Sunday, February 6, 2011

Force of Nature

So at the height of the blizzard I went to a movie. I half-slid all the way down the hill to the theatre, there were a few other people out on the road and everybody seemed to be having a good time in the deep snow. The movie would have been sold out if it weren't for the weather, only people who could walk, ski or snowshoe in were there. On the theatre website they said that they would only cancel if the power went out. They only have the film for one day, so they can't postpone a show. It was Force of Nature.

I'm afraid I've been putting off going to see this one, I figured I knew what it was about and wasn't really up for it. The subject of the film is Canadian environmental icon, David Suzuki, and you'd have to be pretty isolated for the past fifty years not to know who he is and what he stands for. One can assume the film would be essentially a paean of praise for an extremely well-known and respected environmental activist.

The vehicle for the film is Suzuki's Legacy Speech, given in 2009 in Vancouver to celebrate his 75th birthday. Half it is his biography, half it is his thoughts on where the planet and the human race are today. I'm glad I went to see it, although postponing the viewing until a major blizzard was perhaps not the best thing.

Given Suzuki's long time involvement in all things environmental and climate change related, his activist background and his outspoken nature, it is not surprising that he paints a dismal picture of the current state of the planet. Nevertheless it is a surprisingly upbeat film that leaves you feeling quite inspired.

He talks about the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water. For air he tells us that a certain proportion of each breath is made up of argon atoms. Argon is an unreactive element, it does not stay in the body or bind with any other element. It goes in, it comes out on the outbreath. He says that in the time it takes for him to deliver his speech, every person in that hall will have breathed the same argon atoms that he has. Within a year, every breathing living being on the planet will have breathed those same argon atoms. We are all made of air, and we all share the same air. We are the air, the air is us.

It is not we humans here and the environment out there, we are the environment and the environment is us. Suzuki talked about the beginning of the universe and how every particle of matter in the universe is attracted to every other particle. The universe is filled with tendrils of attraction, and we can call that Love.

What distinguishes humans is our brains, in particular our capacity to remember, our memories. I'm reading a book, The Feeling of What Happens, by Antonio Damasio (1999), and Damasio says that while all living things with nervous systems have consciousness, we have something he calls extended or autobiographical consciousness based on our capacity to remember. We are self-conscious. Memory and self-consciousness have allowed us to create an amazing array of technologies, cultures and civilizations. But there has been a downside to all that creativity as well.

Suzuki talks about our mythologies that connect or separate us to/from our environments, how they have changed over the millennia. He gave the example of dragons, how we once believed in dragons and when things went wrong we knew we had to appease the dragons, whether it was with gold, animal sacrifices or virgins. But now that we don't believe in dragons any more we don't go around sacrificing to them or trying to appease them. But, he says, now we believe in The Economy, and when the The Economy is not feeling well we have to appease it, make sacrifices to it. Suzuki says that we forget that we invented The Economy, just as we once invented dragons. Suzuki says that there is something very wrong when we think that appeasing The Economy takes precedence over taking care of the environment that sustains us.

These are a few of the things that I took away from watching this film, there were many other things as well.

I wanted to get home quickly after the film because as it happened there was going to be a talk on CBC Ideas about whether dealing with climate change and economic growth are contradictory. It seemed kind of appropriate. The Ideas talk was not nearly as inspiring of course, but still interesting.

One of the things that was mentioned was that when we talk about economic growth we are usually referencing GDP (gross domestic product), and that GDP is quite arbitrarily defined as including certain human activities but not others. So when we talk about economic growth it is fairly narrowly defined, and usually activities that increase consumption are good and those that do not involve consumption are not.

It is theoretically possible to have a vibrant economy based on life quality-enhancing activity rather than destructive and consumption-based activity. There are all kinds of reasons why we don't, political, historical and so forth, but none that are insurmountable.

Another thing that was pointed out was about human nature, whether it is fundamentally selfish and greedy and short-sighted, or the opposite. Again it was pointed out that we are both, and we are capable of both, individually and as societies. Just because we have defined economics on the basis of self-serving activity does not make it a given, we can change that if we want to.

It is easy to fall into despair about the state of the world and our seeming inability to transcend our baser qualities. It is also easy to beat ourselves as a species up for being so stupid and selfish in our treatment of the rest of the world. These things are true but they are not the whole story, and in my opinion nothing will change until we start focussing on our ability and capacity to change, for the good. It is time to stop giving energy to what is wrong with the world and start giving energy to what needs to be done. Our presence in the universe is a small miracle, we need to live up to that. As Stewart Brand once said, We are as gods so we might as well get good at it.

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