Sept. 26, San Jose, Calif. – Only a few days after billionaire investor Warren Buffett called the American financial market turmoil “an economic Pearl Harbor,” environmental activist David Suzuki called for reinventing the economy with a focus on saving the environment, saying “we need a response like the one that we mounted after Pearl Harbor.”
“We need a new kind of economics that recognizes the enormous value of nature’s services,” said Suzuki, host of the Canadian television program The Nature of Things, during a keynote address at the West Coast Green conference. “We have to look for solutions to the eco-crisis we have created.”
Suzuki said he came to this conclusion after a confrontation in a forest, which was held sacred by indigenous people, with the CEO that wanted to log the woods. The CEO told him that the trees held no value until they were cut down.
Though the trees were taking carbon dioxide out of the air and putting oxygen back in, “In our economic system, as long as our trees were standing, that was an externality,” Suzuki realized. The trees held soil in the ground to prevent erosion, transpirated water in the soil into the air, and provided habitat to countless species, but those were externalities, he lamented.
“All of the services that that standing forest was providing, our economists considered irrelevant, externalities to our economy,” Suzuki said. “If that’s not a screwed-up system, I don’t know what is.”
Extraction of oil in the Alberta tar sands is an example of economy-driven, unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels, Suzuki said. Harvesting that oil takes three times the amount of emitted carbon as extracting oil elsewhere, he said, and the natural gas used to boil water used in the extraction could heat 4 million homes a year.
“In using [fossil fuels], we create enormous problems that we leave to future generations,” Suzuki said. “If we are to get to a sustainable future, we will have to depend on renewable energy.”
He questioned whether humanity has the foresight to change before the Earth runs out of fossil fuels, asking, “Are we going to just run straight into the wall or are we going to start now and begin to massively change our sources of energy?”
Innovations in Germany and Spain provide hope that we can alter our course, Suzuki said. Germany plans to get nearly half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, and is addressing grid concerns by storing energy in batteries that can run cars or feed the grid during peak usage, he said. Meanwhile, Spain has a network of high-speed electric trains that reach nearly all major towns in the country, providing an alternative to polluting air travel.
Suzuki noted that both economy and ecology come from the same root: eco, meaning home. But he said people have elevated the economy above everything else, including the ecologists who study the principles that have allowed life to flourish for billions of years. To instant applause, Suzuki said, “We’ve got to put the eco back into economics.”