Disillusioned by David Suzuki’s latest pronouncements, Shawn Blore senses an eco-generation gap widening.
It’s the doers vs. the doomsayers.
David Suzuki hates my neighbourhood. Not my current one, but the one I want to move to, a community I and others of my generation intend to design and build on a little piece of poisoned industrial land on the southeast shore of False Creek. Suzuki hates this plan, so much so that he’s written an open letter condemning the concept, and had his words enlarged and posted two metres high just inside the doors of the Mountain Equipment Co-op. Below his letter there’s a petition calling for my new home to be eliminated in favour of a park. We had planned to make this land into a community, one reflecting many of our values: a walkable, dense, mixed neighbourhood of modest dwellings, a neighbourhood that generates its own energy so far as possible, and deals with the mucky business of waste-water treatment on site. The short form label given this kind of neighbourhood is “sustainable.”
David Suzuki, environmentalist sans pareil, sees no value in any of this. “Vancouver’s population of people and cars,” he writes in his letter, “already exceeds anything that is sustainable. Our ecological footprint is huge. To talk about ‘sustainable housing’ for 5,000 more people is an oxymoron. It fails to recognize what sustainable means. I support you in your efforts to make an urban forest in that area.”
The wound would be deep and bitter, had not the disillusionment been scabbing over for so long. Suzuki was an early idol of mine, as he was to many of my contemporaries, born as we were in the ’60s and raised in the early environmental flowering of the 1970s. He was not the first Canadian environmentalist by any means, but he was the first to embrace electronic media – television in particular – and for that he became the prophet of an entire generation.
I, we, all of us Gen X-ers ate it up. When the applause finally quieted, I was one of the first to make my way to the microphone stand for a question. What can we young people do, I asked, the tremour of revelation in my voice, to avoid this great calamity? A preacher at an oldtime revival would have whisked me into the back and shown me how to make religion a part of my every waking moment. Suzuki had a different answer. By the time someone has reached university age, he said, they’ve been so corrupted, they’ve got so much invested in the system, that there’s really not much hope they can change. That’s why, he said, I’m focusing most of my efforts now on children. For them I think there’s hope.
For us, went the obvious corollary, the only thing waiting was the Pit. Had I been smarter I might have asked just what he was doing there, then, besides padding his bank account with speaking fees. Had I possessed more of the cynicism my generation is said to own in spades, I might have noted other discrepancies in Suzuki’s message: the Ontario-born resident of Kitsilano, calling on people to live in one place for life; the jet-setting conference-goer, bemoaning the rise of airplane travel.
But I was then neither sharp nor particularly wise; for a time I took his message to heart. The Pit it was, until a purer generation could be raised.
For the socially minded there would he rooftop and community gardens, nourished by water collected in rain barrels. The gardens would provide a hedge against food security, and a place for folks to gather and gossip. There would also be a community centers, day-care spaces close to people’s home, a restored habitat along the shoreline, and countless spots to meet and greet on the street. Most importantly, the success of the development would be evaluated using a new full-cost accounting framework, one that finally internalized many of the costs conventional development now sloughs off onto mother nature, or the rest of us taxpayers at large. The city – and interested onlookers would be able to judge in the cold light of economics whether sustainable development was financially feasible. It was a bold yet coherent vision, as yet unrealized anywhere on the globe.
The casual ignorance of Suzuki’s missive is astonishing. Take only his misuse of the term “ecological footprint.” The very concept – an analytical tool for measuring human impact on the environment in terms of land area was invented by a Gen-X technocrat, Swiss-born engineer Mathis Wackernagel, while he was completing his PhD at the University of British Columbia.
As for Suzuki’s hypocrisy, that was simply breathtaking, particularly in light of the fund-raising letter he recently sent me. “Dear Friend,” he begins. “Over the past few years I’ve read more than 20,000 letters from people all over the world responding to my television and radio programs. Most agree strongly with my message that the life-support systems of the planet are being radically disrupted.
“But most people ask: What can I DO?…”
Suzuki goes on to identify a four-step program for achieving sustainability: defining the biological necessities of life, developing visions of sustainable societies, outlining a range of choices for making the transition to those societies “without a total upheaval in our lives,” and communicating those strategies to a wide audience.
Not much different from the False Creek process. So why then is Suzuki campaigning against something he says he needs my money to accomplish? Partly, I believe, for the simple reason that it’s not Arcadia, that classical Greco-Roman idyll of pastoral purity Like so many environmentalists of his generation, Suzuki seems to envision a sustainable world made up of small towns and tiny villages only, with the vast majority of humanity eking out a living with hand-made tools on self-supporting peasant farms. But like so many of those who articulate this vision, Suzuki has never actually ever tried it.
The other reason Suzuki hates the False Creek vision, I believe, is because deep in his heart he’s a Maximalist. His vision is of a grand and glorious broom sweeping the polluted stables clean in a single Herculean stroke. As with all Maximalists, he has nothing but impatience for those who – seeing no such instrument in sight – set to work with the tools at hand to clean up the mess, one scoop at a time if necessary.
And measurable. Estimating conservatively, it’s likely that a Southeast False Creek dweller’s ecological footprint would be at least 25-per-cent smaller than the standard Suburban-driving suburbanite’s. Now consider that the vast majority of the world resources are consumed in the first world. If the False Creek model were to catch on and spread to the point that, say, 10 per cent of new housing in the North America incorporated substantial elements of the False Creek model, the result might be as much as single percentage point drop in world resource consumption. Not enough. Far from it. But not bad for one little project. It certainly beats waving a little jar over your head and wailing about the coming apocalypse.
Barring further interventions, the False Creek plan is scheduled to go before Vancouver city council in July. And so, may I post a six-foot-high sign of my own?
Dear Dr. Suzuki, your performance with regards to the proposed sustainable community in southeast False Creek has confused and discouraged a group of politicians who were bravely following the proper course. You’ve damaged – perhaps fatally – efforts to create a better kind of city. To improve things, butt out. Let another, quieter, more practical generation take up the hard job of making real improvements to the world. There is no better place to begin, we believe, than the little strip of poisoned industrial land, on the southeast shore of False Creek.
Click the link for the full article
Shawn Blore writes frequently about sustainability issues