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An economy that puts climate first

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/11/12 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Climate, Healthy diet

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There’s a moment in the documentary film “Force of Nature” when Dr. David Suzuki, a leader in Canada’s environment movement, asserts that “we have become a force of nature like no other in 3.6 million years.”

“Climate change is but one of the problems we have created,” says Suzuki whose formative moments include an epiphany of science’s role in the environment after earning a PhD in Genetics and a childhood marked by a WWII internment camp for Canadians of Japanese descent.

“Forests—in less than a century—80 percent of them are fragmented. Each of us carries pounds of plastics in our system. The oceans are a mess with dead zones.

“Can we follow a new path?" he adds, "now we have no choice.”

Suzuki is in Cleveland today to receive the 2012 Inamori Ethics Prize. Speaking with David Orr, the head of Environmental Studies program at Oberlin College, and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer a professor of philosophy at Case considered a leader on ethics and climate, Suzuki addressed the need for a new perspective that doesn’t always pit the climate against the economy.

“Why is growth an end in itself?” Suzuki asked a nearly full Severance Hall. He’ll address another crowd tonight for his keynote.

“Nobody asks, ‘what is an economy for?’ We’ve come to think we’re so smart we can dictate the conditions of the biosphere. The absolute most fundamental need is air. Can we devise a platform based on our basic needs and build from there?”

Orr amplified Suzuki’s vision, asking, “How do we take these complex ideas and weave it into an economy that works?”

He answered by mentioning The Oberlin Project. Orr’s vision is to spearhead the economic expansion of the town of 10,000 residents with more local food grown on a green belt surrounding new development downtown.

“It’s about bringing sustainability in to Main Street reality,” Orr said. “It will be about how local food, downtown development, policy and law all hangs together.”

A question about whether corporations have “outflanked governments” led Orr to argue for more capitalist like Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, a successful U.S. company that manufactures Flor, carpet tiles made from customers mailing back used tiles for the company to grind them down and reuse them.

“Ray founded his company thinking of his customers’ and his supply chain,” Orr said. “There’s a way to calibrate capitalism with a way nature creates. Anderson’s idea was to have no waste and to be powered by sunshine.”

“The laws of capitalism are 230 years old,” Orr said. “Adam Smith was trying to shoehorn that into an environment that is billions of years old.”

If we aspire for an economy that balances the primacy of natural systems and their utility for people we need a more scientifically literate society, said Suzuki, the host of Canada's longest running science news magazine show, “The Nature of Things.”

Or, as he puts it in the documentary, “Science is just too important to be left in the hands of scientists, or industrialists.”

Bendik-Keymer noted that growth can refer to quality over quantity.

“Growth doesn’t necessarily mean physical things. It can mean growth in value. The question is, are we regulating the economy properly if the incentives say, free ride and push off the (externalities) to the future.”

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