According to David Suzuki last night at the Opera House, humanity is in the 59th minute, and we’re on a suicidal path of economic growth. He gives us an example from science – a test tube full of bacteria – to illustrate the non-negotiable laws of nature and how we’re breaking them.
Suzuki tells us to imagine putting one bacterial cell into a test tube full of food, which divides every minute. This is exponential growth, and it’s the path humanity is on because of our belief in unlimited economic growth. In his words:
“At time zero you have one cell; one minute you have two; two minutes you have four; three minutes you have eight; four minutes you have 16. That is exponential growth and at 60 minutes the test tube is completely full of bacteria and there is no food left, a sixty minute cycle. When is the test tube only half full? Well the answer of course is at 59 minutes; but a minute later it is filled. So at 58 minutes it is 25% full; 57 minutes 12½ % full.
At 55 minutes of the 60 minute cycle it is only 3% full. So, if at 55 minutes one of the bacteria said to its companions that they had a population problem, the other bacteria would be incredulous because 97% of the test tube would be empty and they had been around for 55 minutes. Yet they would have only 5 minutes left. How do we add even a fraction of 1% more of air, water, soil or biodiversity? We cannot. The biosphere is fixed and finite and every biologist I have talked to agrees with me, we are past the 59th minute.”
His example is no more than an illustration of the common sense rule that you can’t have exponential growth in a planet with finite natural limits; but the way he puts it sends a jolt of recognition and realization through those sitting around me. And when he drives his point home – “I say it without apology. We are promulgating an illusion that everything is alright by using up the rightful legacy of our children and grandchildren. That is not sustainable, it is suicidal” – I imagine there’s not a person in the room, including myself, compelled to double their efforts towards changing the trajectory we’re on.
I first met David Suzuki about 5 years ago when he was giving a speech at Sydney University and our environment collective was in the middle of a three year “Green Campus Now” campaign. The Great Hall was packed and the audience was waiting for someone to come onto the stage to begin the event and introduce David Suzuki. Seeing an opportunity, I jumped up, strode to the microphone, and briefly announced our campaign to get the University to switch from coal to renewable energy, asking the audience to sign the petitions on their way out.
The University administration wasn’t very happy about my impromptu speech, but David Suzuki heard, and endorsed our campaign that night. Eventually, the University Senate committed to investing $1 million into renewable energy as a result of our work.
I have no doubt that the speech Suzuki gave that night was a turning point in our campaign. It was attended by senior University officials, well-known alumni, staff, and students; and almost everyone who heard him speak was moved to sign our petition, and many to get involved in a deeper way, as they left the Great Hall.
Compelling communication about science and about sustainability is all too rare. It’s an incredibly valuable thing to be able to captivate an audience the way David Suzuki did last night to a sold-out Opera House concert hall. His books and his writing are similarly engaging – he is a master at weaving his life, his experiences and his family history into a broader narrative about sustainability and ecology.
I’d bet that David Suzuki, David Attenborough and Tim Flannery are probably responsible for educating more people about science and nature in an effective and inspiring way than the school systems of their three respective countries.
The difference between the way science was taught to me in high school, and the way Suzuki teaches it, is enormous. Last night, I listened in wonder as Suzuki explained how breathing works and that my lungs, if spread out, would cover an entire tennis field. I’ll remember it forever. In contrast, the thing I remember most from my high school science class was the time I organised a boycott against dissecting mice in class.Not one thing I read in those heavy textbooks seems to have remained in my mind.
And the difference is this: David Suzuki loves nature; and recognises that humanity is a part of it. He is passionate about the natural world, and on a crusade to make humans understand that we aren’t separate from ‘the environment’ but that we are the environment: made up of air, water, soil and fire just like other mammals. He tells a story of walking into a camping store in Calgary that had a sign out front proclaiming ‘No Animals Allowed’ and explaining to the confused owner that if he enforced that rule, he would have no customers! And he encourages all of us to spend time more in nature, because to fight to protect something, you must love it first.
Thanks to Naomi Martin and the team greening the Opera House for their great work. I can’t wait to see Vandana Shiva’s Sydney Peace Prize address “Making Peace with the Earth” at the Opera House on Wednesday 3rd November.
You can see the trailer for David Suzuki’s new film, Force of Nature, below.