by John Borst PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

President Ian Riseley’s first Peacebuilding Conference of 2018, is in the books and judging by the attendance and enthusiasm at the Vancouver event Rotarians are strongly in support of “Environmental Sustainability and Peace”. Eight hundred and three people registered from over 30 countries for a largely one-day event.

When Rotarians from 55 Districts demonstrate one voice, one needs to sit up and take notice, especially if that voice is in support of a new idea of self. That is what I think happened on February 10th, 2018.

RI President Ian had finished his brief opening remarks where he had forcefully made the point that an unsustainable attitude to climate and weather events had the “same power as war”. Using a few statistics, Riseley demonstrated that clean air and water did not reside outside of peace. Solutions require a global response executed at the local level exactly the kind of action for which Rotary is well suited.

Invocation 2 350pxIf this opening salvo was not revolutionary enough, then two other opening events were. The first was quite unexpected. It was an invocation or protocol by the great-great-great grandson of Chief Joe Capilano of the Squamish people who reminded delegates that this meeting was occurring on the un-ceded territory of the Squamish Nation. The “Elder” gently educated the delegates that the Squamish Nation as stewards of this land sought to balance their economic and spiritual values in their use of the forest. Although such an invocation is becoming quite common within Canada, I was curious about its acceptance by an international audience. Hence, I was somewhat startled when Rotarians stood and responded with sustained and thunderous applause.

The plenary speech by Dr David Suzuki, on the other hand, delivered exactly what I expected, a no-holds-barred defence of environmentalism, and a solid critique of continuing to give priority to the economic principles of growth and profit as the engines of societal well being.

Elizabeth May, a Member of Parliament and Leader of  The Green Party of Canada as well as a Rotarian from the Rotary Club of Sidney-by-the-Sea in District 5020 introduced Dr Suzuki as a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.

David Suzuki 350Dr Suzuki began by framing his speech as a scientist, grandfather and Elder. Born in 1936 the term “elder” should carry weight, but I wonder if, in this frantic narcissistic, and selfish age, it does? As a grandfather of four children, the oldest of which is only 12, I instantly understood his concern for their future. We are living in the first “Anthropocene epoch” or “age of humans” Suzuki said. We have plants that are billions of years old, but we bipeds have only been around for 150, 000 short years but in that time have completely come to dominate all life. According to Suzuki the genius which caused this dominance was our ability to conceptualise a future.

It was sobering to learn that in a period a little longer than my lifetime humans have grown from about 1.5 Billion people with only 14 cities of 1 million plus to over 6 Billion with over 400 cities of over a million and sixteen of the biggest over 11 million.

Suzuki’s second characterisation of our species is that “we do not know enough”.  For example, we know about DNA and how to manipulate it, but we do not know how to prevent it from getting out of control and what to do if it does. In other words, the knowledge we have as scientists is always incomplete and therefore unsustainable.

Suzuki credits a woman for awakening his environmental consciousness. His Eureka moment came with the reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. By the 1980’s it dawned on Suzuki that the things that sustained humans as creatures of the Earth: air, water and plants and animals aka “food” had no economic value in a capitalistic sense.  Capitalism, Corporations and Political Parties are human inventions where growth is defined only in monetary terms. These secular churches of consumerism, where humans buy pre-torn jeans as fashion, ascribe no or little value to the air, water or soil that keep us alive.

In closing his remarks Suzuki related, three short vignettes. They were meant to illustrate the important ideas and relationships which define real riches.  They also provided the bedrock for the concept of “sacredness” to our relationship with the environment. We had arrived back to the same place to which our First Nation elder took us in his opening reflection.

And for a second time, that morning Rotarians rose in sustained applause in support of a radical rethinking of the economic paradigm which has driven society for the past 150 years. We had accepted Suzuki’s contention that we were passed the 59th minute on the environmental doomsday clock, a clock which had until 1900 only used up 2 minutes.

Later that afternoon, a Rotarian with twenty-four years of service, a businessman currently working in the USA, commented to me that this is a “new Rotary”. Twenty years ago he said, “Rotary would have had only speakers from giant corporations such as Xerox and IBM extolling the virtues of growth.” And I did not doubt his assessment.