David Suzuki's 'Nature Challenge' to Architects

David Suzuki's 'Nature Challenge' to Architects

At the American Institute of Architects' annual convention, celebrating the group's 150th anniversary, the environmental movement guru David Suzuki laid out the challenges and opportunities facing architects and the planet.

Norbert W. Young Jr., FAIA, former American Architectural Foundation Board of Regents chair and current McGraw-Hill Construction president, drew the privilege of introducing Thursday's keynote speaker. "Dr. David Suzuki has inspired millions to recognize the importance of the natural world," he said. He quoted Suzuki: "Nature is our home. And just as we take care of our house, we also must take care of nature. But nature takes care of us, too. Nature cleans our air and water, makes the soil that grows our food and provides the resources to make all our material goods. Unfortunately, with six billion of us now living under one roof, we are gradually eroding the services nature provides -- even though we depend on them for our quality of life and our future."

Suzuki congratulated AIA members on the conference theme of Growing Beyond Green. "I've been watching the themes of green buildings skyrocket over the last few years," he said. It is especially gratifying, he noted, that passive technologies that once were considered way out there have now become mainstream.

The People have Spoken

Suzuki told the audience that he was inspired this year by the town-hall meetings that were held in Chautauqua, N.Y., in the last century, through which all the citizens of the community were invited to voice their concerns. Desiring to re-create that kind of forum, he conducted a 30-day bus tour across Canada (and you have to be crazy to do that during February and March, he said), asking the people of 43 communities what they would do if they were prime minister of Canada.

Suzuki learned that the Number One concern across the board is the environment. "That's not surprising," he said, "we can easily see the effects of global warming in our country": Melting ice, pine beetles destroying tree stands because the winter no longer gets cold enough to kill them off, polar bears in danger of extinction, salmon who can’t reach their spawning grounds. He noted that the people are ready for change. "They want carbon taxes, effective and affordable rapid transit, green business rewarded and polluters punished, protection for endangered species. They are sick and tired of political rhetoric and posturing," he said, to rousing applause from the audience.

That Amazing Moment

Quoting his daughter, Suzuki said he has come to realize that this is our definitive moment as a species. We need to choose now to follow a more sustainable path or to become an environmental "flash in the pan." The zoologist and geneticist noted that the momentum toward an environmental movement has been building since 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. "That was the turning point at which we realized that technology is not only wonderful, but that it also exacts a price for its use.

"I was swept up for almost 35 years," Suzuki said, "fighting against unsustainable logging processes in Canada. If we continue, in 20 years there will be no more large trees." If we continue our current fishing policies, every commercial fish will be gone by 2048. "This is the moment when all those factors come together."

A Very Big Footprint

Humans arose 150,000-200,000 years ago, with very little going for them evolution-wise. We have been able to survive by intelligence -- memory, curiosity, creativity. "Our brains created the idea of the future; foresight got us to where we are today." We have been so successful, though, that there now are so many of us, we leave a giant ecological footprint. "Think of all the technologies we have to use in our houses, our offices, where we play," Suzuki said. "And we have to ask hard questions, such as, 'Can we afford the energy to have a convention like this?’"

Suzuki pointed out that we have developed an enormous appetite for "stuff" since World War II, and, consequently, we need more space because we have more stuff. "We have become a force such as has never existed on this planet," he said. We now have to ask the question: What will all 6.5 billion people on the planet have to do? We are no longer tribal -- we must be global.

In other words, we have to look at the collective impact of all of us. For more than 40 years, all of the leading scientists have been telling us we’re on a dangerous course, Suzuki stated. In 1992, 1,600 scientists signed a statement warning that the planet will not be able to be sustained -- for perhaps as little as two decades -- if we stay on the current, energy-hogging path we are on without a great change in the stewardship of the world. "There was no media response. That, ladies and gentlemen, is truly terrifying."

Why are we turning our backs on the major strategy that got us developed -- our intelligence? Suzuki asked.

Suzuki named four major "disconnects" to a sustainable path:
  • Population growth has exploded in the last 100 years (see this week’s blog) and every year, the population gets younger. "The vast majority of people alive today were born after 1950 -- all they have ever known is unsustainable, explosive growth, which seems to be the only way that it can be," Suzuki said. We need to consult with our elders about a sustainable way of life to overcome our perceptual bias.
  • Cities: In 1900, there were only 16 cities with more than a million people. Now there are more than 1,000. It is easy to believe, when living in big cities, that we don’t need nature -- we think the economy runs everything, and we do not see the interconnectedness.
  • Information explosion: We’re flooded with information, and that information is fragmented. It shatters the world that we see, and we miss the underlying themes.
  • Economics means "the management of home," but we’ve elevated economics above ecology. We think that only when the economy is healthy can we spend a few bucks on saving the ecology. Ecology depends on preserving the thin band of the biosphere. Nothing within a finite system -- even the economy -- can grow forever. "If we cling to the idea that we must growth forever, when do we ask how much is enough?" Suzuki asked.
What Do We Do?

First, we have to put the "eco" back into economics, Suzuki concluded. "We have to stop the notion that the economy is the main driver of our society. As an example, he said, if environmentally sound principles are forced on the big American automakers, yes, they may be driven out of business. But that’s because "they are too stupid to follow what the Japanese are doing," he said.

The bottom line is that we are animals. We can’t have an economy that uses our air, water, and soil as a garbage can, Suzuki concluded. "We need love. Children who are not loved grow up as dysfunctional human beings. We need loving family and communities. We need spirit -- the humility and understanding that we are part of the natural world.

The good news is, there’s a lot of good news out there, he concluded. We have to start doing things as individuals: what we eat, where we live, how we move. One of the most exciting things the Suzuki Foundation has done is to look ahead to 2030 and ask what kind of environment would we like? Everybody agrees on the vision -- and a target, which is termed "sustainability within a generation." Individuals can sign up for "the Nature Challenge" and pledge to take 3 out of 10 actions. Harvard University is currently working on an American model with the Suzuki Foundation. For more information, visit the Suzuki Foundation Web site.

So, what will you do? The Suzuki Foundation lists ten steps that everyone can do in the Nature Challenge:
  1. Reduce home energy by 10 percent
  2. Eat meat-free meals once a week
  3. Buy a fuel efficient, low-polluting car
  4. Choose an energy efficient home and appliances
  5. Stop using pesticides
  6. Walk, bike, or take transit to regular destinations
  7. Prepare your meals with locally produced food
  8. Choose a home close to regular destinations
  9. Support alternatives to the car
  10. Get involved, stay informed
More information on each of these steps is available at the Nature Challenge website.