Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 23 September 2001; on the web by permission, September 2002

"The arms of the Infinite Goodness are so wide," Dante wrote in the Divine Comedy, "as to embrace all who choose to enter them."

Dante was right. You can almost picture a grinning Infinite Goodness holding for all eternity Conrad Black and Cardinal Carter in His right arm, David Suzuki and Paul Watson in Her left arm.

The ways of providence are not easily justified to men. Thinkers divide into those who predict prosperity and those who foresee impending doom. Suzuki is one of the latter. He is Jeremiah with a Ph.D. Dressel is the like-minded scribe who collaborated with him on this book.

A more recent ancestor to Suzuki and Dressel is Thomas Malthus, the English pastor and demographer who predicted ecological disaster in 1798. Malthus theorized that the human population increases geometrically, the food supply only arithmetically. He thought mass starvation was on the horizon. He was wrong. Fewer than one billion people were alive in Malthus's time. We are now six billion, and on the whole, much better fed, housed, and clothed.

These authors, however, have better science behind them than Malthus did. The book opens with the failed Biosphere II experiment in Arizona, and goes on to review compelling evidence of human interdependence with even the tiniest organisms of nature. Its thesis is that rampant reproduction and profligate consumption are at last catching up with us: "What is real in this world is the human impact on it. We're moving too fast and demanding too much."

Most CNT readers, like me, accept this thesis in principle. The 65-year-old geneticist has taught us well through "The Nature of Things" on CBC, as well as through films, columns, and books over the past twenty-five years. We have read the 1992 World Scientists' Warning that this book quotes: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.... Many of our current practices put at serious risk the future for human society ... and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know."

The practical question is how to shift to a sustainable way of life. Suzuki and Dressel argue accurately that the forces steering our present course are huge global corporations that have escaped the control of national governments, let alone ordinary citizens. The authors weave smoothly together the critiques of Hazel Henderson, Jeremy Rifkin, David Korten, Brewster Kneen, Neil Postman, Paul Watson, and Maude Barlow, among others. Capitalism has its own dynamic, its own momentum, and it is speeding up.

This book concludes by suggesting aggressive but nonviolent techniques of resistance. The authors cite approvingly the magazine Adbusters, Watson's Sea Shepherd Society, efforts in community-supported agriculture, and personal saving and nonconsumption at home. Until this book, I had not heard of the Diggers and Tree People in Great Britain, who live for months deep in tunnels or high in trees as a way of delaying and blocking further destruction of nature for urban-industrial development.

Suzuki's work is providential. He deserves to be listened to. This book will be an enduring testament to the power of his mind. A 20-page appendix at the end lists organizations, the David Suzuki Foundation not least, that campaign to protect our natural environment.

Yet I suspect that providence is also at work through Conrad Black and other proponents of economic growth, the people who want to push back frontiers. Capitalism is not all bad, and the state regulation Suzuki tends to favour sometimes results in bureaucracies that stifle human and nonhuman life.

Malthus's mistake two hundred years ago was to underestimate human creativity and ingenuity, the inventions and discoveries that have enabled humans to survive and flourish. I suspect (and we all should hope) that Suzuki similarly underestimates our collective ability to solve--through science, technology, and trade--the substantial problems we have created for ourselves. It does no good to glamorize nonindustrial peoples. We can indeed learn much from them, but for moving ahead, not back, from where we are now.

Life is risky and scary, always has been. Chicken Little thinks the sky is falling when an acorn drops on her head. The panic spreads to Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Turkey Lurkey, and the rest, until the king calms everybody down by pointing out the acorn and reassuring everyone.

Reality is more complex. Parts of the sky really do fall, but other parts stay put. Every time is at once the best and worst of times. Every issue (from logging to cloning to stem cells to emission standards to Alaskan oil to labels on genetically modified foods) has to be considered and debated on its own merits, in light of scientific evidence.

For providing information and promoting debate on a wide range of issues, this impressive summary of Suzuki's thought deserves praise and a wide readership.