Photo: Who says a better world is impossible?

(Credit: Gisli Jon via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation's Senior Editor Ian Hanington

Cars, air travel, space exploration, television, nuclear power, high-speed computers, telephones, organ transplants, prosthetic body parts... At various times these were all deemed impossible. I've been around long enough to have witnessed many technological feats that were once unimaginable. Even 10 or 20 years ago, I would never have guessed people would carry supercomputers in their pockets — your smart phone is more powerful than all the computers NASA used to put astronauts on the moon in 1969 combined!

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Despite a long history of the impossible becoming possible, often very quickly, we hear the "can't be done" refrain repeated over and over — especially in the only debate over global warming that matters: What can we do about it? Climate change deniers and fossil fuel industry apologists often argue that replacing oil, coal and gas with clean energy is beyond our reach. The claim is both facile and false.

Facile because the issue is complicated. It's not simply a matter of substituting one for the other. To begin, conservation and efficiency are key. We must find ways to reduce the amount of energy we use — not a huge challenge considering how much people waste, especially in the developed world. False because rapid advances in clean energy and grid technologies continue to get us closer to necessary reductions in our use of polluting fossil fuels.

It's ironic that anti-environmentalists and renewable energy opponents often accuse those of us seeking solutions of wanting to go back to the past, to living in caves, scrounging for roots and berries. They're the ones intent on continuing to burn stuff to keep warm — to the detriment of the natural world and all it provides.

People have used wind and solar power for thousands of years. But recent rapid advances in generation, storage and transmission technologies have led to a fast-developing industry that's outpacing fossil fuels in growth and job creation. Costs are coming down to the point where renewable energy is competitive with the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy for worldwide electricity generation grew to 22 per cent in 2013, a five per cent increase from 2012.

The problem is that much of the world still burns non-renewable resources for electricity and fuels, causing pollution and climate change and, subsequently, more human health problems, extreme weather events, water shortages and environmental devastation. In many cities in China, the air has become almost unbreathable, as seen in the shocking Chinese documentary film Under the Dome. In California, a prolonged drought is affecting food production. Extreme weather events are costing billions of dollars worldwide.

We simply must do more to shift away from fossil fuels and, despite what the naysayers claim, we can. We can even get partway there under our current systems. Market forces often lead to innovation in clean energy development. But in addressing the very serious long-term problems we've created, we may have to challenge another "impossibility": changing our outmoded global economic system. As economist and Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs wrote in a recent Guardian article, "At this advanced stage of environmental threats to the planet, and in an era of unprecedented inequality of income and power, it's no longer good enough to chase GDP. We need to keep our eye on three goals — prosperity, inclusion, and sustainability — not just on the money."

Relying on market capitalism encourages hyper-consumption, planned obsolescence, wasteful production and endless growth. Cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions requires conserving energy as well as developing new energy technologies. Along with reducing our reliance on private automobiles and making buildings and homes more energy-efficient, that also means making goods that last longer and producing fewer disposable or useless items so less energy is consumed in production.

People have changed economic systems many times before, when they no longer suited shifting conditions or when they were found to be inhumane, as with slavery. And people continue to develop tools and technologies that were once thought impossible. Things are only impossible until they're not. We can't let those who are stuck in the past, unable to imagine a better future, hold us back from creating a safer, cleaner and more just world.

March 26, 2015

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May 15, 2015
5:07 AM

David — Your article is so important. Self-inflicted limiting beliefs are the biggest obstacle humans face, more daunting even than climate change. We have limiting beliefs about what we can do individually — “I could never write a book,” “I could never run marathon,” I could never [fill in the blank]”.

So too do we have limiting beliefs about what our society can do — “We could never have clean energy,” “we could never live peacefully,” “we could never [fill in the blank]”.

As Henry Ford said, ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”

We create our reality. Why not create a happy, healthy, and fun reality?

Mar 27, 2015
7:21 PM

After World War Two as the Cold War intensified, many analysts considered it impossible that there would not be a catastrophic nuclear World War Three by the year 1960. Yet all over the world people demonstrated and petitioned and campaigned for peace, and because of all their work, we are still here. Proof that a better world is possible, because even with all its problems and worries, we are living in it.

Mar 27, 2015
1:15 PM

The really exciting thing is that change which is good for the environment, is not only possible but the pursuit of that goal is just the sort of prescription the economy needs. The problem is few seem to understand why this is true.

Capitalism in it’s early stages was beneficial to society. My grandfather used to correct my mother when she lamented the loss of the “good old days”, telling her that she simply did not understand as a child how much toil was involved just to shelter and to feed the family in the “good old days”.

Capitalism made life easier by enabling the efficient conversion of resources, both material, and labor into technology that driven by market demand, produced products which made life easier. In that respect it was a success as the basis for the political economy, providing both jobs and products to buy which improved the living standard as an added reward (surplus)for all our work efforts. Today capitalism has morphed from a real economy driving tool into a near zero sum game returning little real added value for labor efforts, and monetary returns mostly going to financiers and those positioned to extract economic rents. Jobs are disappearing as a few grow fabulously rich while producing nothing. In futility we turn to exports of our raw resources as the means to keep things going but this has limitations in a world where austerity thinking dominates national economic policymaking in nearly every country. We can’t all be net exporters!

What capitalism needs if it has any hope of remaining a viable political economy, is a new project. We can again see job creation in productive activity if we try to add to the old definition of progress by demanding the fruit of our labor not only satisfy our needs but also satisfies the needs of a sustainable environment. If we also choose as wants more of the things that demand less from our environment (think art, music, gourmet cooking etc) then we are well on the road to sustainability.

The means to realize this new definition of utility are well within the grasp of all developed nations. The only real limitation to the rate of progress in this direction is the amount of real resources (material and labor) which can be allocated to making it happen. No rational human being would prefer to expend his/her lifes effort being engaged in producing and consuming things detrimental to personal and environmental health were equal personal gain possible from sounder alternatives.

According to modern monetary theory, developed nations typically use a soverieign fiat currency, that is, money created by federal government spending and demanded by that government as the only means to pay taxes. This gives the money issuing government all the power it needs to initiate a fiscal policy that drives the economy in a way that makes it most profitable for business and individuals to pursue the kinds of sustainable /environment friendly economic activity we need. In fact unemployment can be entirely eliminated at the same time.

Unfortunately we are not there yet because the leadership seems to have blinders on when it comes to seeing the possibilities, prefering instead to remain locked into the false belief that change is not possible without causing economic ruin. Canada has all of the resources Canadians need both in terms of material and smart people to become world leaders in reshaping the global economy.

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