Thursday, March 13, 2008

Blind date with disaster: Suzuki on foresight

David Suzuki is emeritus professor at the sustainable development research institute, University of British Columbia. This piece appeared in the Guardian (UK) yesterday:… in 1992, a remarkable document called World Scientists' Warning to Humanity was signed by more than 1,500 senior scientists, including more than half of all Nobel prizewinners alive at that time.

Here is some of what the document said: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future we wish for human society . . . and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about."

The document goes on to list the critical areas of the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, forests, species extinction, and overpopulation. Then the words grow even more urgent: "No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. . .

A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."

This is a frightening document; eminent scientists do not often sign such a strongly worded missive. But if the Scientists' Warning is frightening, the response of the media in North America was terrifying - there was no response. None of the major television networks bothered to report it, and both the New York Times and Washington Post dismissed it as "not newsworthy". And even today, when we have been told we could have as little as 10 years to avoid catastrophe, that is considered not worth reporting, while every antic of Paris Hilton or Britney Spears is reported in breathless detail, not for days or weeks but for months and years.

Instead we hear excuses to ignore the warnings: it will ruin the economy; technology will solve the problem; it is not fair when other countries are not included; there are other priorities demanding immediate attention, etc. And so we turn our backs on the very strategy that got us to where we are.

…The need to look ahead and manoeuvre to exploit opportunities and avoid threats continues to be just as critical in modern society. The challenge is to find why we are rejecting foresight, why we can't see what the real threats are that confront us.

A flooded New Orleans house in the 8th Ward, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- a long-predicted failure of foresight in the US. Photo by "Infrogmation," Wikimedia Commons

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