Back to articles A grumpy old man ponders the past By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

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As I approach my 73rd birthday, I??ve been thinking about my children and grandchildren and what lies ahead for them. 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?


Reflecting on what we leave to our grandchildren, I have to answer with a resounding no! Yes, things have changed a lot in my lifetime, sometimes for the better. When I was born, there were no transoceanic phone lines, organ transplants, jet planes, satellites, television, oral contraceptives, photocopiers, CDs, computers, antibiotics, cellphones… Today we have seasonal fruits and vegetables year-round, 24-hour television channels, and bottled water shipped halfway around the world. And stuff! My god, the stuff we can buy. We can choose from more than 200 brands of breakfast cereals, and last year’s cellphones not only seem old-fashioned, they’re designed to be thrown away. Pills not only offer relief from the horror of erectile dysfunction, but they can now be taken daily to make us ready for action at all times. This is progress?



How quaint my childhood seems today. On hearing me talk about what we didn’t have back then, children stare in amazement that anyone can remember such a primitive way of life. “What did you do?? they ask, struggling to imagine a world without television, computers, or cellphones. Yes, mine was an ancient civilization, now extinct.


It’s not that I don’t appreciate many of the advances. When I was a teenager in the 1950s, I developed pneumonia and was near death when the doctor gave me a shot of penicillin. The next day, I was out of bed running around. It was truly a miracle drug. My first portable computer in the 1980s allowed me to write and send my columns to the Globe and Mail from all over the world. And when my children went away to university in the 1990s, I could stay in touch by email.


Yes, our world now provides a cornucopia of wondrous consumer goods. But at what cost? When I was a child, back doors would open at 5:30 or 6 o’clock as parents called kids for supper. We were out playing in grassy fields, ditches, or creeks. We drank from rivers and lakes and caught and ate fish, all without worrying about what chemicals might be in them. When I was a child, the oceans were still rich with marine life, places like the Amazon and Congo were still unexplored ecosystems, and nuclear weapons and the arms race were still to come.


When I was born in 1936, just over two billion people lived on the Earth. The population has tripled since then. 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. The human rush to exploit resources or take over territory has devastated terrestrial and marine plants and animals.


Yes, we leave to our children and grandchildren a world of technological marvels and personal hyperconsumption, but at the expense of community, species diversity, and clean air, water, and soil. I don’t remember feeling deprived or bored as a child. My friends were neighbours and our surroundings were rich with biological treasures for us to discover and explore. Almost all of our food was locally grown without the aid of chemicals. And growing up, we were attuned to the impact of weather and climate; we looked forward to the seasons and the changes they brought.


Have I become a grumpy old man who sees only the past as wonderful and decries the modern? I don’t think so, but I mourn the passing of a time when community and neighbours were a vital part of social and economic life, a time when nature was still rich. I know we can’t change the past, but together we can create a brighter future for our children and grandchildren. We know where the problems lie, and science offers many solutions. Now it’s time for action. If I’ve learned one lesson in my 73 years, it’s that everyone, including those in government and business, must pitch in if we want to change things for the better.


Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and Dr. Faisal Moola is the Director of Science at the David Suzuki Foundation.


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