David Suzuki and Jeff Rubin’s ‘Sustainability Tour’ Makes a Stop at McGill

18 Oct, 2012

On Monday October 15th, the McGill Alumni Online Community in association with the McGill Bookstore, the McGill Sustainability Network and the Marcel Desautel Institute for Integrated Management hosted renown author and CBC TV host David Suzuki, as well as Canadian economist and award-winning bestselling author, Jeff Rubin (M. A. Econ. ’82) to discuss the direction of global sustainability in the upcoming years.

This discussion was part of “The End of Growth” sustainability tour. The event doubled as a book-signing, in which Rubin and Suzuki displayed their latest works, “The End of Growth” and “Everything Under the Sun” respectively.

Tarah Schwartz first introduced both Suzuki and Rubin, and then served as the event’s discussion mediator. Rubin began by discussing society’s dependence on oil. Specifically, he discussed how the drastic increase in oil prices, from $20 a barrel in 1973, to over $140 a barrel today, has served to not only “change the speed at which your car can drive,” but it has also changed “the speed at which [the] economy could grow.”

Despite efforts to wean ourselves off of non-renewable energy sources, Rubin demonstrated that presently, we are unable to substitute oil when it comes to transit fuel requirements. This is has been a recurring issue since the first OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) crisis in 1973. This crisis resulted in President Nixon’s passing of the Energy Emergency Conservation Act. The second OPEC crisis, caused by the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, resulted in the destruction of almost 50% of the country’s oil wells. Each time countries, whose economies were highly dependent on oil, convened over the matter, they ultimately failed to adequately address the growing dependency on this non-renewable fuel source.

In more recent events, Rubin discussed how the recent American recession was the direct result of an oil crisis. He noted that in 2004, the American Federal interest rate, which is a good indicator of inflation, was only at 1%. Somehow, two years later in 2006, it jumped up to 5.5%. How had this happened? While most other subsections remained rather constant, Rubin claimed that the biggest change was seen in the energy sector, whose rate had skyrocketed to an incredible 35%. This was the result of oil prices jumping from $30 a barrel to $70 a barrel, and eventually culminating to an impressive $147 per barrel. According to Rubin, if this had not happened, people would still be at 0% mortgage interest rates, and the real estate crisis would have been much less severe.

Rubin concluded his talk by stressing that the rising cost of fuel prices would ultimately be the limiting factor in economic growth. Furthermore, he attributed the massive economic growth of the last fifty years to cheap fuel prices, a luxury that was no longer present today. In his words, our current situation is a “rendez-vous,” where oil prices meet the demise of economic growth. “We are just going to have to adjust to burning less fuel!”

David Suzuki, a household name in environmentalism, was next to stand behind the podium. His discussion was related to Rubin’s, but with a more ecological emphasis. Firstly, Suzuki covered the lack of attention ecology receives in politics. Suzuki described his experiences with political figures, in which he has been met with comments as “you’re asking too much” or that “[sustainability] costs too much.”

Suzuki stressed that we can no longer afford to ignore the ecological footprint the human race has had on the planet. As a society, he insisted, we have developed a consumerist economy that has “exploited the entire planet for resources and waste.” He furthered this by discussing our force as a species. He claimed humans to be the only ones that have the ability to permanently alter the environment on a widespread geological scale.

Suzuki expressed sadness as he feels that, as humans, “we’ve lost our understanding of our place on the Earth.” He discussed this point by exemplifying urban life, where city dwellers have shifted their priority from ecological to societal factors, specifically their jobs. Conversely, he stated that farmers are aware of the power of nature. They understand that climate and seasons are the key determinants of their successes; farmers realize that our species relies heavily on the forces of nature.

He continued his talk with heavy criticism of what an economy represents. To Suzuki, the economy is “a human construct,” one that we have chosen to place above the very thing that keeps us alive: nature and the Earth. Suzuki stressed that politics cannot continue without focusing on the ecology: “We have to get back to the real world. We have to shoe-in ourselves into nature’s agenda, not the other way around.”

The audience members were given the opportunity to ask the speaker’s some questions after Suzuki and Rubin made their closing remarks. Of note were questions regarding the use of alternative, renewable fuels, to which Rubin responded that, thus far, there was no “magic fuel.” Hence, our focus should still be on consuming less energy. Rubin used Denmark as an example. He explained that higher costs of energy resulted in decreased pollutant emissions, but that this was not correlated to decreased happiness within the population. Rubin and Suzuki repeatedly stressed that finding more fuel was not the answer, the key was consuming less. This, they claimed, would be an effective method of reducing the associated economic burden. At this point, Suzuki’s enthusiasm resonated as he encouraged Canadians to “get voting, get involved in the process” regarding the Conservative government’s plans to exploit oil in the Alberta tar sands.

The evening concluded with both speakers stressing that our dependency on non-renewable fuel sources was the direct cause of our recent halt in economic growth. Suzuki highlighted the need for humans to regain touch with not only each other, but also with nature. He powerfully conveyed this message when describing his father’s ‘wealth’: “His wealth was in experiences with family, friends and neighbours.”

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