Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 25, 2003

Speaker warns against sustained economic growth

suzukiCoal miners used to take caged canaries underground with them as carbon monoxide detectors. When a bird asphyxiated, miners know they had about five minutes to get out alive.

In North America today, David T. Suzuki pointed out here yesterday, very young and old people serve as society’s canaries. Yet most of us prefer not to recognize the health problems that they increasingly exhibit (unprecedented rates of asthma among children, for example) as early warning signs that we are polluting our atmosphere beyond repair. “The next time you jump in your SUV to take your asthmatic child to the emergency ward, maybe you might want to consider that there is a connection between those two things” — the gas-guzzling vehicle and the gasping child, Suzuki said. “We ought to ask what security really reflects and what responsibility really means. Whatever we do to the air, we do to ourselves.”

Suzuki — a Canadian geneticist, environmentalist, author, civil rights activist and award-winning broadcaster best known for his CBC-TV series, “The Nature of Things” — delivered yesterday’s Heinz Distinguished Lecture at Pitt’s third annual fall science celebration, “Science 2003: Improving the Human Condition.”

His hour-long talk, “Is a Sustainable Future Compatible With Economic and Environmental Needs?: Setting the Real Bottom Line,” was well-received by most in the Alumni Hall auditorium audience. But it was unlikely to win Suzuki any invitations to President Bush’s ranch or an Exxon company picnic. Or, for that matter, to the next gathering of Pittsburgh’s growing community of bioengineers.

Like earlier scientists who rushed the insecticide DDT and man-made, ozone-depleting CFC molecules onto the market — not foreseeing, or preferring to ignore, their disastrous effects on the environment — today’s scientists who tout the benefits of genetically modified organisms can’t anticipate the negative consequences of their products, Suzuki argued.

“I’m shocked and ashamed of my colleagues in genetics who haven’t remembered a damned bit of their history,” he said. “Genetic engineering is a revolutionary area, and in any revolutionary area, most of your current ideas are wrong. That’s the way science progresses.

“I graduated with a Ph.D. in 1961. When I tell kids in the lab today what we believed was the structure of DNA and how genes were turned on and off back in 1961, they fall on the floor laughing.”

But Suzuki said those same students dismiss his warnings that many of their own scientific beliefs surely will seem ridiculous a couple of decades from now.

“The notion that we know what the hell we’re doing with genetic engineering or biotechnology is the height of arrogance and a lack of understanding of the history of science,” Suzuki charged.

He was even tougher on economics, which he called “a set of values posing as a science.” Economists draw up elaborate diagrams charting the roles of raw materials, processing and manufacturing, but they marginalize biodiversity, topsoil erosion, ozone layer depletion and other essential environmental factors as irrelevant “externalities,” Suzuki said.

“We’re eating into the biological capital that is rightfully the legacy for future generations,” he said. “We’re using it all up now because we’ve bought into this crazy idea that if it’s sitting there and it’s not being used, it’s being wasted.”

“If we continue to demand this impossible idea of steady growth forever — and especially when the wealthiest country on the planet fails to see that if countries like India and China become like us, we’ll be in trouble — well, we are in trouble.”

What to do? To begin with, don’t count on politicians to save the environment, Suzuki advised; our leaders will convert to environmentalism only when a preponderance of voters demand clean air, clean water, protection of species and what Suzuki called “sane and controlled” logging, mining and other uses of natural resources.

He recalled the thrill, at age 4, of realizing for the first time that he could read. The first words he made out appeared on a bus sign: “Do not spit.” Today, he noted, such signs are unnecessary because the general public eventually agreed that public spitting was unacceptable. To reverse the current degradation of the Earth, Suzuki said, the general public must likewise decide that “spitting in the environment” is no longer acceptable. Science 2003 continues though tomorrow, Sept. 26.

For a complete schedule of events, see the Sept. 11 University Times or visit the Science 2003 web site at

—Bruce Steele 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 3

Leave a Reply