Category Archives: Rules of Engagement

A shift in consciousness

by Stan Hirst

I’ve been pondering on three items these past weeks.

The first one was an observation I made some two months ago while travelling through Argentina.  Visiting the Iguazu Falls had been a firm item on my bucket list for more than 30 years, in fact ever since the movie The Mission hit the circuits.  Iguazu did not disappoint – an incredible natural spectacle and, I thought, one of the great natural wonders of the world. I took 160 photographs of the Falls and their environs – thank heavens for digital cameras!

As to be expected, the whole area surrounding the Falls and the many walkways were clogged with tourists of all shapes and sizes.  The overwhelming majority carried smartphones or tablets and all were shooting pictures from every angle. What intrigued me about my fellow Falls gawkers was that more than 9 out of every 10 shots I saw taken were selfies of themselves with the Falls in the background!  This spoke volumes about their underlying motivation for using photographic recording.

The second thing clicking through my rickety brain was related to the December 19 election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the U.S.A.  That event in itself was enough to give me serious cerebral machinations, but one specific thing jumped out at me. Believe it or not, Trump’s success has been attributed in large part to Facebook!  The social media giant has been credited (!) as being massively influential in the election outcome, not because it was tipping the scales with fake news (although it probably helped some there), but because it helped generate the bulk of the campaign’s $250 million in online fundraising.

The third item of reflection related to a recent meeting of the Education & Community Engagement group of the Suzuki Elders where, after some raucous round-table discussion, it became evident to me that my fellow Elders had little clue about blogs, websites, electronic bulletin boards, hyperlinks and electronic media in general.  I was left musing how this meshed with our view of ourselves as personifying the traditional repositories of societal wisdom.

Over the past few decades modern writers such as Ray Kurzweil, Roy Ascott and others have elegantly pointed out to us that people across the planet are changing radically in body and mind. It’s not just a matter of the prosthetics of implants, artificial body-parts or surgical face-fixing, however much such technologies may seem a godsend to us Elders. It’s also matter of consciousness.

People in the 21st century have acquired new faculties and a new understanding of human presence. We have developed the ability to inhabit both the real and virtual worlds at one and the same time.  We can now be both here and potentially everywhere else at the same time. This is giving [some of us] a new sense of self and new ways of thinking and perceiving that extend beyond what we have long believed to be our natural, genetic capabilities. In fact, authors like Ascott and Kurzweil go so far as to state that a debate about artificial and natural is no longer relevant in this context. We are increasingly interested in what can be made of ourselves, not what made us.

The sanctity of the individual may now be a defunct concept. Thanks to social media we are now each of us made up of a set of selves, so we are actually many individuals. Actually, the sense of the individual is giving way to the sense of the interface.  We are now all interface – computer-mediated and computer-enhanced.

These new ways of conceptualising and perceiving reality involve more than simply some sort of quantitative change in how we see, think, and act in the world. They constitute a qualitative change in our being, a whole new faculty. Ascott has coined a term for this post-biological faculty –  cyberception.

Ideas come from the interactions and negotiations of minds. We are looking at the augmentation of our capacity to think and conceptualise, and also to conceptualise more richly and to perceive more fully both inside and beyond our former limitations of seeing, thinking, and constructing.  We now have a new term for the sum of these artificial systems of probing, communicating, remembering and processing the data, satellite links, remote sensing and telerobotics  – the cybernet.

How is cyberception different from perception and conception? It’s a lot more than simply the extension of intelligence provided by silicon chips in our computers, smart-phones and robotics.

We are offered the opportunity of a new understanding of pattern, of seeing the whole instead of just the parts, of flowing with the rhythms of process and system. Until recently we have thought and seen things mainly in a linear manner, i.e. one thing after another, one thing hidden behind another, division of the world into categories and classes of things. Objects have had impermeable boundaries, surfaces have had impenetrable interiors.  Simple vision ignored infinite complexities.

Cyberception means getting a sense of a whole, acquiring a bird’s-eye view of events, an astronaut’s view of the earth, a web-surfer’s view of whole systems. It’s brought about by high-speed feedback, access to massive databases, interaction with a multiplicity of minds, seeing with a thousand eyes, hearing the earth’s most silent whispers, reaching into the enormity of space, even to the edge of time.

If my Elder colleagues have read this far they will doubtless be asking “What does this bafflegab have to do with anything?”  Well, everything!

We’ve seen how hand-held devices such as smart phones can influence political decisions at the highest levels even while the owners think they’re doing nothing more than polishing their own vanity by taking a selfie or clicking an innocent-looking link which sends $5 to somewhere or other.  We’ve all become cybernauts of one kind or another.

Our choice now is to join the cybercommunity and participate at a meaningful level or let others do it for us.  Which choice would best represent the elder perspective for us?

The Elders’ Declaration

by Stan Hirst

Some things are worth repeating.  Like walking the Lynn Creek canyon on the North Shore in early winter when the grey rain keeps everybody else indoors. Like watching the flocks of band-tailed pigeons make their annual brief sojourn to my neighbourhood to guzzle whatever they can find in the greenbelt trees. Like pilfering another piece of my wife’s blueberry cobbler.  All quality things.

Here’s another.  While cleaning up my sorely overloaded hard drive I came across a set of drafts compiled by the SE Executive Committee more than six years ago.  One of them was an Elders’ Declaration.

Over the ensuing years we have done our collective best to honour the principles embedded in that declaration. We haven’t always succeeded in meeting our own high goals. I rather doubt we ever expected to, but we’ve certainly had an honest go at it.

As I said, some things are worth repeating, and this declaration  is one of them.


grafik-6We are the elders of this great planet Earth, the only planetary home we know and will ever know. Before our fellow sojourners on this planet, we affirm our deepest commitment to protect and preserve the earth and its ecosystems and to share them with all future generations.

In our time we have witnessed astonishing developments in engineering, medicine, transportation and telecommunications. When we first ventured forth into this world much of the technology that is now taken for granted had yet to be invented. Our lives have benefitted immensely in health and material comforts and in membership in a strengthening global community. But we remember too the horror of wars that inflamed the world and the great economic depressions that inflicted massive global hardship. We know that there is no guarantee that these will not occur again.

When we first trod the earth as humans, our numbers were only a third of what they are today, and only a quarter of what they will be when our grandchildren one day assume the role of elders. When we set out, vast areas of the planet – much of its tropical and boreal forests, the ocean depths, the coral reefs and the great savannas – were pristine and undeveloped. Within the space of a lifetime, ecosystems and species have succumbed to our economic demands. The air, water and soil have become dumping grounds for our toxic wastes. Conflicts over water and food supplies are now a growing threat to our most vulnerable societies and to world peace.

We have forgotten that, as biological beings, our very survival and well-being are completely dependent on nature that gives us clean air, clean water, clean food from soil, and clean energy from the sun.  We have to acknowledge that without these fundamental things, we can only sicken and die. We have come to the realization that all species on Earth are our kin and are related to us through a common evolutionary history. In an unparalleled act of generosity, our earthly relatives have continued to cleanse, replenish and create our most fundamental needs. We now see that economic activities that benefit the few while shrinking the inheritance of the many are wrong. Environmental degradation has severely eroded our priceless natural capital and will continue to do so until we desist and come to the realization that truly sustainable development has to account fully for all ecological and social costs. We are but one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase.

As elders, we declare that we cannot stand idly by and witness the desecration of our planetary home, its biosphere and all its creatures that provide our life essentials and our companionship. We realize that we have lost our way, our sense of home and our feeling of belonging to the rest of Creation. We know that this does not bode well for our children, their children, and all the generations that will follow us.

Therefore, we commit to doing our part to prevent further catastrophic environmental harm. We will take all necessary actions to minimize future climate change.  We will work to preserve habitats for endangered and threatened species. We will advocate for sustainable practices individually and in our communities, based on values of fairness, justice, and compassion for all. We believe that we can make a difference and we urge others to join us in our efforts.

We call on all governments to bring about binding international, national and local accords to sustain the intricate web of ecological relationships on our planet. We call on our leaders and fellow citizens to respect the earth’s diversity and ecosystems, and to seek peaceful paths to sustainable economies.




So that’s a “NO” then?

by Simon Wheeler

The Premier of B.C. announced the British Columbia government’s climate action plan in Richmond on 19 August 2016.

Late on a hot Friday afternoon last week the BC Provincial Government released their long awaited and much delayed Climate Leadership Plan.  It was as though they wanted to bury this document to avoid any media spotlight or comment.

Let’s step back. Just over a year ago the government announced, with great fanfare, the setting up of their new Climate Leadership Plan, including a strong team of stakeholder advisers drawn from industry, environmental groups, the First Nations and universities. Their mandate was to produce a robust report with input from the public and including interim and final recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the province. The path for the reductions was needed because the BC Government itself was committed by law to a 33% reduction from 2007 levels by 2020.

The Leadership Team worked hard and listened carefully to the comments made. They produced their interim report in November 2015, along with invitations for a further round of public discussion. The final report was initially due in March 2016 but ominously failed to appear despite calls from some members of the Leadership Team for explanations.

By this time it was apparent that the government’s own targets for 2020 were unachievable. Indeed it looked like there would be a rise in emissions rather than a reduction. The Team, in its interim report, had suggested a modified target of 40% reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050, together with some clearly defined pathways to achieve these goals whilst maintaining economic growth.

What has the government given us?  A report that ignores their 2020 legislated emissions reduction, ignores the suggested 2030 target, and coincidentally thumbs its nose at the Federal government’s stated intention for a national 30% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. It also ignores most of the Leadership Team’s recommendations, together with their suggested pathways to emissions reduction, and now presents some flawed figures that will not even get them halfway to the stated target for 2050.

So indeed it’s a “NO”. NO to meeting the government’s own targets, NO to any credible plans for emissions reduction in the future and certainly NO to any form of climate leadership.

BC deserves better.


Toxic discourse in the public square – searching for common ground

by Stan Hirst

An overcast morning in August: the Suzuki Elders gathered at the Rivendell Retreat Centre on Bowen Island, B.C. to debate the recent book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot – The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How To Clean It Up.

In the book author James Hoggan notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The Elder retreat set itself the task of thinking seriously about how to move towards understanding or agreement on thorny issues, finding a way to work together, or at least respectfully differ. Discussions were focused by considering real developments which currently create deep discord in B.C., including the Peace Site C hydroelectric project, salmon farming along the B.C. coast, and the use of nuclear energy.

As reported in post-retreat evaluations, the Elders never actually found anything resembling common ground within these examples. They did find that emotions clouded the issues and that facts were divisive! I personally came away from the retreat wondering if common ground could realistically even exist between proponents of large disruptive projects like estuarine salmon farms or hydroelectric dams and the eco-minded segments of our diverse population.

What actually is this common ground of which we speak so easily?

Historically, common ground was an actual place which was available to everyone, e.g. a village square or the verge of a local thoroughfare, a neutral zone where important issues were discussed or argued. Today it means simply a level of accord around a specific theme or themes between persons or groups otherwise in opposition to one another.

Common ground requires a minimum set of characteristics if it is to function effectively. These include things like respect, trust, acknowledgement and/or mutual interest. As the name suggests, there must be some form of commonality in views surrounding key issues. Features common in modern social interactions such as suspicion and polarization have to be set aside. Finding common ground with others does not necessarily mean finding absolute agreement. Common ground is “shareable” ground whose boundaries are marked by a range of actions that all can live with.

When large actions such as Site C or the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are pushed into the public arena, finding common ground typically takes a back seat behind much more prominent and aggressive actions. These include public testimony, bureaucratic manoeuvring, media initiatives, community forums, lobbying, electoral politics, litigation, boycotts and demonstrations.

The problem we face in finding common ground in such cases is basically that the factions opposing the proposed projects are actually created by the projects themselves. For example, the ranchers, homesteaders, hunters and anglers in the lower Peace River valley have been going about their business for more than a century. The First Nations bands using the area for hunting, trapping and exploitation of other natural resources have been doing so for centuries. Only when the threat of losses to the resources they rely upon looms as a reality do they form into groups to oppose the damming of the river by a power utility. The success of such environmental opposition groups is actually reliant on how well they can make their case against the project in the public arena (and often in the legal arena as well), and this means they accentuate the differences between the project goals and their own interests so as to make a stronger case. This is the exact antithesis of finding common ground!

Some might point out that agreements are often made between proponents and antagonists on specific issues, and that this necessarily means they have reached ‘common ground’, at least on that specific issue. For example, in the Peace Site C area some First Nations bands whose traditional trap lines would be impinged by the rising waters of the Site C reservoir have signed agreements with B.C. Hydro and have accepted cash payments as compensation for their losses. Is this a form of finding ‘common ground’? I suggest it is more a case of opponents making a rational decision between options and then joining the proponents!

It seems to me that at least part of the ‘common ground’ problem is that we seek it in the wrong place. Expecting to find common cause between a developer engaged in actually building and operating a project such as a hydroelectric dam or a fish-farm and the opponents of such projects is like expecting a wide receiver who has just caught the ball to stop and have a dialogue with the opposing linebacker. In truth, the faster and smoother the execution the better the outcome, no matter who wins the encounter!

Where we could and should seek out common ground between groups with differing objectives is where there are options available to reach mutually acceptable goals. Thus, moving a farmed salmon operation from ocean-based net-pens to a land-based system using tanks and recirculating flows might be a workable common goal for an aquaculture operation and for any opposing environmental groups. This would remove the threat of sea-lice and virus infections carried by farmed salmon being transferred to wild salmon migrating past the sites of the net pens, It could still be a viable and economic basis for aquaculture. The proponents might express a level of unhappiness at the added expense of having to build an on-land water purification system, but would find their commercial operation no longer in disfavour with local communities, commercial marine salmon fisheries and the concerned public.

The challenge facing humanity is to sustain the processes of economic development and poverty eradication while shifting gears to avoid greater damage to the environment from such economic activities. Developed countries must preserve their achievements while shifting the focus to more sustainable development and ever-diminishing environmental impacts. Developing countries must continue to raise their people’s living standards and eradicate poverty while containing increases in their ecological footprints. Both must adapt to the impacts of the damage already done. Now there is common ground worthy of the name!



The Suzuki Elder Perspective

The world is a very complex place for the Elders. Some of us are from the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945, and described as grave, fatalistic, conventional, possessing confused morals, and expecting disappointment but desiring faith. The rest of us are Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and supposedly associated with a “redefinition of traditional values”. We are told that we were the first generation to think of ourselves as special and to genuinely expect the world to improve with time.

Most of us think those descriptions are just journalistic claptrap, typical of the mass labelling so prevalent in our modern times. When we look at each other we see as much diversity as homogeneity. Why not? We come from a wide variety of cultures, geographic locations, home backgrounds, faiths and life experiences. If anything, we are an ageing cross-section of the modern diversity that is Canada.

But we must have some commonalities, else how did we all gather together under the umbrella we call the Suzuki Elders?

For starters, we all share a deep concern for our planet, the Pale Blue Dot. As Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan wrote “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand“. With that sort of definition we ought to expect, but clearly don’t get, a high level of reverence for the Earth from its inhabitants. We Elders want to make that view more widely known.

For seconds, we all have offspring. The average Elder has 2.5 children and 4.7 grandchildren, and we naturally care deeply about the future of all of them. But we gaze into their future and find it bleakly occupied by multiple gathering storms of climate change, burgeoning world populations, widespread food and water shortages, and never-ending social and political discord. Our efforts to change all this seem pitifully small, but we have a common urge to make the attempt.

And thirdly, in the David Suzuki Foundation we have found a supportive environment in which to come together to pursue our common altruistic objectives. The Foundation’s mission, which it pursues with almost Elder-like zeal, is to protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future, and its singular vision is that within a generation, Canadians will go about their lives based on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.

But then, how to move forward from here?

We come at environmental issues from different places of knowledge and experience. We have a deep concern and many years of experience as lay people and activists, but few of us are formal experts in environmental issues. What we say, write and present needs to be scientifically sound, evidence-based and well researched. Working with and through the David Suzuki Foundation provides enormous and unique opportunities but also entails the obligation to respect the Foundation’s requirements to comply with charitable status guidelines for non-partisan advocacy. How can we best utilize our diverse strengths? The answer is that we need a common attitude which reflects our shared understanding of the relative importance of things and imparts a sense of proportion. In short we need a sense of perspective about what we’re striving to accomplish.

Hours, days, weeks of reflection, discussion, scribbling and charting have resulted in just such a formulation which we happily term The Suzuki Elder Perspective and which we present below.

The cornerstone of the perspective is the David Suzuki Foundation’s own Declaration of Interdependence which expresses its values as an organization. The Declaration was written for the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and portions of it were woven into the work of others around the world to form the Earth Charter. Since its inception the Declaration has inspired people around the world to live lighter on the Earth. In addition, the perspective highlights the original purpose of the Suzuki Elders, and specifically addresses the important Aboriginal Peoples Policy of the David Suzuki Foundation.SE perspective

[First posted by the Suzuki Elders on Sept 30, 2013.]

Putting a Price Tag on Nature

by Stan Hirst

Our Elder-in-chief, David Suzuki, is well-known Pricey bluebirdfor his strong views on modern economics. His statements through the popular media that conventional economics is a form of brain damage have ruffled many a feather and elicited vitriolic retorts from the financial media. David’s main objection to the “dismal science” is that, when faced with the necessity of having to address the loss of natural ecosystem services (such as the hydrologic cycle, the activities of soil microorganisms or the fertilization of flowering plants by insects) economists invariably take a short cut and lump all these diverse and very heterogeneous functions and components into just one variable – externalities.

Externalities, in economic lingo, are factors whose benefits and costs are not reflected in the market price of goods and services. David’s concern is that relegation to that category virtually guarantees that little further notice will be taken of nature’s diverse benefits in project and policy evaluations and decisions. Most externalities are components or processes that do not have a market value in the typical sense – they aren’t traded and paid for in the market place. Nobody pays a swarm of bees to pollinate a fruit orchard, nor does anybody hand over a cheque to a few billion soil microorganisms to turn old vegetables and lawn clippings into useful compost.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean those processes are then excluded from all further reckoning. For example, apiarists are paid in fruit-growing regions to transport their hives of bees to orchards to carry out seasonal pollination; the owner of the land holding the dumped organic matter can tend the resulting compost and place it in bags to sell at profit at garden shops. The processes may be external to the economic balance sheet, but the products need not be.

There doesn’t appear to be anything inherently anti-environment in the science of economics (it is a science by the way – it was first defined in 1803 by Jean-Baptiste Say as “the study of production, distribution and consumption of wealth”). The doyens of modern economic theory like Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson treat natural resources like any other, and their textbooks, used by millions, apply all the normal economic principles to environmental components like forests, polluted air and fisheries. However, the natural resources they use as examples, like fish and forest products, are typical market commodities, i.e. they are traded back and forth in commercial markets, and prices can be readily set by the buyers and sellers.

Some big names in modern economic theory actually stand out as being very cognisant of environmental issues. The late Kenneth Boulding is credited with energizing the field of environmental economics in the 1960s with his essay ‘The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth’. He described the open economy of the past with its seemingly unlimited resources as “reckless, exploitative and characteristic of open societies (like cowboys!)” and contrasted it with the closed economy of the impending future where “Earth will become a single spaceship without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system”.

Perhaps the economist who has invoked environmental concerns to shake the economic foundations more than anyone else is Herman Daly. At one time the senior environmental economist at the World Bank, he made news in 1994 when he resigned to protest the Bank’s unwieldy bureaucracy and antiquated policies. Daly identified a problem for economics much bigger than the issue of externalities – the spectre of unlimited growth. He worked extensively in northeastern Brazil, a region beset by a burgeoning human population and a seriously depleted natural resource base. He also read the books of his contemporaries, the environmentalists Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich, and it was obvious to Daly that, like a human population, when the economy grows, it does so at the expense of the ecosystems that sustain it. For him, the realistic way of viewing the economy then was as a subset of the overall ecosystem, which implied that the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system which should not be exceeded if serious consequences were to be avoided.

Another of Daly’s contemporaries, Robert Costanza, moved the focus to the interface between ecological and economic systems. This then led to the need to estimate the market value of natural goods and services which are not traded in the marketplace – things like natural habitats and processes such as reduction of airborne pollutants. A plethora of methods to estimate the economic value of natural capital and processes has evolved over the years – things like mathematical modelling, calculating how much the market would pay to avoid losing a particular natural resource, etc. In 1997 Costanza and his colleagues caused a stir with their published estimate of the value of the entire biosphere (between 16 and 64 trillion dollars; the international GNP at that time totalled about 18 trillion dollars). A recent David Suzuki Foundation study of the economic values of water supply, air filtration, flood and erosion control, wildlife habitat and agricultural pollinators, carbon storage and other benefits provided by natural and managed ecosystems in the 5.6-million-hectare Peace River watershed in British Columbia gave a conservative estimate of $7.9 to $8.6 billion per year.

Estimating the economic value of natural capital and ecological processes seems a logical step in the quest for long-term global sustainability, but it may have serious pitfalls. The British journalist George Monbiot contends that pricing natural capital results in gobbledygook because the values of such disparate resources are really non-commensurable. Not only are apples being compared to oranges, apples are being compared to every other conceivable money-making commodity. Monbiot’s even bigger objection to putting a price on nature is that, rather then protecting the natural world from the depredations of the economy, the approach harnesses the natural world to the very economic growth that has been destroying it all along! The processes that in the past have been so damaging – commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction – can hardly be expected to now protect the living planet.

Personally, I don’t see the issue as having anything to do with the science of economics at all. In my experience it has more to do with the single-minded attitudes and actions of [some] proponents of development, [some] market-oriented economists who support those developments for the sake of personal monetary gain, and [some] politicians who seek the seemingly easy way to electorate approval. The same phenomenon can be seen in the medical field (new expensive pharmaceuticals touted by professionals) and in the food sciences (genetically modified crops as the way to bigger profits).

The natural environment has enormous economic and health benefits for the world and its inhabitants, but individuals and corporations are driven to make a profit. No profit derives from leaving anything undisturbed, because a developer or corporation must “add value” in order to sell. This incentive is what is so destructive. Destruction of natural ecosystems converts to dollars, so the true value of nature is ignored. Overcoming this perverse incentive is the true economic challenge of the 21st century.

[First posted August 12, 2014]

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