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A grumpy old man ponders the past

February 18, 2009  By David Suzuki

Feb. 18, 2009 – As I approach my 73rd birthday, I've been thinking about my children and grandchildren and what lies ahead for them.

As I approach my 73rd birthday, I've been thinking about my
children and grandchildren and what lies ahead for them. We trumpet
the enormous scientific advances and technological innovations of
the 20th century, but is the world a better place than when I was

Reflecting on what we leave to our grandchildren, I have to
answer with a resounding no! Yes, things have changed a lot in my
lifetime, sometimes for the better. When I was born, there were no
transoceanic phone lines, organ transplants, jet planes, satellites,
television, oral contraceptives, photocopiers, CDs, computers,
antibiotics, cellphones


Today we have seasonal fruits and **>vegetables<** year-round, 24-hour
television channels, and bottled water shipped halfway around the
world. And stuff! My god, the stuff we can buy. We can choose from
more than 200 brands of breakfast cereals, and last year's
cellphones not only seem old-fashioned, they're designed to be
thrown away. Pills not only offer relief from the horror of erectile
dysfunction, but they can now be taken daily to make us ready for
action at all times. This is progress?

How quaint my childhood seems today. On hearing me talk about
what we didn't have back then, children stare in amazement that
anyone can remember such a primitive way of life. “What did you
do?'' they ask, struggling to imagine a world without television,
computers, or cellphones. Yes, mine was an ancient civilization, now

It's not that I don't appreciate many of the advances. When I was
a teenager in the 1950s, I developed pneumonia and was near death
when the doctor gave me a shot of penicillin. The next day, I was
out of bed running around. It was truly a miracle drug. My first
portable computer in the 1980s allowed me to write and send my
columns to the Globe and Mail from all over the world. And when my
children went away to university in the 1990s, I could stay in touch
by email.

Yes, our world now provides a **>cornucopia<** of wondrous consumer
goods. But at what cost? When I was a child, back doors would open
at 5:30 or 6 o'clock as parents called kids for supper. We were out
playing in grassy fields, ditches, or creeks. We drank from rivers
and lakes and caught and ate fish, all without worrying about what
chemicals might be in them. When I was a child, the oceans were
still rich with marine life, places like the Amazon and Congo were
still unexplored ecosystems, and nuclear weapons and the arms race
were still to come.

When I was born in 1936, just over two billion people lived on
the Earth. The population has tripled since then. Each of us now
carries dozens of toxic chemicals embedded within us, cancer has
become the biggest killer, and we have poisoned our air, water, and
soil. The human rush to exploit resources or take over territory has
devastated terrestrial and marine plants and animals.

Yes, we leave to our children and grandchildren a world of
technological marvels and personal hyperconsumption, but at the
expense of community, species diversity, and clean air, water, and
soil. I don't remember feeling deprived or bored as a child. My
friends were neighbours and our surroundings were rich with
biological treasures for us to discover and explore. Almost all of
our food was locally grown without the aid of chemicals. And growing
up, we were attuned to the impact of weather and climate; we looked
forward to the seasons and the changes they brought.

Have I become a grumpy old man who sees only the past as
wonderful and decries the modern? I don't think so, but I mourn the
passing of a time when community and neighbours were a vital part of
social and economic life, a time when nature was still rich. I know
we can't change the past, but together we can create a brighter
future for our children and grandchildren. We know where the
problems lie, and science offers many solutions. Now it's time for
action. If I've learned one lesson in my 73 years, it's that
everyone, including those in government and business, must pitch in
if we want to change things for the better.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and chair of
the David Suzuki Foundation ( ). Faisal Moola is
the director of science at the foundation. This column is
distributed by The Canadian Press.

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