David Suzuki, Wade Davis, Ronald Wright: We Must Change the Way We Look at the Natural World


By James Hoggan

In my last blog I reported some dire warnings from several of the world’s top scientists, experts who are able to present facts about species extinction and climate change in ways we can all absorb. I have never been a pessimist, but we cannot ignore these alarm bells or allow ourselves to get bogged down in denial and acrid debate. These problems are serious and they won’t go away on their own.

As I explain in my new book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, the driving mechanism behind significant social change is an urgent sense of the moral challenge combined with a credible path forward. Social justice advocate Marshall Ganz stresses that both dissonance and hope must be present if we are to spark change. MIT Sloan School of Management’s Otto Scharmer adds the success of any intervention depends less upon the specific actions taken, and more upon the inner condition of the intervener.

So clearly, if we want to solve these global environmental problems we need to change the way we see the world and the way we interact with nature. And we also need to shift not only our attention but also our intention.

In this blog I highlight the insights of three experts who urge us to do this by tapping into mankind’s extraordinary gift of foresight, the lessons of history and the wisdom of indigenous cultures.

David Suzuki, Wade Davis and Ronald Wright

Ronald Wright, Canadian author of the bestseller, A Short History of Progress, who studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, sees a pattern in our refusal to take our collective foot off the accelerator and slow the greedy advance of civilization. He said we North Americans are heavily invested in selling hydrocarbons but are in denial about it because of, “controversies stirred up by massive funding from big oil companies that create bogus scientific institutes.”

Civilizations rise and fall, prosper then collapse when the very technologies that created prosperity and success in the first place become liabilities, said the scholar who described this in his Massey Lectures. He calls this downfall of societies the progress trap and refers to examples in Easter Island, ancient Rome, Sumer and more, where innovations created new problems of their own, conditions that were worse than those that existed before the innovation.

It can start with something as seemingly simple as irrigation. People run canals into the desert to grow more food, but that leads to more people, more houses and other concerns. After many centuries, the ancient Sumerians found their fields were turning white because salts were building up when water evaporated. They didn’t deal with the problem because they had expanded to a point where it was beyond their ability to change. They were locked into the system and ignored the warnings. “In a matter of 1,000 years, start to finish, they ended up producing only a quarter of the food that the fields had produced in the beginning and of course large parts of southern Iraq had to be abandoned. The land hasn’t recovered even after thousands of years,” he said.

Discoveries and technologies that start out being beneficial can end up being detrimental. For instance, when you move from a spear to a rifle you’ve made real progress in your ability to kill animals and other people, but when you move from a rifle to the hydrogen bomb you’ve made too much progress. You’ve built a weapon you cannot use without destroying most of the higher life on Earth.

He explains how the Mayans fell into a similar progress trap when their rulers followed a similarly self-serving and shortsighted path. The Maya built bigger and bigger temples at the end, just as our civilization is creating taller and taller skyscrapers. Evidence from Maya skeletons shows that while members of the ruling class became fatter and taller, peasants became shorter and thinner. There was a transfer of resources upwards over time, as we see in our society today, along with a “great reluctance to face up to the fact that the party was over.” He sees similar cynical manipulations of tax structures today by those who are absurdly wealthy and reluctant to share any of that wealth.

The historian said we only have to look back 30 years to see staggering changes in the ratio of income between the CEO of a major American corporation and a shop floor worker in the same corporation. Three decades ago it was about 40 to 1; today it’s more than 1,000 to 1. “We see fabulous amounts of wealth in a few hands and almost a third of the human race living in dire poverty,” he explained. This pattern of the super rich avoiding taxes was seen towards the end of the Roman Empire too, when great landowners received huge tax exemptions. The tax burden was moved down the social pyramid and the state had to debase the coinage to meet its financial obligations. Meanwhile, there was increasing social unrest and Rome was rapidly turning into a city of slums.

Civilizations that have prospered and achieved brilliance in the past got into trouble because they were unable to change their ways of thinking and operating, and the very things that created their initial prosperity and success became liabilities. Wright sees the same happening now and his dystopian vision of the future leads to his warning that this will threaten not only our civilization but also the natural world on which it depends.

“There’s an absolute inability to face up to the fact that there are limits … It goes against the cultural grain of North Americans who are used to having endless plenty, used to the idea that the future will always be bigger and better,” Wright said. This is the thinking of a plunderer, not a wise steward. He explained, “One of the absolutely clear essences of history and archeology is that a healthy economy depends on a healthy environment and once you start eating into the environment to grow your so-called economy you are on a path to ruin.”

He said our rapid technological advances have made it possible to suck more and more out of the environment and have made it seem as though human prosperity is detached from natural systems. “Of course the reverse is true. What we’ve been doing by these very sophisticated means of extracting things is actually taking out stuff that can never be replaced,” he said.

Canadian geneticist, science broadcaster and environmental activist David Suzuki couldn’t agree more and said the problems we face regarding energy and environmental issues are not technological, political or economic. They are psychological, and the path forward lies in learning to see the world differently.

“The environmental movement has failed,” he said, because although we now have laws that protect clean air, clean water, endangered species and millions of hectares of land—we have not changed the way people think. “The failure was, in winning these battles, we didn’t change the way we see the world … We didn’t get across the idea that the reason we wanted to stop logging here, or this dam, or this offshore drilling is we’re a part of the biosphere and we’ve got to begin to behave in a way that protects the most fundamental things in our lives—air, water, soil and other species. That’s the lesson of environmentalism and we failed to inculcate that in society,” he said.

Suzuki explains that for most of human existence we knew we were part of nature and understood we had to be careful not to jeopardize our place in the natural world. Back in 1900 there were only 1.5 billion human beings on the planet and just 14 cities with populations of more than a million. Most lived in rural communities and were involved in farming.

Today, just more than a century later, we have more than seven billion people on Earth and hundreds of gigantic cities, dozen with populations of more than 20 million. “In cities we create our own habitat and as long as we have a park somewhere to go to camp and play in, who needs nature? The important thing in the city is your job and making money,” Suzuki said. We have seen a fundamental shift from an understanding that we are part of and dependent on nature, to becoming urban dwellers whose priorities are economic.

“Humanity has grown so powerfully that we’ve become a geological force,” he said. “There have never been so many people with the ability to affect the chemistry, the physics and the biology of the planet. A crunch is coming, because the biosphere has been so altered that there are going to be collapses and an inability to sustain the number of people on the planet.”

Human beings are now co-opting 40 percent of what’s called the net primary productivity of the planet. All of the energy captured by plants through photosynthesis is what powers life on Earth, he explains. We are in a species extinction crisis, because we’re co-opting all the land for ourselves. “Environmentalists used to demonstrate for things like clean rivers and pristine forests, but now we’re fighting for the future of the biosphere—all of the globe’s ecosystems,” he explained.

“We keep hearing about the bottom line and the economy, but the bottom line is actually the air that keeps us alive, that gives us our climate and weather. And it’s the same with water. If we see the world through economic eyes, the things that matter most to us are worthless.”

Suzuki moved into television in 1962—his program The Nature of Things has aired in nearly 50 countries—because he believed people needed more information. “I thought, the more information, the better information they have, the better decisions people will make,” he said. However, he no longer believes that.

“People today have unprecedented access to information,” he said, but we’re going backwards and science itself is being discredited. There has been a huge investment in neo-conservative, right wing think tanks that claim a lot of environmental concerns are part of the left-wing movement toward socialism. “Scientific integrity and credibility have been undermined, and that is the greatest disappointment to me,” said the former professor who has received 25 honorary degrees for his efforts to save the environment.

When 15,000 people died in Chicago one summer because of a heat wave; when 33,000 people died in Europe as a result of a heat wave; when New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina—each time he thought, “This has got to be it. I mean, people can’t deny the fact that billions of dollars worth of pine trees have been destroyed in British Columbia because of the mountain pine beetle. The best sequester of carbon is our forests and we have the largest, last, intact forest on the planet in the boreal forest of Canada. What does it take for us to accept that something is going on?”

Suzuki notes that 150,000 years ago when we emerged as a species, our one brilliant advantage was a brain that invented the concept of a future. Based on our knowledge and experience, we could look ahead and anticipate threats. “It is this ability to avoid danger and exploit opportunity that has been at the heart of our success, that led us to take over every continent of the planet and become the dominant species,” he said.

We have a huge population of scientists, and super-computers to aid them, who have spent the last four decades acting in the best tradition of our species, looking ahead, seeing where the dangers are and telling us we’ve got to change. “And now, we are being deliberately stalled … that’s the tragedy,” he said. “The success of our species is based on foresight, and now, we are turning our backs on that survival strategy.”

Modern cultures are famously myopic when it comes to their world view, concurs Canadian anthropologist and ethno botanist Wade Davis, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence whose work has taken him from Peru to Polynesia, from the Amazon rainforest to the Mali desert. “That kind of cultural myopia has been the curse of humanity, and today it is evident in the way we think about the natural world,” Davis said.

Most traditional cultures and indigenous people have a reciprocal relationship with the world. “They don’t see it as just a stage upon which the human drama unfolds,” he said. “They see it literally as a series of reciprocal exchanges in which the Earth has absolute obligations to humanity, and humanity has obligations to the Earth.”

We in the western world were raised to believe the mountains are there to be mined, “which is completely different from a child of the Andes raised to believe that that mountain above his community was an Apu spirit, a deity, that would direct his destiny for the rest of his life.” Here on the west coast of British Columbia, Davis said, we grow up believing forests exist to be cut. That makes us very different from a First Nations elder raised to believe those forests are the domain of spirits.

The interesting thing isn’t who’s right or wrong, he stresses, it’s how the belief system mediates human interaction with the environment. “It reveals two profoundly different belief systems: One with a relatively benign ecological footprint for thousands of years, another which has razed the forests in three generations,” Davis explained.

When the British first arrived in Australia, they saw people who looked strange, and had a very primitive technology. “But what really offended the British was that the aboriginal people had no interest in self-improvement, in progress, in changing their life,” he said. “That was the fundamental ethos of 18th and 19th century Europe. As recently as 1902, it was debated in parliament in Australia as to whether aboriginal people were human or not. As recently as the 1960s, a school book called A Treasury of Fauna of Australia, included the aboriginal people amongst the interesting wildlife of the country.” The entire purpose of life in Australia, for the civilization of the aboriginal people, was the antithesis of progress, said Davis. The whole purpose in life was to not change anything.

“What I find so moving when I go around the world is seeing the way indigenous people are dealing with the demonstrable evidence of climate change, whether in the Amazon or in the Andes, the Himalayas or the Arctic,” he said. In Southern Peru there is a legendary pilgrimage called the Qoyllur Rit’I that involves tens of thousands of Indians from all over the Southern Andes converging on a sacred valley dominated by a glacier called the Colquepunku. The ritual involves, among other things, crawling up to the ice and chipping off small blocks, which are then carried back to elders who are incapable of making the pilgrimage.

“Watching the degree of recession of those glaciers, the people have unilaterally decided it’s their fault, and this is a key thing,” Davis said. “We think of climate change as a technical problem, a scientific problem, perhaps a controversial, political issue. They see it as their fault. So, these people, in this poignant act, have ceased chipping trivial blocks of ice from the glacier, breaking the sacred cycle of the ritual that goes back at least 2,000 years.”

This is not their problem. This is a problem created by a narrow subset of humanity with a specific ideology and a specific attitude toward the world, Davis said. He does not suggest we return to a pre-industrial past, but that we recognize the existence of different ways of being alive on the planet and change the fundamental way we interact with it.

“In our lifetimes, we’ve seen Black people go from the woodshed to the White House; women go from the kitchen to the board room; gay people from the closet to the altar. Through space exploration we’ve reconfigured our entire notion of what the world is, and now we are being asked to re-think our integration into the natural world,” Davis explained.

The scholars I interviewed here have elegantly revealed the story of our counter-evolutionary behavior, and they have offered a more enlightened and ethical way of looking at our natural world and interacting with it. As Otto Scharmer explained at the beginning of this blog, we have to change the inner condition of the intervener if we are to affect change and deal with the problems we face.

James Hoggan is president of the Vancouver PR firm Hoggan & Associates, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and founder of the influential website DeSmogBlog. He is also the author Climate Cover-Up, Do the Right Thing and the recently released I’m Right and You’re an Idiot.

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