Thursday, February 14, 2008

Notes From a David Suzuki Talk

For those who missed the talk by David Suzuki at Princeton University on Feb. 12, here's a writeup. Suzuki is the eminent Canadian scientist perhaps best known for his many television documentaries.

Dr. Suzuki described humanity's long arc, beginning 150,000 years ago, when we were a minor species in Africa, our numbers dwarfed by the spectacular fauna that dominated the world at that time. What was it about us back then that would eventually make us the most numerous mammalian species on the planet, more common than rats, rabbits or mice, dominating the planet as no other species has ever done? We were equipped with a brain able to process and hold more information than any other species. With that extraordinary mind, we invented the future. Our foresight allowed us to anticipate future circumstances in ways no other species could.

Suzuki sees this as the defining characteristic that allowed us incomparable success as a species--and yet we are now ignoring those who offer the best insight into the future. In 1992, half of all nobel prize winners signed a document warning that humanity had only one or a few decades to act before our future as a species would be irreparably diminished. He read some compelling excerpts from the document, which was ignored by the news media. You'd think, he said, that if half of the most celebrated scientists in the world speak out in unison on a pressing problem, the world would take notice, but no.

As an example of what happens when society ignores scientists, he offered up Hurricane Katrina, whose catastrophic consequences confirmed everything scientists had been saying for 30 years.

After 8 years studying at U.S. universities, Suzuki returned to Canada to begin his professional career in 1962. As chance would have it, that was the year that Silent Spring was published. He described the huge impact that book had on him and on the world. Silent Spring showed him that what he could learn from test tube experiments in a lab was only a minute part of reality, since anything being studied in a lab enters into tremendously complex interactions when put back into the environment.

He was in Vancouver, involved in various early environmental battles, when Greenpeace was born, in a fight to stop nuclear underground testing off the coast of Canada. Human beings, he realized, were "taking too much stuff out of the natural world, and putting too many toxics back in." And those toxics accumulate at each trophic level, as they move up the food chain. There is no place in the world that is free of manmade pollutants. Some scientists studying toxics in breastmilk in urban Canada needed a control group of mothers who had not been exposed to PCBs. They tested eskimos in the far north, and to their horror found the highest concentrations of PCBs ever recorded.

In the 1970, Suzuki felt despair at how little we knew about the environment and what we were doing to it. He sought out the ancient wisdom of what he calls the "1st nations", the tribal cultures, from whom he learned that humans are composed of the four sacred elements: earth, air, water and fire. He believes science has confirmed this view, that we essentially are the environment--there is no separation.

He then described each element, beginning with air. With each breath, we draw air into extraordinary intimacy with the interior of our bodies. He described the special membranes in our lungs that allow the air to become essentially one with our tissues, as the gases become attached to blood cells and carried throughout our circulatory system. He told a magnificent story of how the inert argon atoms we breath in each breath, some 30,000,000,000,000,000,000, include atoms that were breathed, let me say without too much exageration, by everyone and everything that ever lived. (The full story can be found at In other words, he said, there is no line between the inner and outer worlds. We ARE air. "I am you. You are me."

That 15% of Canadians have asthma speaks to the consequences that all we put into the environment has on the inside environment of people.

He then suggested that with each of the other sacred elements there is a similar intimacy and universal sharing. Fire is the solar energy that we take in through our food to power our systems.

Other notes from the talk:

Reductionism--the study of pieces to understand the whole--doesn't work.

Emulate nature (biomimicry) rather than try to overwhelm it.

There is too much information today, which people use to defend any position. The dilemma is how to navigate through the information.

"News shatters the world" into two minute segments devoid of context, that fail to tell us why we should care about this or that happening in the world.

From 1900 to 2000, we went from being farming animals to city dwellers, in the process losing touch with the world that sustains us. He has found that many kids don't know where their food, water and other basic things come from. Many don't know that hamburgers and hotdogs come from animals.

If we don't know what nature provides, then we think the economy is the source of all things. We've elevated economy above ecology. He quoted someone as saying that "conventional economics is a form of brain damage," in which basic ecological services are categorized as "externalities". Conventional economics externalizes the world that keeps us alive. All the services provided by a living tree, for instance, are viewed as externalities. It only gains economic value when someone either buys it or cuts it down.
GDP, or gross domestic product, is a strange concept. It only adds, never subtracts. It views any exchange of money as good. Ice storms, car crashes--all increase GDP.

Fundamental questions to ask: "Am I happier?", "How much is enough?"

Clinging to steady economic growth is suicidal.

Suzuki described the efforts he's been involved in to bring about change. He collaborated with the Union of Concerned Scientists to come up with ten things people could do to improve the planetary situation, centering around what we eat, how we move, and where we live. It's difficult, because "people don't want to be fundamentally deflected towards a different way of doing things." But he sees the slow food movement as promising, a good place to start.

One thing that has worked for him is to create a vision--a target to reach in a generation. If one creates a vision, he finds that most people will be drawn in, will agree it's a worthy goal. Then it becomes a positive discussion of how do we get there.

One such vision is "Sustainability Within a Generation", which can be found at

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Human Generator

For those who are of a practical sort, not apt to suffer unnecessary effort gladly, the concept of venturing onto a treadmill or a stairmaster remains an alien one. Perhaps there are primordial ancestors whispering through our genes, telling us to rest up for the big hunt, saying that exercise must have meaning and purpose beyond achieving a lively heart rate.

Needing motivation beyond simple longevity, I seek exercise in riding a bike to get where I need to go, or chopping wood, or cutting down invasive shrubs. This is all well and good, as far as it goes, but it rarely gives the sense of having tested the limit, of cleansing the pores, of flushing out the stagnant byways of the circulatory system.

To that end, I propose that someone of a mechanical bent devise an exercise bike that generates electricity. Domestic heroes, ready to take on global warming feet first, will trod down into the basement and spend a half hour generating an evening's worth of electricity for the family, and at the same time get that dose of intense exercise that a practical nature would otherwise deprive them of.

Of course, someone already has, as a "bike generator" web search will instantly show. One fellow produced 90 watt hours this very morning on his homemade bike generator, enough to run a laptop for three hours.

In this vein, below is an article encountered in the NY Times, about a way to generate electricity simply by taking a walk around the block. It attaches to the knee, and generates a steady flow of 5 watts. The article also mentions an invention that utilizes the jiggling of a backpack to generate 20 watts, more than enough to power whatever gizmos are standard equipment for hikes into the wild these days.

Embedded in the text is a stunning statistic: A person's body fat stores as much energy as a ton of batteries. Hope turns up in the most unlikely quarters. Given its reputation, the nation may be sitting on the key to its energy independence. No matter how dazzling the mechanical skin we wrap ourselves in, the solar-powered self remains the greatest marvel, now apparently with sophisticated battery power second to none.

Taking People Power to a New Level (