David Suzuki: Nonstop Growth is Population Suicide

I just got to see Dr. David Suzuki speak in person when he was at Georgian College on Earth Day, in fact the first Earth Day he hadn’t spent in British Columbia in many years so we all felt honoured and privileged to hear his inspiring words on such an important day.

One of the key messages Dr. Suzuki passed along was one I’ve cared about as well: namely that our economy is something we invented and can change to suit our needs. (Think: the failure of communism in the Soviet Union.) The environment is something on which we depend, and that provides us the necessities of life such as air, water, and food ultimately powered by photosynthesis, the ultimate in solar energy. And yet we constantly try to make the environment bend to our needs to preserve the economy we invented, so often polluting the air, water, and soil in the process. Corporations too conveniently ignore these issues as “externalities.”

In follow up to this point, Dr. Suzuki addressed the main focus of the economy, namely growth. Nonstop growth can’t work with finite resources. To illustrate that point, he referred to the nonstop growth our own population has been experiencing. When Dr. Suzuki was born, he mentioned there were only about two billion people on Earth. In the span of one lifetime our planet’s population has more than doubled.

He used a brilliant analogy to explain why our species may be headed to suicide. I thought about trying to put it into words, but this video explains it so much better than I could by Dr. Suzuki himself.

David Suzuki and Earth Day

We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”
—David Suzuki

I’m proud to be Canadian. That doesn’t always mean that I’m proud of everything Canada does. But one thing it got right was David Suzuki. Although from Japanese heritage, this man is third-generation Canadian. He’s an academic with a PhD in zoology from the University of Chicago he obtained more than fifty years ago. He’s a science broadcaster, host of the long-running CBC program “The Nature of Things.” And he’s a long-time activist regarding global warming and climate change. And today—on Earth Day of all days—I get to hear him speak his message in person at Georgian College.

His efforts at educating people about climate change and global warming stem from the fact that he’s a scientist. He may not have received his PhD in climate science, but as someone who understands the principles of hypothesis, the scientific method, experimentation and interpretation of data, and publication in peer-reviewed journals, he has more than enough expertise to be qualified to speak to the issue.

One of the problems in science today is how compartmentalized it has become. Certainly in medicine we see it all the time. As an example, I’m a doctor who specialized in internal medicine and then subspecialized in cardiology. Although I stopped there, I could have gone ever further and pursued, say, electrophysiology which is the study of rhythm disorders. Beyond that, I could have decided to dedicate myself to only pacemakers and defibrillators, or ablation techniques, or rhythm medications.

The problem with learning more and more about less and less is that eventually you know everything about nothing. Since climate science is complex, I believe someone who has a broader understanding of science will often have a better appreciation of the big picture than someone who understands only the atmospheric aspects of it, or the hydrospheric, or geospheric. Dr. Suzuki’s background in zoology obviously gives him particular expertise in topics relating to the animal world, but he has a much more holistic understanding of climate change than a sub-sub-specialist ever could. People often think of the word “holistic” and its connection to an alternative branch of medicine, but its true meaning is simply a “comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” That’s climate change and global warming, through and through.

Dr. Suzuki has understood the science behind global warming and has been warning about its dangers for decades. Like many others who understand science, he considers the evidence for global warming and its connection to human activities to be irrefutable. He is also quick to point out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assembled more than 2500 scientists from over 130 countries, coming to the conclusion that most of the global warming observed in the last half-century is due to human activities rather than other factors. (This is where phrases like “the vast majority of climate scientists around the world” comes from.) Indeed, every national academy of science around the world believes we are the main culprit for climate change, but the skeptics and deniers do a good job of growing seeds of doubt in the media.

There has even been a smear campaign against Dr. Suzuki himself; to be fair, he has garnered his own fair share of controversy, mostly borne out of frustration that progress moves too slowly toward the solutions we need. Real change requires government participation and that just hasn’t occurred enough for Suzuki’s satisfaction. (Or, indeed, for anyone’s satisfaction who believes in what the science is telling us and appreciates what we need to accomplish to stave off a global crisis in the generations to come.)

He’s also frustrated because too many people argue that global warming isn’t real. There is no doubt that climate change deniers and skeptics are out there in full force with a goal of delaying any action on climate change. Frustrating because so many of those on that side of the “debate” don’t understand the science—the main reason I wrote my book and maintain a blog on the subject. The science tends to get published in scientific journals but those aren’t easily accessible to the general public, requiring good public speakers like Dr. Suzuki to spread the message around. The skeptics and deniers typically get their information from sources that come from a well-organized campaign intent on spreading disinformation and they target the media, the general public, and policy makers rather than publish in any peer-reviewed mainstream scientific journals. Sadly, these groups are too often funded by the fossil fuel industry or other groups with a vested interest in maintaining business as usual, rather than looking to develop renewable sources of energy.

As part of his personal mission, Dr. Suzuki established The David Suzuki Foundation in 1990. Its mission is to “protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future. Our vision is that within a generation, Canadians act on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.” (In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to point out that I was very honoured when asked to write a guest blog for one of the many blogs on the David Suzuki Foundation website, this one entitled Docs Talk. A joint effort with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, it’s dedicated to promoting knowledge and understanding about the impact of environment on health. As a cardiologist, I was invited to write about the impacts of global warming on heart health in particular. Never one to resist a good play on words, its title is “The heart of the matter on climate change.”)

Dr. Suzuki is a real hero. Not only for Canada, but for the whole world. Generations to come will be able to look back on his achievements and realize how how important he was in the efforts we made to save our planet from ourselves, and for our future.

2016 Starts Breaking Records Already

NASA has released a report that Earth just experienced the hottest first quarter (January to March) ever on record. The previous record (which was held by 2015) was beaten by 0.7°F (0.39°C). Historically, such records spanning months are broken by mere hundredths of a degree.

This really shouldn’t be too surprising, however. Just look at the trend our planet is going through:

  • March 2016 was the hottest March on record
  • February 2016 was the hottest February on record
  • January 2016 was the hottest January on record
  • December 2015 was the hottest December on record
  • November 2015 was the hottest November on record
  • October 2015 was the hottest October on record

Can you see the pattern?

2015 was our hottest year ever, having beaten 2014. But at this rate as the El Niño e’ve been experiencing gradually disappears, we can anticipate that 2016 will beat the record yet again. But it’s not all due to the El Niño because the records being broken are blowing the previous El Niño years out of the water. The underlying trend of a warming planet is undeniable. El Niño is simply icing on the cake.

Now if only we would do something about it.

10,000,000,000 by 2050

The future ain’t what it used to be.
-Yogi Berra

There’s no doubt that an ever-increasing global population plays a big part in global warming and climate change. More people means more land to live on, more land for crops, and more livestock for food. Clearing all this land and the construction, agriculture and livestock that go along with it generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. As the global population increases and as technology continues to progress with populations either living according to first-world standards or at least trying to, the emissions per person steadily increase as well.

In October 2011, we hit a global population of seven billion people, and with more births than deaths, that number continues to climb. Our species has had many ups and downs in population over the centuries, but ever since the plague finished doing its damage around 1350—leaving us with about 370 million human beings at that point—our numbers have been steadily rising. Better sanitation, antibiotics, vaccination, and modern medicine (especially pertaining to childbirth) have all led to less premature deaths than we used to experience.

And slowly but surely, women’s rights are steadily improving around the world. There’s lots of room for further improvement in certain parts of the globe to be sure, but making sure that women are educated and getting into the workforce, and that they have control over their own bodies with respect to family planning have contributed substantially toward the steady decline in birth rates seen all over the world in the last fifty years. Only the poorest war-torn nations continue to have higher birth rates, in part to offset the higher mortality rates those countries experience.

Since birth rates are declining, might we ever expect to reach a plateau in the rising global population?  Continue reading

Every Picture Tells a Story

Gideon Mendel is a photographer who got his real start in South Africa during the era of apartheid. In his words:

[That experience] defined my lifelong approach to photography and inspired me to seek out ways to engage creatively with social and political issues.

In a more recent project that he’s called Drowning World, Mendel has taken some captivating images in various countries all over the world that have been devastated by flooding due to climate change. Putting a different spin on it, Mendel has taken photographs of victims right in the flood waters. In order to do so, he had to wear hip waders, losing a few cameras in the water along the way. Each picture tells someone’s story.

Mendel explains that previously photographic images of climate change have generally been “very white. It was about glaciers and polar bears, and it felt very impersonal.” He describes his photos as “submerged portraits.” Rather than showing victims trying to flee the scene, he shows them living in the floods themselves.

An exhibit of Mendel’s Drowning World photos will be on display at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, from May 13 to October 16, 2016. In the meantime you can check out some of his flood images for yourself here.