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Suzuki behind Whistler’s sustainability initiative

World famous scientist, environmental advocate urges everyone to get involved at Whistler presentation

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Dr. David Suzuki – Canada’s pre-eminent science educator and one of the most respected and recognized advocates for the environment in the world – gives Whistler about a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving sustainability on its own.

"The very nature of this resort is based on consumption, and the exploitation of natural resources. You think skiing is sustainable? Tourism?" he asked, taking aim at the proliferation of SUVs, monster homes, and other displays of conspicuous consumption in Whistler.

That said, Dr. Suzuki said he is also behind Whistler’s sustainability initiative all the way, and will be watching closely to see what kinds of ideas come out of the process. We may not be able to achieve any true measure of sustainability without the co-operation of every community in B.C., but we can do a lot better.

"I think it’s commendable what you’re doing, and I’m delighted to be part of the envisioning process," said Dr. Suzuki.

"You know, I like to brag about Whistler, because you recognized the problem and you’re doing something about it, adopting The Natural Step. I’m a big fan of Dr. Henrik Robert and The Natural Step. My advice to your is to keep striving, keep trying to close the loop."

Dr. Suzuki was the final speaker in the Whistler Sustainability Speaker Series, hosted by Whistler. It’s Our Nature and the Early Adopters of The Natural Step. He presented the Dave Suzuki Foundation’s new campaign, Sustainability within a Generation, before a packed house of over 1,000 people at the Telus Conference Centre on Monday, April 26. The more than 800 seats were all taken and hundreds more people sat on the floor or stood at the back of the room.

The Sustainability within a Generation campaign was launched in February with Dr. Suzuki giving a one-hour presentation to Prime Minister Paul Martin and another presentation to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The campaign includes a step-by-step approach to reforming the economy, adopting sustainable principles in government and industry, protecting and enhancing the environment, and reducing our collective impact to sustainable levels.

The campaign has been well-received at the federal level, and the foundation is currently working with federal ministries to look at ways to apply sustainable principles.

Dr. Suzuki was introduced by Whistler-Blackcomb senior vice-president of operations Doug Forseth, who credits Dr. Suzuki with helping to drive the mountains’ own sustainability initiatives, and W-B environmental co-ordinator Allana Hamm.

Although Whistler-Blackcomb is already actively recycling and working on a program to reduce energy use by 16 per cent this year with B.C. Hydro, Forseth said a letter from Dr. Suzuki suggested that the mountains could be doing more.

"We got this letter from David Suzuki that said ‘Dave, wake up – you’ve got SUVs in your fleet, what are doing?’" said Forseth.

"This is a tough issue for us. We have a couple of real mountains here and we need trucks to get up and down, but we gave the issue our attention and went to General Motors, our partner, and told them about this issue.

"Soon afterwards they announced a new pilot project with Whistler-Blackcomb. Shortly we’ll have a new hybrid truck in our fleet, and we can see how it works on the mountain."

According to Forseth the mountains have already replaced a third of their snowmobile fleet with more efficient machines, reducing emissions by about 50 per cent.

"That’s good for the environment, and it’s good for business. We still have a long way to go, but thanks to people like David Suzuki we’re at least on the right path," said Forseth.

The main problem, according to Dr. Suzuki, is the fact that people are disconnected to the environment, that we’ve forgotten our fundamental connection to the earth, and don’t see how our actions are affecting the planet.

"People have been desensitized to the causal relationships between what we do and the consequences of our actions," he said.

He referred to an incident that occurred when taping his CBC show The Nature of Things. The topic was the national asthma epidemic that’s affecting one out of every five children in Canada, and getting worse.

According to Dr. Suzuki they hung out in Toronto, waiting for a smog alert day, then headed to the emergency room of a central hospital to watch the flood of elderly people and children having asthma attacks.

"People were scared, you could see the concern for their children in their faces – yet they drove up to the hospital in SUVs. I realized that they haven’t put together that the way they’re living, the car they’re driving, is the very cause of the crisis they’re having with their loved ones," said Dr. Suzuki.

SUVs came up frequently during Suzuki’s talk as a prime example of unsustainable thinking in society today.

"SUVs are the root of something we ought to be ashamed of. The gas mileage of the North American fleet (of vehicles today) is less than the gas mileage of Henry Ford’s Model T in 1912. That engine got 25 miles to the gallon, our average is now 23 miles to the gallon, and that’s because half of that fleet is SUVs," said Dr. Suzuki. "If the best we can do in a hundred years is just slightly better than the efficiency of a Model T, that’s a shame."

The disconnect between our actions and the consequences is partly the fault of the media, says Suzuki, which has all but ignored the environmental issues of the day.

He referred to a report that 1,500 world scientists, including half of all Nobel Prize winners, released in 1992 titled World Scientists Warming to Humanity. Among its many conclusions the report suggested that we were on a collision course with disaster, human activity was responsible, and that we had no more than few decades to change our behaviour.

"That story didn’t get covered by the CBC, The Globe and Mail… It only got a small mention in the New York Times and the Washington Post, way back in the news section.

"Here we had half of all Nobel Prize winners telling us we had 10 years to avoid a disaster, and they didn’t consider it newsworthy. Well what does the media today find newsworthy? A two second flash of Janet Jackson’s breast."

Another part of the problem is the nature of the world economy, which requires constant growth to be able to function.

"That’s madness," Dr. Suzuki said. "In nature, the only thing that can sustain constant growth is a cancer."

The economy has become too much of a priority in the media, in government and in our own lives, according to Dr. Suzuki.

"When the economy is feeling good, everybody celebrates, we’re happy. When it’s feeling bad we’re frightened," he said.

That feeling of fear has led to the rise in right-wing governments in Canada, including B.C.’s own Liberal Party that campaigned on a platform to open the province up for business. That business is typically unsustainable, from legislation to increase raw log exports to plans to develop the oil and gas industry in the province. The economy has also been used to justify cuts to social programs, the opening of wild areas to development, and the lowering of environmental standards, Dr. Suzuki says.

"The biggest challenge we’re facing in this campaign is the human mind. Our values and our belief system, and the values we have shape the world," he said.

The Sustainability within a Generation campaign, which is tailored to governments and businesses, was created to re-establish our connection to the natural world at a high level, changing the rules and shifting our national priorities to make us sustainable. The campaign hopes to achieve this by approximately 2030, giving us lots of time to adjust to changes and change our mindsets.

The Nature Challenge is a similar campaign that is tailored to individuals, with 10 simple steps that most people can take to re-establish our connection with nature and live more sustainably.

Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly, as well as the mayors of Squamish and Vancouver, were among the first British Columbians to sign up last fall to take the Nature Challenge. The Nature Challenge now boasts 150,000 participants.

Dr. Suzuki finished his presentation with a call for people to get involved, to download the Sustainability within a Generation platform from the foundation’s Web site and sign up for the Nature Challenge.

Said Dr. Suzuki: "If we’re serious about bringing about change, then we’re going to have to be the ones to drive it."

Dr. Suzuki’s presentation will be broadcast on Whistler Cable 6 starting today (Friday) at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Check the listings on page 56 for more times.

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