Elders in search of a cause
Come by, if you will, any third Thursday of the month to the airy and spacious offices of the David Suzuki Foundation on West 4th in Vancouver. There you will find an august group of people engaged in earnest debate around the conference table. Half are women, half the men are bearded, many are grey, most are retired, some won’t admit to it. The group comprises an eclectic group of engineers, biologists, sociologists, business professionals and numerous other worthy occupations. These are the Suzuki Elders, all volunteers. This is as fine a group as you would wish to meet anywhere. How do I know this? Because I’m one of them.
The David Suzuki Foundation is one of the foremost environmental advocacy organizations in Canada, and indeed the world. With a staff of over forty, it engages with government, business and individuals to provide science-based education, advocacy and policy to effect the social changes demanded by the planet’s perilous condition. The enthusiastic and highly motivated staff devote their days and many of their nights to researching, writing about, debating and promoting the Foundations’ chosen targets: – keeping Canada on track to do its fair share to avoid climate change; – trying to convince Canadians to balance their high quality of life with efficient resource use, smart energy choices, energy-efficient transportation, and being mindful of the products, food and water they consume; – advocating the protection of Canada’s diverse marine, freshwater and terrestrial creatures and ecosystems; and – trying to get Canadians, especially youth, to understand and appreciate their dependence on a healthy environment.
The Suzuki Elders share the Foundation’s vision but our take on the issues is coloured by age, experiences and our collective, occasionally hazy, memories. Most of us can remember all the way back to the Second World War, indeed some of us were caught up in it as children. Our youth was an age of community, of heavy reliance on face-to-face exchanges. Long-distance communication required hand-written letters, memos hammered out literally on a 50 lb black Remington, or yelling through a rotary telephone. Local news came via a thick wad of newspaper which later doubled to line drawers or as a wrapping for fish and chips. International news arrived via a scratchy radio with vacuum tubes and a big yellow dial encased in a huge pressed oak cabinet.
Space was not a problem for us in our pre-elder years, especially those of us who grew up in Canada or some other outpost of the empire. We recall Dad hitting the road in a thundering great V-8 which gulped a gallon of gasoline for every eight miles it managed to cover. That was not a big problem for Dad – the stuff cost just 20¢ a gallon. When the V-8 was finally coaxed to hit the road, we could cover a few hundred miles and hardly see any other cars or people – just distant forests, mostly untouched, and the occasional scattered farm with workable soil for anyone willing to take a plough to it.
Garbage was not a problem, we just dumped it and someone else would eventually come along and haul the stuff away to throw in a landfill somewhere. Garbage looked a little different back then – lots of glass bottles and containers, all kinds of paper wrappings, very little plastic, no Styrofoam, no disposable diapers. Factories and power stations blew out huge volumes of smoke and effluents. They weren’t a problem either, the wind would blow the smoke somewhere else and the local rivers and streams were pretty convenient disposal areas.
That’s all changed of course, and we know it as well as anybody. The planet has advanced on many fronts in the decades that we’ve been aware of it. We can now talk to anybody anywhere on the planet, and even see his or her grinning countenance on our cell-phones. We’ve got pineapples from Costa Rica, tomatoes from California, mangos from Mexico and butter from Ireland. Thirty-one brands of beer line the shelves in the liquor store, some from unpronounceable places like Plzeň, Izmir and Dharuhera. We can talk, read and write on i-Phones, i-Pads and Blackberries. We can Google, Twitter and chuckle on Facebook. We have conferences over the internet. Kids don’t succumb to poliomyelitis they way they did when we were kids. Diphtheria and whooping cough are just names on a chart on the back of the clinic door. Canadians now live to 90, thanks to medical science and health care, our parents’ generation seldom got past 60 or 65.
But it has all come at a huge price. The vast unfilled spaces and volumes of our youth are no more. They’re chocked full of our disposed and industrial wastes. Sprawling cities and megahoused suburbs have filled the landscape on our continent; mile upon mile of shanties and slums occupy the land on the other continents. There is so much disposable plastic and so many used condoms floating around in the oceans that it all forms huge islands in the middle of the Pacific. Oil spills have become so big that they threaten the future of entire coastal systems such as the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of animal and plant species which were around when we started out are no more. Fish such as cod and salmon, which once provided the basis for regional and national economies are in steep decline. The climate is changing and even the short-term scenarios are foreboding. Our national and international leaders waffle and cogitate and bend before the mighty dollar.
We don’t speak of it, but there must at least be an occasional tinge of guilt when we remember that it is our generation that contributed massively to this sorry state of affairs, driven by consumerism, greed and an inability to see the linkages between resources and their environmental underpinnings. We overlooked the simple fact that everything comes at a price, not necessarily financial and often hidden, and that there are limits on the capacities of the biosphere to absorb the wastes we produce in such incredibly huge quantities. On a higher level, it has become abundantly clear that we’ve lost our way, our sense of home and of belonging to the rest of Creation.
It was a realization of this loss that brought the Suzuki Elders together in the first place. The David Suzuki Foundation offered us a home and some friendly words of advice, but told us we would have to make our own way, sort it all out for ourselves. So here we sit talking, preaching and harrumphing, as elders are wont to do. We write the odd declaration to tell the world that things are in a great mess and that we don’t like it. We debate structure and function and constitution, as do all groups sooner or later. But what we haven’t done is actually try and remedy the situation.
Why not? Well, for starters, we’re not sure how to go about it. Our name is actually a bit of a handicap. Elders have been historically defined by two things – advancing age and wisdom. The classic examples are the elders of First Nations communities across the Americas. Elders have been, and still are in most cases, cornerstones for them. Their elders have experience, they have seen, they have endured for hundreds if not thousands of years, commonly in the very same areas that their own elders occupied. In communities with strong oral traditions and little use of printed and archived materials, aboriginal elders have been the repositories of knowledge and experience for their communities and a point of reference for interpreting changes from the norm. Not much of consequence typically happens in an aboriginal community unless it is first run by the elders.
But this model does not work for us. Age in modern western culture does not carry the built-in respect that it does for aboriginals. For us the word ‘elder’ has become synonymous with ‘senior’, with all the inevitable connotations of diminished capacity, demands for care, and the cause of lop-sided burdens on the budget. For many elders themselves the term has become pejorative, to the extent that some educational institutions even eschew the term ‘elder’ in their programming and seek kitschy alternatives such as the synthetic construct ‘third age’.
The wisdom thing doesn’t fit very well either. You can know a lot but unless you can impart it to someone who needs it, it doesn’t count for much. When younger people need information they typically don’t go seeking out elders for the answers, they turn to their laptops or mobile phone and simply Google the question. The internet has opened up massive libraries and databases to everyone on every conceivable subject, all free of personal bias and many free of charge. Why seek out some older dude for information when you can get it all with graphics, abstracts and annotated references? What the web cannot provide of course is the wisdom to use the data and information smartly. But then, considering the state of the planet at present, we elders cannot lay claim to much expertise in that regard either.
For some the term Elder conjures up a vision of stern-faced oldies, deeply steeped in religious chapter and verse, handing down decisions to the more youthful generation below. Not a good model for us either. We’re not any better equipped than the rest of the populace to formulate solemn decrees to deal with the complexities of the planetary biosphere. Nobody is standing at the church door waiting for our advice.
So what to do then? Well, we may be ageing but we can still count. There are fifteen of us around the table here, fewer when the weather is nice outside. But there are some 300,000 elder-age people in Vancouver. There are more than a million elders, however you care to define the term, in British Columbia and nearly 5 million in Canada. Heaven only knows how many are wandering around elsewhere in North America and the rest of the beleaguered planet. We may get no respect, as the saying goes, but we still have a vote. And our numbers are increasing all the time. Our potential to make real changes to the way we treat our Earth is truly enormous, if we can but get ourselves motivated, organized and all pointing in the same direction.
Where are the rest of us? Taking a leaf out of our younger colleagues’ book, we Google all the relevant terms – elders, environment, planet, conservation, biosphere. And we find nothing – not one other organization of elders concerned with the issues that brought us together here. We can only speculate on why the rest are so unconcerned . Are they just too comfortable, too busy fighting life’s daily grind, too ignorant of the issues? But whatever the cause of the apathy, the potential is great. And so are the challenges. It’s time to get moving. Go Elders!
[First posted by Stan Hirst on June 11, 2010].