Your Sunday Declinism


 

In which David Suzuki wonders whether the world today is better than it was in 1936. 

link


 
Filed under:

Your Sunday Declinism

  1. This is nothing more than an old-timer reminiscing about the halcyon days of his youth. Which is entirely normal but not to be taken too seriously.

    Suzuki’s topic is on my mind today because I got into a discussion about this last night at a dinner party. I said I would rather be a ‘poor’ person and live in Canada today than be ‘rich’ and be forced to live in about 80% of the countries in existence right now. I also argued that I would rather be ‘poor’ today than be ‘rich’ but living 75 years ago.

    I am conservative, so I can moan about today’s society with the best of them, but in reality I would not choose to rewind the clock. Yes, there are some things that I wish were different and had not changed from how they were previously, but overall there is no question things are better today than they were in Suzuki’s youth.

    • but overall there is no question things are better today than they were in Suzuki’s youth.

      Was absolutism as fashionable back then as it is now?

      I don’t know.

      • I was born in 1948. I’ve been thinking some of the same things Dr. Suzuki has just typed.

        “No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.”

        Lily Tomlin
        US actress & comedienne (1939 – )

        I’m guessing that quote is from about the time of ‘Laugh-In?” So, sometime between ’68 and ’73?

        Not much discussion of Malthus these days I notice.

        • Nope, Malthus has been obsolete for a few centuries. He predicted a geometric (exponential) increase in population but only an arithmetic (linear) increase in resources. Fortunately for the human species, he was wrong.

      • Was absolutism as fashionable back then as it is now? I don’t know.

        Absolutely.

        • Ah, but they didn’t have all those wonderful toys to make it so!

      • Absolutely! No Question!

    • jwl
      Yr first two sentences reveal such an appalling level of ignorance and complacency, [ well i know yr still young ] actually the summation in a way of the type of attitudes [ science is god, it’ll fix eveything – yes we can put humpty back together again – what does God know anyway – things will never stop improving…} that David has fought his whole life.
      Obviously Suzuki’s saying yes, progress is good, but at what cost? I think he’s also bemoaning the lack of reflection and the lack of time for it. Orwell once wrote a wonderful essay on how time seems to compress as we move on. He was looking back at his youth just after the 1st WW and comparing with his present. My sense is that rather like the white rabbit we’re always late for a very important date, and no one has the time to say: ” maybe we should not do that”, or if they do [ and many do of course ] the answer is invariably,” late, late, much too late..”.besides there’s 199 different types of ceareals still to be turned out yet, and i know we need to slow down a bit, but there is’nt time. We’re late for a very important date – but the date never quite arrives, and besides there’s still all those cereals that folks are clamouring for. Mustn’t be late…must we now?

      • kc

        While you were busy writing about rabbits and cereals, you forgot to mention what was so great about the 1930s – Mass unemployment, lack of food, no tv/telephone/internet, primitive medicine, poor education system, no airplanes/cars/travel, people being evicted from their land … etc. Those were the good days alright, what do you wish hadn’t changed?

        • jwl
          I had to take a quick holiday to get over my astonishment at yr obtuseness, and intentional too! Where did i or Suzski say anywhere that the world hasn’t improved in some ways? Really you have 0 imagination and as far as i can see 0 ability to discriminate between, say gentle satire and say an arguement for ludism or utopian pipedreams. JWL – you couldn’t spot the pt of an arguement that you didn’t automatically endorse, with a telescope!

  2. I think the question Suzuki should be asking is: Are Canadian and American fruit flies better off today, then when he studied them in the 60’s and 70’s?

    • If that’s meant to be funny, it isn’t.

      • Nope. I was making a point, having read his 2nd autobiography. You know, on many of his Nature of Things shows, he’s just a narrator.

        One person reminiscing of their own past is just one data point.

        • i see, he can’t prove empirically that the world of his youth existed, therefore it doesn’t!

          • kc, it is obvious to me in your postings on this blog that you are a disciple of Suzuki, and it seems take any criticism of him personally.

            Suzuki is a third generation Canadian. He was born in Vancouver, in one of the richest countries in the world. Yes, he experienced racism and his family was interred during the war, but he still went on to high scholl in London Ont where he became class president at Central High School. I met his Dad as a kid as he was our family’s insurance agent, and he used to take his clients’ families on excursions to bogs etc – and I caught a few turtles myself.

            My parents, who lived through the depression and experienced firsthand the horrors of the second world war in Europe would probably think David Suzuki had a pretty idyllic childhood. And it should be noted, had the opportunity to go on to university etc – a privilege denied those that were struggling just to stay alive and maintain their freedoms.

            What bothers me about Suzuki in this piece, however, is his observation that the world’s population has troipled in his lifetime, suggesting that with our wasteful lifestyles, we are exceeding the planet’s capacity to support such levels of consumption. But what about Suzuki’s contribution to this problem?

            He had five children in two marriages. From his second autobiography, I came to the impression that he considered his first family neglected as he was an absent father, and vowed not to make the same mistakes in his second go at fatherhood.

            So, when he also talks about worrying about the world we are leaving our children and grandchildren, he has a VERY vested interest in the outcome, more so than the average person, I might suggest just due to the numbers.

            So, he speaks for himself, but I would not consider his views on this issue to be as authoritative as it appears that you do.

          • Dot
            Nope! I’m no blind follower of his. You may have got this impression from my perhaps over the top criticism of jwl – i just can’t abide diliberate obtuseness. I only met the man once, and yes i do share some of his concerns. Now i’m going to be obtuse because i don’t at all get yr pt re: his famly and overpopulation – unless your’e saying he’s inconsistent or hypocritical. However i do get the feeling that you’re echoing many conservatives in claiming that he’s not perfect, and since he also benefits from societies largess, he should just shut-up and be grateful and stop rocking the boat. I need’nt tell what i think of this attitude, need i?

          • kc, start from the point of his original column question:

            We trumpet the enormous scientific advances and technological innovations of the 20th century, but is the world a better place than when I was born?

            How can you possibly answer that question by relying upon your own personal experiences? I have friends who are recent immigrants from China. How do you suppose they would answer that question?

            Or what about some folks from India? Same thing.

            It’s simply a column based upon an unanswerable question, relying almost exclusively on personal observations. If you were a Hindu and believe in reincarnation, maybe tripling of the world’s population over the past seventy years is a good thing – who knows, and therefor who could possibly answer: “Reflecting on what we leave to our grandchildren, I have to answer with a resounding no! ” unless he is speaking specifically of HIS grandchildren, in which case, I’d say “who cares?” My parents who lived a similar length of time as Suzuki would probably think otherwise.

          • Dot
            Are you deliberately ignoring the context within which he asks himself this question? Of course you can find all sorts of people and situations to rebutt his conclusions, i have no doubt. Does that invalidate his experiences, particularly when many others can identify? [ i’ve lived on a remote BC reserve where alot of folks can testify to the decline of the natural world and our part in it – it amounts to a cultural memory ] Remember he asked himself this question in the context of a measurable decline in the natural worlds bio-diversity and community cohesiveness. He’s not alone, and his arguement has relevance for many -unless that is you discount entirely oral tradition, which i don’t. Scientific theory being so prone to miscalculation and bias.

          • Well, in a way, you’ve come full circle. You write: “Of course you can find all sorts of people and situations to rebutt his conclusions, i have no doubt. Does that invalidate his experiences, particularly when many others can identify?”

            But, when I or jwl don’t accept his conclusions, nor the narrowness of his criteria, we get attacked.

            Some people will look at the world as it exists and simply say “It is God’s will”. I don’t happen to be one who abides by this faith, but it is still an opinion held by many, I assume.

          • Sorry Dot i’ve lost yr thread. I rather think you’ve fallen back on simple contradiction, which is yr privilege of course. By the way i wasn’t attacking you [ jwl i don’t have much patience for ] and very much doubt Suzuki’s thinking is at all a threat to the way you choose to look at the world. [ Or is it? ] Please extend the same privilege to him.

  3. I think the real question here is the cost of progress, and whether the substantial benefits that we enjoy over those of our grandparents time are worth it.
    It’s a common tune, of course, but one worth revisiting again and again. The issue of balance is not one that can be ignored- by our leaders, by our businesspeople, or by us.

  4. The grumpy septuagenarian writes:

    When I was born in 1936, just over two billion people lived on the Earth. The population has tripled since then.

    Yeah, well, public health measures and increased longevity sure suck, eh professor? Far fewer billions are around for a head count if we let nature kill ’em off in their forties. Thanks to science, Gramps Suzuki is actually around to not-so-gratefully lament that so many people are around. Nice.

    Most people are quite pleased that Homo sapiens has managed, thanks to science, to undo the harsher features of survival of the fittest.

    • You too will die some day. Your humour will ensure laughter at your burial.

    • myl
      Way to miss the pt. In 1936 we have 2bill people using x amount of resources, triple the population and how much resouces are now required even when taking into consideration relative %. He was/is a scientist himmself, yet you insist on pounding him with the science arguement he acknowledged himself. Good grief don’t anyone ever try and make rational earthscience arguements in this country – even if yr a scientist. You’ll just get mis-quoted, reviled and piled on by folks who aren’t interested in debate, just dumb pt scoring.

      • kc, my point was that the only way to get back to the alleged good ol’ days of polio and measles, with fewer billions of us resource hogs around, is to kill us off. So it’s a bit rich that the guy claiming the senior’s tax deduction is piping up about there being too many humans about. Humanity will do what it has always done — shape its environment to attempt to accommodate and even improve its current situation — which means we will work at making this planet put up with us, whether Suzuki likes it or not.

        Suzuki also said in that column something about not recalling wanting for anything in his simpler time. Those young persons who never survived childhood are not around to beg to differ.

        • Ok i get yr pt, it’s a valid one, there’s no going back. I still think his main message is we gotta find a way to live within the planet’s means, and wev’e done a piss poor job of it so far.
          I feel for the guy, he’s made some mistakes to my mind – and his i’m sure – in terms of framing his message so negatively, as people just tune out after a while. Still, he’s done nothing to warrant the non stop vituperation that many, who aren’t remotely qualified to judge, feel free to hurl at him.

  5. By golly — having read every one of the comments here, all I can write is “phooey”.

    Sophie is close but not close enough.

    She writes:

    “I think the real question here is the cost of progress, and whether the substantial benefits that we enjoy over those of our grandparents time are worth it.”

    Should have stopped there Sophie.

    If progress were a shopping cart, what products would you pay for at the cashier’s station?

    I think Suzuki is saying simply, we have choices, then asking us if we could make better ones.

    Choices are not about balance — they are (or should be) about need.

    • By golly — having read every one of the comments here, all I can write is “phooey”.

      liar.

  6. I enjoyed his rather farsical insinuation that food was generally grown locally – maybe for him and families that lived rurally but even then agriculture was primarily for export markets – both within Canada, to the United States, and to Europe.

    But then he goes on to describe himself as a grumpy old man, so I guess its a moot point. He’s undoubtedly got some good points in there, but they’re wrapped up in so much unimportant details.

  7. I think there is an inherent logical contradiction in much of David Suzuki’s argument. His point is, yes we have had progress but at some cost.

    “Each of us now carries dozens of toxic chemicals embedded within us, cancer has become the biggest killer, and we have poisoned our air, water, and soil. ”

    In other words, the march of progress has come at the cost of our health… except… even insofar as it has, medical science has marched hand in hand with material progress. Cancer is a major killer precisely because most people live substantially longer than they did at the turn of the century. Maybe that is a tradeoff, but I am okay with a GDP/capita of ~35,000 and a life expectancy of 80, as opposed to a GDP/capita of $4,000 (the figure in 1936), and a life expectancy of say 90 (if we assume that medical science could have advanced as much as today, without material progress in other sectors of the economy – a pretty liberal assumption).

    The resource shortage argument is also rather weak. In a free market economy, resource shortages effectively result in rationing (prices go up), and create a strong incentive for the development of alternatives. To use energy as an example, already, renewable sources of energy are beginning to become economically feasible, while we have enough oil, coal, natural gas and uranium to last a long time (the peak oil nuts ignore the fact that shortages would drive more oil exploration and, failing that, would make renewables and nuclear more economically viable).

    I think he could have constructed a much stronger argument by emphasizing the following threats to human survival:
    1. nuclear and conventional war (the rapid and differential growth rates of nuclear-armed territorial rivals, India and China poses one likely scenario, while a Sino-American battle for global leadership, or a renewed cold war, is also possible).
    2. global climate change and complexity (global climate change would probably happen so slowly that humans could adapt fairly easily. The real problem is that natural systems are complex and often have tipping points at which radical changes occur – for instance a hotter climate overall could redirect the gulf stream away from Europe, which would start looking more like Newfoundland).
    3. reduced biodiversity (the problem with enviro-nuts is that they are usually small picture folks that think some random kind of owl is pretty – they leave out the stronger argument that biodiversity is a safeguard against disease, environmental change and so on).
    4. The large-scale population growth that is taking place is happening in the developing world, where markets do not robustly react to mounting resource shortages, and where weak states are often unable to stop (or are complicit in) the intrastate conflicts that may result.

    • Yr intial trade-off arguement ignores the resulting damage to the environment that has accompanied our increased lifespans and wealth. Also yr arguements might be improved by not referring to environmentalists as ” enviro-nuts” – rather undermines yr credibility, don’t you think? Lastly most environmentalists that i know are aware what bio-diversity entails. Yr patronizing tone isn’t helpful.
      One of the first lessons of polemic should be, know and or respect yr audience.

  8. Andrew, I don’t see what your beef is with this piece by Suzuki. I understand your complaint about “declinism” — those who celebrate the “end of the world” because it proves they were right about their predictions of doom. But in some of your examples, you’re lumping in good-intentioned people who are not celebrating or exaggerating the doom to come. in this piece, Suzuki sounds fairly reasonable. Some things have changed for the better, some things not. The things that have changed for the worse are worth examining and taking action on. That doesn’t sound like “declinism” to me.