Expired · 27th March 2011
David Suzuki's presence at the March showing of his biographical film, Force of Nature, guaranteed that the Quadra Island Community Centre would be packed. The film itself was both informative and poignant, an artful blending of one of Suzuki's most powerful and eloquent environmental speeches with scenes from his childhood, his rising profile as a geneticist, his ascent as an internationally known broadcaster – his television program, The Nature of Things, has been running for decades – his media status as a world-acclaimed environmentalist, and now his additional role as a senior citizen and a grandfather. Suzuki's personal and reflective comments about his life were insightful, honest, brave and inspiring.
But the evening also had a sad and sobering edge. While Suzuki's enthusiastic response to questions after the film revealed a passion still burning with intensity, he seemed frustrated that his tenacity, his teaching, his warnings, his TV programs and his profile as an advocate for the sanctity of nature had not translated into significant environmental reform. Indeed, from Suzuki's perspective as a scientist, our collective human behaviour is plunging our planet into ecological crisis, with little more than token efforts to avert a looming catastrophe. And Canada, his home country, has a government so indifferent – sometimes even obstructionist – as to be an exasperating embarrassment.
Suzuki attempted to attribute his failed influence on the character of television itself, a medium with shrinking units of concentration and rising levels of superficiality that seems to translate even dire subjects into entertainment and passivity. But a much better explanation for his failure may come from the ponzi scheme that allowed Bernard Madoff to bilk billions of dollars from usually thoughtful investors. This is a subject that Margaret Heffernan explores most thoughtfully in Why We See No Evil (Globe & Mail, Feb. 19/11). If Heffernan is correct, the forces that allowed Madoff to operate for so long are also allowing the environmental degradation of our planet.
Heffernan argues that people have "a preference for the familiar", a trait that keeps them doing what they usually do, whether it be investing money in an unsafe place or exploiting their surroundings beyond ecological sustainability. Just as they have an affinity for other people of the same culture, tastes and values, they also have an affinity for familiar products, attitudes and behaviour. If they are accustomed to high levels of consumption, easy garbage disposal, throw-away products, foreign holidays, high meat diets, new technology and big cars, then their inclination is to continue with this lifestyle, despite all the warnings that this behaviour may be fundamentally flawed. Just as a momentum of common acceptance, trust and opinion blinds them to a faulty investment scheme, it also blinds them to the ecological damage surrounding them.
Heffernan notes that this "willful blindness" is not a legal excuse or defence in law. People who could have known, and should have known, are treated as if they did know, and are therefore held responsible for their behaviour. Although people may feign unawareness and pretend they are not responsible for their investment strategies or environmental impact, they are ultimately culpable. At some point in the accumulation of available evidence, ignorance becomes intentional denial and is no longer available as an excuse.
This "willful blindness" also works at a "collective" level. As Heffernan notes, "the availability of others to take action blinds us to our personal responsibility and capacity" to act. Events have illustrated innumerable times that "the larger the number of witnesses to a crime or accident, the less likely it is than anyone will intervene." This form of mass inertia begins to explain how a society is immobilized to take collective measures to rectify an environmental problem. Everyone is waiting for someone else to act. Governments wait for direction from their voting public while the voting public waits for initiatives from their governments. Meaningful change must overcome this handicap.
In a complicating twist to this process, Heffernan points out that "organizations can make themselves structurally blind by what they reward and what they don't." In a "strong sales culture" such as banking, scrutiny is low because the objective is to move money, not to judge it. This is why banks never exposed Madoff. Transpose this tendency to a consumer society and the environmental implications are immediately evident. Caution, restraint and sustainability are not its guiding principles. Participation in such a society is measured by spending – the latest gadget, fashion, trend or fad – but not restraint. Join in or be left out. The net result is a high-speed pillaging of the planet by a willful and collective blindness. No wonder Suzuki feels ineffective.
In the last part of Heffernan article, she points out that "seeing what is going on inside our organizations is the toughest question of all – and the bigger the business, the harder the problem." The wider and deeper Madoff's ponzi scheme spread, the more invisible it became and the more difficult it was to stop. The same dynamic applies to a consumer society. Recognizing its failings and steering it to sustainability is an enormous challenge. Accordingly, those who are heroic enough to warn about faulty investment schemes, precarious financial systems or collapsing ecologies are rare ‹ and may even suspect and vilified for their efforts.
Heffernan reminds us, however, that "history is full of remarkable individuals who have proved it is possible to see better." They invariably share the traits of being optimists, detailed thinkers, concerned for victims, seekers of fresh wisdom and eschewers of conventional leadership ‹ all the attributes demonstrated by Suzuki in Force of Nature. But Heffernan also notes with some foreboding that such people often become disillusioned. Perhaps Suzuki – and everyone like him ‹ should brace themselves for this prospect.