What do Elders think?

by Stan Hirst

What’s the problem?

The Suzuki Elders began life way back in 1996 as The Council of Elders of the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF). Over the past 19 years the group has morphed into the present-day Association of Suzuki Elders (SE) and has expanded and matured in terms of scope, ambition and membership.

Membership has expanded over the years to over 100 as interested elders across the country and even beyond Canada’s borders have been attracted by the philosophy and goals of the SE. Membership has been predictably weighted towards Vancouver and the B.C. Lower Mainland because of the proximity of the DSF and its strong support to the Elders. Currently about 60% of members reside in the Greater Vancouver area.

Some significant drags on the level of communication between SE members, on one hand, and between members and the Vancouver-based Executive on the other, have gradually emerged over the years. One appears to be simple geography which hinders the preferred medium of communication – face-to-face contact. The other may be a reluctance on the part of many members to embrace modern communications technology such as Facebook and Google Groups. There may be other factors responsible, but the net result is that at present more than 60% of the membership is essentially silent.

For an Association which charges no membership fees and for which members’ inputs are the life-blood of its existence, this is a serious problem. It has been discussed many times at Council and Working Group levels, but remains an issue to be resolved.

The process

The idea of simply asking members for their views and opinions on whatever subject they deemed to be contextually important came to me a few months ago. I admit I was influenced by recalling the approach used by my local colleagues in Asia and Africa years ago when we sought the opinions and approval of local villagers for proposed projects within their traditional areas. No lectures, no Power Point, no clipboards or lengthy questionnaires – just simple conversation. We tried to steer the conversation towards relevant issues (not always successfully), but eventually we came away knowing more than we did when we started out.

Time and resources prevented me from chatting to every SE member over the farm gate, so I did the next best thing – I e-mailed all the members and invited their responses to a few open questions:

  • describing themselves and their views on their relation to the environment and sustainability;
  • saying where they saw themselves, their families and communities heading in the next decades;
  • naming significant areas, concerns or problems which the Suzuki Elders should be addressing; and
  • telling how the Suzuki Elders could best use their skills in achieving its goals.

The results

Members’ responses to the survey were not exactly earth-shattering. Fifteen Elders out of a canvassed total of 105 responded to the questions.

What to make of an 87% non-response rate on the part of my fellow Elders? It’s a little like The curious case of the dog that did not bark. Just as in that epic tale, there could be several reasons for the reticence of the Elders to engage in electronic conversation but, alas, I lack the mental acuity of a Sherlock Homes to interpret the hidden meanings in non-answers.

The high number of non-respondents makes the responses from those good people who did use their precious time to tell me what they thought all the more valuable. It’s the quality of the replies that matter here, not the quantity.

Because the answers to the various questions were quite open-ended (as intentionally set out in the request sent out), the information provided by the respondents is not to be crunched or statistically manipulated in any way. Each member’s response contains valuable insights into Elder feelings and attitudes. There are some commonalities in the responses, e.g. many of the 15 respondents cited climate change as something they considered very important, but many respondents also had unique concerns or interests. Both sets of issues – common and unique – contain valuable lessons for consideration by the Suzuki Elder executive and working groups.

All the information from the survey are shown below, edited for brevity and for occasional duplication. I favoured comments which addressed the open questions.

So…. please read on.

Who are we?

  • I’m a retired journalist.
  • I’m a 76 year old widower whose heart is in the right place (I think) with regard to things environmental.
  • I am retired, living on a small farm in Ladysmith with my wife. We drive a fully electric car, have solar panels on our house and produce about 6 large garbage bags of trash per year (yes, per year).
  • I am a semi-retired ecologist working on biochar production and use as a carbon neutral energy source for low income families.
  • I am from Pune, India. I am 67, healthy, active, a graduate in Mechanical Engineering and Business Management, and with over 45 years experience in high tech manufacturing and marketing.
  • I am a full-time writer and singer. My book Becoming Intimate with the Earth is a guide to healing our relationship with our planetary home. I also give workshops based on that book.
  • I was on the founding team of Bowen in Transition, and believe that the Transition Town network is a model of positive change that we could support.
  • I am a retired teacher of 31 years who has lived, worked or travelled in every province and territory in Canada.
  • I guess you could call me an environmental strategist, a big picture- and long term thinker. I am also a coach, group facilitator, discussion leader, and interested in the development of consciousness.

What motivates us?

  • I care deeply about what we are doing in our industrialized culture because of our destructive ways, overconsumption, pollution, fossil fuel dependence and flawed democracies, BUT I’m excited by the many creative and courageous ways individuals and groups are standing up, joining together and stopping the juggernaut.
  • I think we have to as a society get serious about reducing our footprint on the earth, and especially what we spew into the atmosphere. To do that I think we have to reorient our society and our economy towards sustainability, not using up resources we cannot replace.
  • My lifestyle is modest and I think careful with regard to environmental impacts, responsible purchases etc. I am pleased that similar values have been passed down to my two sons who have similar concerns and hopefully they are also being passed down to my 8-year old grandson. I consider this chain of thinking and lifestyle to be essential if we are to have any chance of controlling the increasing degradation. However if this cannot be done within the family for whatever reasons then there remains the opportunity for the Elders to fill the gap.
  • The greater participation of youth in the recent election provides some hope and the inclusion of wider healthy Canadian views at the Paris Conference is a step in the right direction.
  • It is hoped that it can be shown to the world that actions to reduce/minimize climate change can not only be beneficial but cost-effective
  • There are $15 billion worth of industrial projects gearing up for the small narrow fjord of Howe Sound, a continuation of an extractive ideology that has existed here since the fur trade. Our colonial attitude supports these projects, some of them in First Nations’ territories
  • Since joining the Suzuki Elders, I’ve come to understand how and why the planet came to be in crisis and what lies in store if we, as a species, fail to change direction. I see decades or even centuries of uncomfortable transition looming ahead.
  • I am more and more concerned about the environmental impacts of our western way of life, its unsustainability and the implications for social justice, equality and the well-being of women and girls.
  • Two issues that concern me currently are the refugee crisis and global warming, and I think that they will affect each other.

What frustrates us?

  • Its not an easy task when the multinationals call so many of the shots and governments become beholden to them.
  • Until the social and economic effects of climate change become abundantly apparent I don’t think that the world will really move. The current mass movements (due to war, lack of food, water and jobs) from the Middle East and Africa are only the beginning and we don’t seem to know what to do about it.
  • I have attended interest groups to find a more positive outlook, but it doesn’t work for me. Over the last few years I have tended to become more of an observer as we continue to continue.
  • I am not technically knowledgeable enough to judge the possibility of proposed schemes for slowing the process [of climate change, of environmental degradation].
  • I’m somewhat confused about the organization. As a newcomer it is very difficult to know where I ‘fit’ or how I can contribute. It seems a somewhat closed circle or circles with a small number doing most of the work.
  • I have no idea how the Elders could best make use of my skills. I feel very disconnected from this entity.

Where do we see ourselves headed in the next decades?

The optimists:
  • Although I’m eventually headed towards the grave, my children will most likely continue to be Canadians, working to sustain themselves, being socially responsible and living in B.C.
  • I have had successes, both individually and in small groups, with building community and resilience, emergency preparedness, and improving food security.
  • There are numerous organizations, in addition to the Suzuki Elders, which offer opportunities for involvement, personal work, and helping others do the same. Examples include Village Vancouver, local Green Teams, Leadnow, and the Leap Manifesto groups.
  • I see the last few years of my life dedicated to doing my part in making this world a better place for Canadians to live in. I see myself doing presentations in many communities and in many provinces and territories. My priorities are my family, friends, community, and society in general.
  • I am in the final quarter of my life, at a time when I am looking far forward to the next generations of humanity and seeing that if we don’t change dramatically and quickly there will be immense suffering, not only for my family, community and country but for the whole world.
The pessimists:
  • My feelings about our future are quite negative. Climate change concerns me the most.
  • We understood climate change was a real possibility since the early 1970’s, and yet we have done our best as a society to continue on our carbon consuming ways. I would be really surprised if we can turn this around, but as a biologist I’m not sure we should. It’s just another blip in the story of this old Earth.
  • Looking far forward to the next generations of humanity I see that if we don’t change dramatically and quickly there will be immense suffering, not only for my family, community and country but for the whole world.
The pragmatists:
  • What we need most is a change in consciousness, a broader way of seeing the world as one unit, each of our choices influencing all the rest. This is the work I am interested in doing and the contribution I think I can make with the time I have.
  • The Limits to Growth [updated 2005] reminds us that we all see the world’s problems differently. “In general the larger the space and the longer the time associated with a problem, the smaller the number of people who are actually concerned with its solution.”

We are strong advocates for change

  • The [recent] Canadian election was very important for me. We have to pressure the new government very hard to ensure that Canada can still pull back from the precipice towards which the previous government had us teetering. This requires massive, collective and immediate actions on multiple fronts. Now is not the time for philosophical debates, conversations about definitions and nuances, and more studies and reports. We must all act in our many different ways, and all must help.

What future pathways shall we follow?

  • Many of us subscribe to the conclusions of the world’s intellectual leadership as set out in The Limits to Growth [updated 2005] and elsewhere .

–   It is possible to alter growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.

–   The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.

–   Humanity has the capacity for adaptation which will be essential regardless of how well we manage in this century.

–   There is evidence of social adjustment to our changing times. The Millennial Generation buy fewer homes or cars, delay having children, and invest more in education. The sharing economy, with its underpinning culture of reciprocity, is growing rapidly.

–   Many countries are moving to sustainable energy sources.

  • The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that it’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us. He believes this can only happen if we fall in love with our planet and see ourselves as part of it, a message promoted so well by David Suzuki who tells us, “We are the air… we are the environment… When we damage the environment, we damage ourselves.”
  • The greater participation of youth in the recent Canadian election provides hope, and the inclusion of wider healthy Canadian views at the Paris Conference is a step in the right direction.

Are we effective in using our combined skill sets to meet our goals?

Maybe……
  • I am best in assisting others communicate their messages and in facilitating the work of members of the organization.
  • My skills are researching, writing, singing, planting fruit trees, and presenting workshops.
  • I am part of the Education and Community Outreach group and feel like this is a good fit; working on Food Security, and Resilience.
  • We could best use our skills to achieve our goals by getting into the schools – working with the environmental and outdoor education clubs, courses, associations, etc.
  • I think we are on the right track dealing with a number of issues related to sustainability, not only opposing non-sustainable projects but also promoting psychological resilience, work with youth, education of ourselves and the public, and general support for the David Suzuki Foundation.
  • What we need most is a change in consciousness, a broader way of seeing the world as one unit, each of our choices influencing all the rest. This is the work I am interested in doing and the contribution I think I can make with the time I have.
Or maybe not
  • I was shocked to learn that there are only some 100 Suzuki Elder members – I would have thought there should be at least 500,000, given there are 5 million Canadians over 65 as of 2011 and 60% of Canadians are reported to believe climate change is real and human activity is an exacerbating cause.
  • This survey seems so old-fashioned and inadequate. [A better approach] would have been some kind of engagement process where the participants themselves could create the recommendations and where the outcome would be a result of the interdependencies and connections that a group of people can generate, rather than all these single responses that some person has to read and through their own very personal lenses and biases extract what they think is important.
  • [This survey] could have been done online or using other media rather than assuming that it has to be in person.

What are we missing?

  • The major challenge facing our world is the one that no one is willing to discuss: over-population. It does not matter much about climate change, pollution, loss of habitat, etc as long as we continue to increase the world population. We are not going to survive. No other species can grow indefinitely, but humans seem to believe they can.
  • I would like the Suzuki Elders to focus on educating the public in opposing international trade agreements such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These proposed agreements would put international trade in the hands of the multi-national corporations, especially the CEOs.
  • I believe the Elders should get MUCH better at collaborating with others, at various levels. We should also harness the potential of technology more effectively.
  • I wonder about putting more emphasis on human connection in small groups of face-to-face dialogue. Consciousness development is an inside-out activity and can be most powerful in direct interaction.
  • As a newcomer to the Suzuki Elders it is very difficult to know where I fit or how I can contribute. It seems a somewhat closed circle or circles, with a small number doing most of the work.
  • Using the label ‘Suzuki Elders’ is not as effective in communicating to people around the world who we are as ‘David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) Elders.’ The Suzuki name immediately brings to mind motor bikes and cars, not a renowned environmentalist from Canada. As ‘DSF Elders’ we will be able to connect and communicate better, encouraging people to learn more about the views and work of the David Suzuki Foundation.
  • Those living outside the lower Mainland could contribute to the Suzuki Elder blog and report on local meetings or rallies. Our website could include materials for hosting local meetings on specific topics (the “What Moves Me” youth discussion handout is a specific example).
  • An important role for all of us is to fight public indifference and drive home the message that we need to do what we can. Showing up, standing up, and supporting policy for change to a more sustainable and equitable society are something we can all do.
  • We could best use our skills by joining and presenting at conferences like the Council of Outdoor Educators Association (COEO) or the Science Teachers Association of Ontario (STAO).
  • We tend generally to preach to the converted.

What’s the next step?

  • The specific concerns raised by Elders responding to this survey and itemized variously above will be laid before the Suzuki Elder Council for review and action.
  • Relevant items brought up by respondents will be referred to the various Working Groups for their information and action.

We need to keep the conversation going

  • Dialogue between and within the Elder membership is the basic tool we have to progress towards our goals.
  • We all prefer personal face-to-face communication and, wherever possible, that’s the approach we employ – in individual conversations, in working group meetings, in council meetings, in seminars and the like.
  • We may not have started out there but we’re now very much in the technological age where information speeds around the world at the speed of light. The communication tools are there for us to employ to our full advantage.
  • We invite all Elders to carry on the conversation.

–   Check the many items on our website and use the Leave a Comment link attached every post on the blog to add to the opinions expressed there.

–   Consider participating in the Suzuki Elders Google Group which is an online bulletin board where Elders can express and exchange news and opinions. If you’re not yet a member of the Group contact the moderator at this link and request a sign-up.

–   Contact us directly at this link to ask a question, to clarify something or just to express your opinion.

 

 

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2 comments

  • I honestly don’t remember if I responded to Stan’s email asking for comment. I have been a David Suzuki Elder for over 3 years now. But because I live in Eastern Canada I’m having a hard time feeling part of the group. I receive a lot of posts about events in Vancouver that I am interested in but cannot attend. We need a critical mass of members in different parts of the country. We need to define different chapters that will unify a national interest punctuated by local action. I would like to know if there are any other DSE members in my community (Brampton Ontario). I would like to know how to connect with them. I would also like to know if any other Elders across the country are interested in active transportation, which is my area of environmental focus. I would also like to know how many of the Elders are involved with their communities in Environmental Advisory Committees or other advocacy organizations. I am a member of my local EAC as well as a member of Sierra Club. I would also like to know how DSE can assist DSF in realizing the Blue Dot movement. These are the questions I have. Can anyone help with the answers?

  • Thanks so much, Stan – very interesting. Disappointing that so few of us took the time to respond. We have so much potential, let’s hope we can keep finding new ways to connect our own, and to reach out for positive change.

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