Photo: Anti-environmentalists are stuck in the past

Use of solar energy is one of the advanced ways of thinking about our relationship with nature. (Credit: J. N. Stuart via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Environmentalists won't be happy until we're living in caves and scrounging for roots and berries. At least, that's what I hear over and over again. The people who say this would have you believe that those of us who care about the Earth and its future are neo-primitives who don't believe in modern ways.

Of course, many people before us developed complex societies over hundreds or thousands of years of cultural evolution, and many developed a far more sophisticated understanding of how their food, energy, and other needs affected the ecosystem they relied on than is typically displayed in our own technological society. And so, we may have some lessons to learn from our ancestors about our place on this Earth. Many people seem to have forgotten, for example, that we are a part of nature, and not beings that stand outside or above it. Valuing these aspects of traditional societies isn't about an atavistic wish to return to "primitive" life; it's about recognizing facets of a more rational way of living.

Most environmentalists I know are looking to the future — a future in which modern and clean technology will help get us out of the environmental and economic jams we're in. We believe that innovations in areas such as solar, wind, and tidal power — along with advanced ways of thinking about our relationship with nature — will lead us to a more just and sane path than the one we're on.

Our earliest advances were based on burning wood or dung for fuel. Now we're still using our paleolithic trick, burning decayed organic materials in the form of fossil fuels. Isn't it time we moved on? We are far too numerous — and the impacts of our actions far too great — to keep on acting like cavemen. It seems to me that those who criticize us, the anti-environmentalists, are the ones who want to turn their back on their future so that they can just go on burning stuff.

Our human history is one of change, of coming up with new ideas and new technologies to meet the challenges of allocating resources to growing populations. As environmentalists, we embrace change for the better. But our critics want us to remain stuck in a time that has no future. They reject progress, arguing that we should keep on our destructive way, with outmoded technologies and energy sources.

They reject the research of close to 98 per cent of the world's climate scientists, as well as numerous scientific institutions, that shows humans are contributing to rapidly increasing global average temperatures that threaten our future on this finite planet. Many of those who reject this overwhelming scientific evidence do so out of self-interest. The lucrative fossil fuel industries and their associated lobby groups have invested a lot of time and money into campaigns to stall progress by raising doubt and fear.

These tactics have had an effect. Many people do fear change, and it's often easier to hold onto what you have — even if you know it isn't working — than to embrace new ideas. But beyond the scientific predictions, it's getting more difficult every day to deny the very real and immediate impacts of climate change. Environmental damage from climate change is already killing 300,000 people a year, with an economic impact of $125 billion a year.

A better world for us, our children, and our grandchildren is possible. Just as we're seeing evidence of the damage caused by climate change today, we're also seeing innovative ideas being applied to the problems. Many scientists, economists, environmentalists, business people, and citizens are proposing and implementing solutions. Their work is not only offering hope in the face of the catastrophic effects of climate change, it's also offering hope for faltering economies by ushering in new technologies to replace the jobs and technologies that are becoming obsolete as supplies of polluting fossil fuels become scarce. But the longer we put off fully embracing these solutions the more difficult we will make life for ourselves.

We can continue to burn things until there is nothing left to burn, and we can continue to allow fossil fuel interests to continue to spew pollution into the air without cost, but where will that leave us? Maybe scrounging for roots and berries and huddling in caves for shelter?

August 19, 2010

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