles in our way, we will innovate a solution. With regards to carbon emissions and climate change, many believe we can simply innovate solutions to sequester or nullify the negative effects on our biosphere that we have caused. For Suzuki, this is indeed madness. The biosphere (Earth) is the most resilient, complex, and beautiful solution to providing life - so much so that the majority of its networks and capacities are unknown to humans. Why force our inferior engineering onto an extraordinary, bewildering system that is Earth?
“We are animals”
Suzuki says this is the most important idea we should take away from his talk. On Earth, we are a part of a greater network of living creatures. Human quest for superiority stems from human’s inherent inferiority within our biosphere. We have learn to manipulate and navigate our planet through a perfect combination of luck and skill. Apart from that, humans lack in nearly every other attribute to many of our fellow animals. We are not the fastest, not the strongest. We have a limited vocabulary for expression, we engineer with tools instead of making them biologically. Once we dethrone ourselves from exceptional status, our home - Earth - becomes the ultimate priority for human survival and prosperity. Suzuki believes this humility is a necessity.
“We ARE air, we ARE water”
We are all connected. The air we breath, the water we drink, is forever conserved. In this way, we are connected to every part of our planet - to flora and to fauna, from the deepest ocean to the highest mountaintop. Suzuki tackled the false dichotomy of “humanity” and “environment”. This dichotomy, he believes, is a fundamental failure of the environmental movement. By advocating for the environment, we ‘other’ the environment as something other than ourselves, something removed from human society. He argues, we must fundamentally change the way we view the biosphere and our place within - not outside - it.
“We can’t change nature, but we can change what we’ve created. Economies aren’t the laws of nature, we can change them!”
Since the advent of capitalism and possibly before, economics, its academic study, and the ‘economy’ exist as an omnipotent force that humanity must obey, less it run the risk of acting in an ‘uneconomic’ way. The fear of lacking economic growth penetrates near every aspect of modern human society and it sadly blinds us to the real truth. Economy is a man-made structure in order to value items of perceived worth. And as such, rewards actors who value self-interest over the complex connections within human society and within the biosphere. It is absurdity to equate economy with nature.
“Wealth is not quantified by stuff but qualified through shared experience”
Dr. Suzuki ended with a heartfelt anecdote. His father was dying. An old man now, his father had come to terms with his death and was just a few weeks from passing on. Luckily for Dr. Suzuki, he and his father were able to spend his last days together. They laughed, they cried, reminiscing about old friends and telling stories about shared experiences. Reflecting upon these final days, Suzuki realized they hadn’t mentioned the material items - their favorite Oldsmobile or the clothes on their backs. The things we remember most are stories and memories of the ones we love - friends, family, and acquaintances. We should prioritize what little time we have by making memories with loved ones, and yet-to-be-loved ones.
David Suzuki’s talk was throughly enjoyable - a breath of fresh air. By melding ideas of science, spirituality, humanity, and common sense, Suzuki eloquently advocates for a holistic perspective towards our life on Earth.
For more information on Dr. David Suzuki, visit his foundation at http://www.davidsuzuki.org/
Find a collection of his books here
Our age demands a paradigm shift, which can be characterized in a number of different ways - sustainability, green, the 99%, #occupy, human rights, human inequality, social innovation (…and the list goes on). These social expressions, in turn, create battlegrounds for the “future” in the form of industries, systems, and paradigms that must be altered or entirely revolutionized. These ‘battlegrounds’ offer the opportunity for social entrepreneurs, critics, and revolutionary thinkers to challenge the status quo to change a system they deem unequal, unfair, inefficient, or inhumane. As I’ve observed, these ‘battlegrounds’ come to mind: energy, environmental protection, economy, human rights, architecture, development, politics, climate change, technology, health, world trade. Each of these terms has a burgeoning industry or idea to which have paradigm shifts attached. Sustainable development, sustainable architecture, fair trade, environmental regeneration are very popular industries gaining momentum.
However, one battleground that doesn’t get much attention is what I believe to be the most important, the most comprehensive, and the most vital battle that we paradigm shifters face: Agriculture.
If you want an industry that envelops nearly every issue our society faces today, look no further than agriculture.
Particularly in the United States, the agricultural industry is completely out of whack and, if not revolutionized, agriculture will not serve a beneficial purpose as our society continues.
Agriculture is the most unequal battleground today.
The two staples of our diet - corn and soybean (both in more products than you think, check your nutrition labels) - are controlled by one company, Monsanto. 80 percent of corn, and 93 percent of soybeans are grown and sold by Monsanto. A host of other food products are controlled by Cargill.
The immense economic and political clout exercised by Cargill and Monsanto allows them to promote the harmful use of GMO seeds with deadly pesticides. Many people believe that after the downfall of DDT, pesticides were no longer used in the United States. This could not be further from the truth. Companies like Monsanto engineer seeds that are resilient to a specific type of pesticide, made by one of the powerful petrochemical companies. Through multi-million dollar lobbying, these companies then convince the government that these pesticides are safe to use, and convince farmers to purchase their farming techniques by saying that it’s the most efficient and profitable way to farm. What ensues is chemicals in our food, contaminants in our water, environmental degradation, and insurmountable debt on the farmer, whom is then forced onto a vicious treadmill run by big agriculture.
By reading the book “Organic Manifesto,” by Maria Rodale, you will get clear and cohesive perspective on big agriculture’s socio-politico-economic ramifications.
Rodale talks about the benefits of local, organic food production, which will aid our society’s challenges. Among many, these are a few of them:
Climate Change and fossil fuel emissions is directly related to agriculture. Our current system uses fossil fuel in every step of the food production process - from big tractors that run on gas, to the petrochemicals that we spray on the GMO seeds that are made using loads of energy, to the methane emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), to the long distance transportation of the products from farm to table.
Human health is another issue. Big agriculture has a symbiotic relationship with fast food, and products containing high-fructose corn syrups. Big agriculture can afford to sell ingredients and food at an incredibly low price to vendors and brands that in turn sell these harmful foods to us. The low purchase cost creates a self-sustaining market. However, the harmful production practices and deadly pesticides in our food are externalized. We marvel at the high rates of cancer and illness in today’s society, yet we don’t look at what we are putting into our bodies.
Crony capitalism and big business politics are also perpetuated in our current agricultural system. We think ‘big oil’ is the only harmful industry getting preferential treatment on Capitol Hill. Cargill and Monsanto give thousands in campaign contributions to political figures, not including their effective lobbying abilities (Monsanto spent over $8 million lobbying in 2010 alone).
What’s more, these companies continue to demand enormous subsidies from the government. Not only do these subsidies perpetuate the dominance of agricultural monopolies, but they allow for the surplus dumping of food products overseas to developing nations. These developing nations see our products as cheaper alternatives to developing their own agricultural industries, and are also urged (often by law) to engage in foreign trade through IMF and World Bank economic restructuring. In Egypt, for instance, loans from the IMF have mandated increased foreign investment and trade. As a result, the agriculture they do have is exported to Europe and the United States, and all other food products are imported. The exported goods create profits for a select few, while the rest of the country is mired in poverty due to food insecurity and volatile market prices - precisely the cause of the Arab Spring!
Domestically AND internationally, big agriculture’s clout silences the voices of small, independent, organic farmers trying to grow healthy food at a reasonable price, and creates instability throughout the globe. Maybe the #occupy movement should occupy Monsanto’s headquarters instead of Wall Street!
By moving away from big business agriculture and supporting local, organic foods the consumer will have power over these companies. We need to start thinking about what we put into our bodies, and realizing what ripple effects our decisions have on everything in our society - from climate change to economic inequality. The battle over agriculture unites so many of today’s challenges that it simply cannot continue to go unnoticed.
That was a hypothetical question posed in an evening discussion at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) Association in September. The panel discussion featured prominent figures in Sustainable Design: Robert Thayer, Sandy Mendler, and Sim van der Ryn. In the middle of the forum, the panel posed this question to the audience as a commentary on philosophy in the relatively new field of sustainability.
For a while now, I have found the term “sustainable” irksome. It is the prevailing buzz word for fresh thinking, green ideas, and describes a product’s or system’s ability to last, over an extended period of time. Much like CSR has driven the need for corporate public displays of greenness, so too have modern thinkers and producers needed to attach “sustainable” or “sustainability” to their overall aspirations so as to find some credibility.
(Please keep in mind, I am not shooting down these terms or ideas completely. I would simply like to view the terms and the corresponding paradigm in a different light.)
The phrase “People, Planet, Profit” - coined by author John Elkington - promotes the idea for businesses to succeed in a number of different ways, rather than the traditional ‘bottom line’. Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line brought on a reluctant swell of Corporate Social Responsibility - the idea that corporations should embrace the TBL to benefit themselves, as well as the greater planet. However, as all swells do, CSR and the TBL is sure to dissipate.
Why, do you ask, would CSR die? I thought it was just gaining momentum?
While some intentions may be good, CSR has an achilles’ heel - a tragic flaw - because it is tied to public relations.
Since the advent of ‘responsible’ business over the past decade and a half, thousands of companies have spent millions of dollars on ‘sustainable’ practices, through self-imposed audits and consultations.