Why do we ignore disaster?

Picture a giant car hurtling toward a cliff at breakneck speed. Oddly, the passengers in the car don’t seem overly concerned about the approaching catastrophe. Instead, they’re too busy arguing about who should be driving.

Dr. David Suzuki used this analogy to illustrate that society is ignoring the cumulative effects our lifestyle is having on this planet. Environmental peril lies directly ahead, the noted scientist warned but, with few exceptions, no one is grabbing the wheel to steer us from danger.

So we continue recklessly towards the cliff. “But time is running out,” Suzuki cautioned. “No more than a few decades remain.”

Role for older Canadians
Suzuki’s speech to CARP’s environmental forum served as a 45-minute primer on all that’s wrong with our planet’s environment. It also called on older Canadians to take a leading role and help avert environmental disaster.

He highlighted the appalling effect our North American lifestyle-and the industry that supports it-is having on the environment. Largely to blame, said Suzuki, is our “incredibly consumptive appetites-we drive big cars, live in big homes and own more than we could er possibly need or use.”

To satisfy all of these needs, he said “we’ve become a super species, attacking everything in the name of progress, development and economic opportunity.”

In effect, we’re taking far too much from the environment and putting too much waste back in. And, because our factories and cars pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, it’s become a “toxic dump” — the quality of the air we breathe is disintegrating.

Sick air toll
Suzuki spoke of the toll this ‘sick’ air is having on all Canadians-in particular the elderly and children. Studies show that in big cities where air quality is particularly poor, seniors are dying prematurely.

He also pointed to an alarming statistic showing that one out of every five children born today develops asthma. “Our children and grandchildren are getting sick and we’re not doing anything about it,” he said.

To Suzuki, clean air is all-important-the first thing we do when we’re born is take a breath and we continue to take 15 or 20 breaths of air each minute for the rest of our lives. Suzuki called it the ‘matrix of air’ and outlined its importance.

“Every breath we take we share with all living things in our environment,” he said. There are, he added, elements of this air which humans have been passing around since the beginning of life on this planet. “Each breath of air we take has elements in it which the dinosaurs, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc and Gandhi all breathed.”

It’s what unites us to past generations, he suggested, and if we want to keep this cycle going, we must ensure it remains breathable. This ‘matrix of air’ has served us well since the beginning of life, he said, but within the past century we’ve begun polluting it so much “we’ve collectively undermined the very life support system of our planet.”

Steps for action
Suzuki believes that Canada’s 50-plus population can help to restore the environment. He listed the obvious methods:

  • Vote for politicians who support the environment
  • Use your car less
  • Limit consumption to what is absolutely necessary
  • Recycle

However, he envisions a grander role for older Canadians, similar to that played by elders in aboriginal communities. Aboriginal elders, said Suzuki, are a link to the past, the cultural record keepers of their community. They keep alive the traditions of their parents and grandparents, passing them down to the next generation.

Moreover, their survival depends on a healthy environment. In fact, according to Suzuki, many aboriginal elders believe their bodies extend beyond their extremities and out to the environment that surrounds them. He recalled the words of an elder from a First Nations tribe in B.C. Looking at his land, half destroyed by excessive logging, the elder told Suzuki: “When it’s gone, we will go with it.”

Generational bridges
Accordingly, Suzuki proposed that 50-plus Canadians act as a generational bridge in our communities. We can remember the clean air, immaculate rivers and pristine countryside.

Poignantly, he told the story of his grandson who wanted to go fishing him. “Sadly, I couldn’t take him to any of the spots I fished as a child — all the fish were gone.”

However, in telling his grandson this, Suzuki has passed on to the next generation memories of how it used to be. He’s played the role of the elder in his community — a role he envisions other 50-plussers playing.

Importance of elder role
Future generations may not listen to environmentalists or scientists but will surely listen to their own grandparents. And they can use these memories as testimonials when they demand that politicians and corporations take actions to save our planet.

As well as the elder role, Suzuki feels older Canadians have the influence, resources and time to invest in environmental action. Plus, they may feel more free to speak out at this time in their lives.

“Look at the Raging Grannies in B.C.,” said Suzuki, referring to the well-known older women’s protest group. “They protest anyone and anything. And they don’t worry what people think of them,” he said.
He also courted controversy in saying we must hold politicians and corporations who refuse to clean up the environment as criminally responsible. “They are accessories to murder,” he said to a rousing ovation.