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The challenge of the 21st century: setting the real bottom line - part 2

By David Suzuki - posted Tuesday, 1 April 2008

When I began working with first nations people I would hear them talk about Mother Earth and the sacred elements. The Earth, they said, is our mother because it gives birth to us, creating us out of the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water.

On reflection I realised they were right, and that science corroborates these ancient wisdoms. We environmentalists had framed the problem the wrong way. There is no environment separate from us here and no way to manage our interaction with it. There is no separation. We are the environment because we are created out of those elements of the Earth.

You cannot draw a line that marks where the air ends and we begin. There is no line. The air is stuck to us and circulating through our bodies. We are air. We are embedded in a matrix of air and if you are air and I am air then I am you, we are a part of this single layer that encompasses the planet. We are embedded in that air with the trees, the birds, the worms and the snakes, which are all a part of that web of living things held together by the atmosphere or the air.


There is a wonderful thought exercise which the American astronomer, Harlow Shapley, did many years ago. He asked “What happens to one breath of air?” How do you follow a breath of air? You breathe it, oxygen and nitrogen go into your body. When you breathe out, a lot of the oxygen never comes back out because we need it, and some of the nitrogen, which is 80 per cent of the air, stays in your body too. About 1 per cent of the air is an element called argon, which is inert and does not react chemically with anything. You breathe it in, it goes into your body, and when you breathe out, it comes right back out. So argon is a very good marker or indicator for a breath of air. How many atoms of argon are there in one breath of air? Shapley calculates 3 x 1019. That means three followed by 19 zeros. Take it from me, that is a lot of argon!

If we follow one of my breaths of air it eventually diffuses across London, then England, and finally around the world. According to Shapley one year later, no matter where you are, every breath you take will have about 15 argon atoms from that original breath a year before. On that basis Shapley calculates every breath we take has millions of argon atoms that were once in the bodies of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ. Every breath you take has millions of argon atoms that were in the bodies of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Every breath you take will suffuse life forms as far as we can see into the future. So air, surely, deserves to be seen as a sacred substance.

We think we are an intelligent creature, but what intelligent creature, knowing the role that air plays in our lives keeping us alive and connecting us to the past and into the future, would then proceed to use air as a garbage can and refuse to pay for putting carbon and all our pollutants into the atmosphere? We are using the air as a toxic dump. Whatever we do to the air we do to ourselves.

So, you see, for me this is the shift in the way the environmental problem should be viewed.

I will not elaborate on the other elements. Every one of us is at least 60 per cent water by weight, we’re just a blob of water with enough organic thickener added to keep from dribbling away on the floor. Any drink you take, wherever you are, has [some] molecules from every ocean on the planet, the canopy of the Amazon, the steppes of Russia. We are water. Whatever we do to water we do to ourselves.

We are the earth because every bit of our food was once alive. We are the earth through the food that we consume and yet we spray toxic chemicals directly onto the earth and the plants and animals we are going to eat. We even inject it into the creatures we are going to consume. We are the earth, and whatever we do to it we do to ourselves.


And we are fire because every bit of the energy in our bodies that we need to grow, move or reproduce is sunlight. Sunlight is captured by plants through photosynthesis and we then acquire it by eating the plants or the animals that eat the plants. When we burn that energy we release the sun’s energy back into ourselves.

We are created by the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water and that is the way that we should frame our approach to “environmental problems”.

Why are we failing to respond to this simple truth and acting on it? There are, I believe, a number of factors that blind us to reality and prevent us from acting in as we should. Two of them stand out for me. In 1900 the world population stood at 1½ billion people. There were only 16 cities with more than a million people. Most people in the world lived in rural village communities and when you are a farmer you understand the importance of weather and climate. You are much closer to the natural world when you are a farmer.

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This is an edited version of David Suzuki’s Lecture, “The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line”, which was given at the 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London, England, hosted by the inter-governmental organisation the Commonwealth Foundation. Part 1 is here. The full transcript can be found here. Read part 1 here.

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About the Author

Dr David Suzuki is Emeritus Professor of the Sustainable Development Research Institute, University of British Columbia, and Co-Founder, David Suzuki Foundation.

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