Friday, January 7, 2022

David Suzuki's 'The Sacred Balance'

Like many, I have seen an uptick in my reading quota over the past couple of years.  My diet has included about 25% fiction, 25% biography, and 50% science non-fiction.  My favourite fiction was Matt Haig's The Midnight Library and my favourite non-fiction was probably David Suzuki's The Sacred Balance.  I had never read any of Suzuki's work, and although this one is more than a decade old, it seemed to be his defining work, so I went with it.

Suzuki is a prominent figure in Canada; he has been a leader in the sustainability movement for most of my life.  While my personal interest is in space exploration, there is no question that sustainability is the most pressing issue of our time.

The premise of the book is quite simple: while science is a powerful tool and a culmination of our collective creativity and curiosity, it has a tendency to be fragmented, failing to view ecosystems as a whole.  The findings of science has led to short-term increases in standard of living, increasing lifespan and comfort, but it has come at a major cost to the prosperity of our species in the long-term.  We are simply not thoughtful enough to use science conservatively; our economic system is based on unsustainable growth, and all political systems, thus far, have failed to prioritize the long-term.  Science, when perverted by runaway capitalism, is nothing short of a slowly burning fire on the global scale with nothing to put it out.  So, you know, this was a fun read in the midst of a global pandemic.

The thesis of the book is that we will not be able to control our planet with science for the foreseeable future.  If we wish to have a foreseeable future, we need to model our behaviour after civilizations that have lived in harmony with the sustaining features of Earth for hundreds of years: namely, indigenous people.  This does not mean we must abandon science and technology.  It simply means we must refocus it.  We must rethink our socio-political and economic systems; they must have sustainability sewed into their fabric.  In a finite system, growth is madness.  Growth is suicide.

The first half of the book focuses on the science of our sustaining systems and their interconnections: air, water, soil, solar energy, and biodiversity.  It is in this latter chapter that the writing flourishes.  A strong case is made that decrease in biodiversity hurts all species in the long run - it is a precursor to mass extinction.  Biodiversity becomes a measure of the long-term prosperity of our species, like placing a stethoscope to our existence on this planet.

The second half of the book is where its strength lies.  It talks about love and spirituality, the joys of being alive, the vitality that we are granted once our requirements of air, water, food, and warmth are met.  The final chapter is about restoring balance, not with further attempts to engineer our planet, but by allowing the ecosystems of Earth time to fix themselves - by getting out of the way.  We will need engineering to allow comfortable lives for our roughly eight billion population.  But it must be long-term-focused.  It must get out of the way.  This final chapter is about how we can get there.  It highlights stories of individuals, who become grassroot movements, who have come to effect macroscopic change.  Their stories must become a beacon for us.  They are truly motivational.  This motivation will be crucial in the way forward.

Last semester, a colleague of mine taught a sustainability course.  The experience left him disheartened because the students in the course did not believe humanity had the wherewithal to change.  They lacked faith in our species, and who can blame them?  In their lifetimes, world leaders have only set us in the wrong course, and these leaders often reflect the wants of the societies they represent.  I understand my colleague's sadness.  As a teacher, the students' morale is our morale.  And frankly, if today's young people have thrown in the towel, we are indeed a lost species.

One shining light, from my point of view, has been some sweeping change that we have seen over the last couple of years, in our response to a very different existential crisis: COVID-19.  Damn it!  I almost completed an article without bringing it up!  Maybe next time... But seriously, we saw a threat, and pivoted.  It was not pretty, and not without hardship, but as a species confronting a dangerous threat, we tried to make changes to adapt to the situation.  

Perhaps you have heard of the frog-in-the-pot analogy... A pandemic, to us, is like a frog that is dropped into a pot of boiling water.  We are that frog, still trying to climb out, the hot droplets of water striking our tushies.  

Our present situation, where our finite resources are being exacerbated, represents a different threat.  In this one, we are a frog in slightly warm water that is continuously being warmed further.  It will eventually boil.  In this scenario, a frog would likely meet its demise.  It would not instinctively react and jump out of the pot.  But we have an advantage over the frog.  We have tools, like a thermometer, and we understand the reasons for the warming of the water.  We can forecast, with limited but reasonable accuracy, the rate of warming that will occur if conditions go unchanged.  Armed with this, we can be smarter than a frog.  We can evolve our thinking, act responsibly, and earn the right to wield the powerful tools that science has unleashed.

It is essential that we react to our biosphere crisis with the same resolve as we did the pandemic.  We can do it.  At the very least, we can try.  But a sweeping response will only happen if a critical mass of people at all levels of society truly understand the severity of the situation.  They need to embrace the obvious truth that this threat is every bit as serious as a pandemic.  Its solutions are less scientifically complex than engineering a vaccine.  We just need to learn to get out of the way.  We need to exist within nature rather than attempt to manipulate it.  It is less about new science than it is about smart design.

We all know that science and technology can be abused.  We usually focus on the upside: agriculture nourishes the masses, electricity gives us light, warmth and comfort, and modern medicine reduces suffering and extends life.  But these are the very things that have allowed our population to balloon.  This larger population then demands the same kind of comfort, which means more brut engineering.  While this ballooning sounds like the opposite of extinction, it has taken an unprecedented toll on our sustaining systems in the blink of an eye.  

One way or another, this graph will come down.  But how will that journey look?  Will the descent entail pain and hardship?  Will it end at zero?  Or will we allow Earth's natural mechanisms the time needed to stabilize itself?  Will we be here to see it happen?  Will today's children come to know a world whose sacred balance has been restored?  Countless humans today have not given up.  Please be one of them.