Suzuki: Our Global Economy is not Sustainable

I had the pleasure of hearing biologist David Suzuki lecture at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday night during my recent short trip to Australia. He drew on his recent slight but meaty book, The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future. I downloaded it and read it on my iPhone via Kindle app on the plane Monday.

The quote that alarmed me most of all was this one:

“A report by the World Wide Fund-UK examined the length of time it takes for nature to replenish renewable resources (trees, fish, soil, etc.) that all humans remove in a year. So long as those resources are restocked in a year or less, that situation should be sustainable indefinitely. The report concluded that it takes 1.3 years to replace what humans exploit in a year, and that deficit has been going on since the 1980s. In other words, rather than living on the biological interest, we are drawing down on our basic natural capital.” – David Suzuki, The Legacy

Suzuki cited a study suggesting that by 2048 there may well be no more commercial fishing in the world’s oceans (what David Pauly calls the “Aquacalypse”). You think of Somalia, Bangladesh, all the desperately poor countries now dependent on fishing and wonder what will become of them. Maybe Juan Williams should be alarmed when he sees Muslims who need to fish for a living, since they won’t be able to much longer, and could be peeved about that.

The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future

Posted in Environment | 20 Responses | Print |

20 Responses

  1. Suzuki is saying that shortage of food will precede (as a dominating world-catastrophe) the on-rushing shortage of potable and agricultural water (but this is part of the food problem) and the ill effects of global warming.

    Each of these is an obvious consequences of over-human-population of the world, especially in high-consumption places (such as North America and Europe and, coming soon to theaters near you, China).

    Planning for reducing world population by 1/4 (“it takes 1.3 years to replace what humans exploit in a year”) (doing the arithmetic: 0.75 * 1.3 = .975) should be taks-number-1 (that is, planning and DOING it). But as with so many important problems, this one goes without discussion.

    A list of the topics which the powerful of the world will themselves to be silent about, which power suppresses as mere topics, would be scary reading. Many thanks to David Suzuki and Juan Cole for calling this particular one to our attention.

    BTW, and not as an important criticism, that “1.3” is suspiciously one-dimensional, and hides a lot of details. Fisheries or the amount of arable soil or the amount of water available for agriculture may be diminishing faster (or slower) than that “1.3” suggests. But the idea of working hard (and soon) to deliberately and HUMANELY reduce human populations (before they are reduced by the violence of and likely to attend food and water shortages). For starters, we could all support voluntary means for avoiding unwanted births world-wide. We could also start talking about all this. As a 70-year old, I am willing to start the discussion of elders supporting youngers by clearing ourselves out of the way. But like others, I am selfish and am not ready to ask my doctor for a pill yet.

  2. Actually, that is a little better than I thought it would be. It will get worse, of course. We have been enjoying our standard of living and assuming that equalization would mean the rest of the world rising to meet us. It cannot. Equalization will require us moving down to meet them. Will we do it? Ha. Not willingly, certainly.

  3. I read two reviews on the book at Amazon which panned it. In your opinion is the book worth the $10 for the rental?

    • I think the reviewers weren’t expecting a short lecture rather than a long book. Me, I liked it.

      • I’ve read it too, and it’s a great summation of a lifetime’s work in simple, easily understood language. It should be recommended reading for high school students, but it’s also an excellent way for adults to gain an overview (or get a quick refresher) of various inter-linked problems on a global scale. You will most definitely learn something along the way – Suzuki has many fascinating anecdotes and statistics on call.

  4. But with virtually every American politician chanting the “grow the economy” mantra and with economists believing growth to be a requirement for a “healthy economy,” I can’t see how ideas like those of Suzuki will get serious consideration any time soon. There are those like the Aussie Ted Trainer that propose alternatives, but persuading large numbers of people of the need for a radical change in our economic philosophy will surely be next to impossible.

  5. This reminds me of “peak oil”, but that would be wrong: more oil can be discovered and there new technologies will emerge for economical extraction as its price rises. To some degree this is true of food, but at the depletion rates he cites we might also end up having to talk about Soyent Green at some point.

    It will bear reading Suzuki’s book, but somehow I’m reminded of the Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich back in the late sixties, which had similar alarming conclusions. Looking out 20-40 years with straight line projections is at best tedious and simplistic. We now see a bunch of languishing Ethiopian fisherman adapting to bigger fish, and you never know what may happen if Obama gets cornered by domestic political gridlock into rolling the dice on something dramatic with Iran.

    To anyone who wants to get into specific long range forecasting, say past next week, Good Luck!

    • Ehrlich’s projections were averted by the green revolution, but the style of agriculture it promoted is itself highly polluting and not sustainable. You can only kick the can down the road so long.

      • Indeed! One thing lurking down the road is the depletion of cheap phosphorous in about 30 years. This isn’t to say more isn’t available, but thus far a cost effective replacement has not been found. Additionally, all the polluted runoff from here in corn country is killing the Gulf of Mexico.

        Another as reported in “Ominvore’s Dilemma” is the fact that our corn production requires 10 calories input for each calorie of output. With rising energy prices, this is unsustainable until operations become more efficient.

      • The ‘Green’ revolution has been a has a bogsu title(nothing green about it) and its lead to land degradation, farmer suicides, chemical pollution etc etc…Untill people get off this treadmill and go organic, forget about avoiding an apocalypse or aquapolypse.

  6. There are viable solutions which are (deliberately) not being deployed. For fisheries restoration, the method of oyster and coral reef-making described at is capable of permanently increasing near-shore fish populations many-fold in a few years. For restoration of desert lands and eroded lands, see Michael Evenari’s now out of print book on immediate creation of oases in the Negev (“The Negev”) or the current youtube clip “Behind Greening The Desert,” or the extraordinary and economical rainwater catchment systems currently being used in India or those employed by Percy Yeomans and his followers the past 50 years in Australia. But all of these solutions would empower the poor, and the poor of the world are not favored in the corridors of power anywhere in the world today.

  7. From my perspective, the obvious comment is in a reply to Bob Carlson about “persuading large numbers of people of the need for a radical change in our economic philosophy.”

    In all human history, people’s ideas of what exactly constitutes economic value, and how to achieve that in daily life, are the essential determinant of the outcomes of economic history — what people have done, over thousands of years, to bring themselves food, shelter, comfort and luxury. These ideas can often be static for generations within a particular culture, that is relatively sustainable. However people on the margins, people “in the crosshairs” of historical change, and nearly efvery one in the fast-changing economic situations of the last century or so, do have more experience with changing their economic philosophies as life circumstances change.

    Please see the 7200-word article which discusses this process of economic philosophy formation in the context of a comprehensive vision of human history and how human action creates what we call the major social sciences such as economics, at my website link to , to begin the further elucidation and discussion of this topic at the advanced level — as we so desperately need.

  8. Thinking about the first wave of industrial resource exploitation in the 18th century, which lead to Das Kapital, i wonder what horrendous movements will arise out of the ecological collapses. Failed states, religious fervors, resource wars, and such, but what of ideological movements, religious or otherwise, the seeds of which may be being written in some cafe in Manaus, Brazil or Mogodishu, Somalia as we speak?

  9. the cause of Aquapolypse is industrial fishing…esp for asian markets. Industrialism is the ISM that will destroy the world and make it unliveable. Can people change? Dosent look like it.

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