Environmental activist David Suzuki was in Toronto this week, where he gave a keynote on sustainability in business. Suzuki spoke with ComputerWorld Canada afterwards about the IT industry’s role in an economy that depends on consumption and steady growth, and why the IT sector must agree that nature, not profit, is the bottom line.
ComputerWorld Canada: You said today’s economy depends so much on consumption and growth and that with the Electronic Revolution, people own many gadgets only to have vendors issue new version just a few months later. How is the IT industry contributing to this?
David Suzuki: One of the biggest problems is the products being produced are not designed with the notion of what happens to them when you’re done with them. The whole idea that resources are limited doesn’t come into it. I think there should be universal connectors to all them so they all have just one energy plug that you need or whatever. But the most important thing is they’ve got to be able to be dismantled and the parts used over and over again. If that doesn’t happen, it’s crazy. But I think also the number of them that we seem to need, the proliferation of the technology that we carry around. Where does it end? You just have to look at Steve Jobs’ enormous success from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad. It’s the proliferation that is dependent on increased sales around the world. It can’t go on forever.
CWC: You spoke of companies wanting to continually grow the business. But you don’t think that is a sustainable model.
DS: Steady growth forever is cancer. I think we’ve got to get onto a different kind of model and that will be steady-state, carve out a niche. Of course there is a lot of survival of the fittest going on. You can’t just keep expecting that niche to keep growing.
The other problem that I worry about with the IT Revolution is that because there is so much available, people have much shorter attention span. Everything is sped up. Twitter makes a hell of a lot of sense to kids. What the hell can you get across in a 140 characters? There’s no profundity left anymore and I worry about that a lot.
CWC: You said people have to put the word “eco” back in “economics.” Can you explain that?
DS: The bottom line of economics should always be: Nature is what we’re all here to protect. If everything in the world agreed that our well-being depends on clean, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity. Those are the five pillars of our survival and well-being. You don’t do anything that will interfere with that. The way we do everything would change.
CWC: You talked about businesses needing to strike a balance between risk and opportunity. What is your message to IT companies?
DS: I’m concerned with whether the IT industry can agree that the bottom line is to protect nature and that our very survival depends on that. Then if you want to make an IT company, you make sure that whatever you do isn’t going to compromise the integrity of that fundamental foundation. The question is will we find that we have to too late. When you look at the rate at which we get information telling us we’re in danger, the rate at which we respond is just too slow. In public I would never say it’s too late but the reality is you’d have to be crazy to think we’re going to avoid catastrophic climate change, that the impact of what’s going on in the oceans. The spill of oil in (the Gulf of Mexico), which is sickening, is tiny compared to what’s going on the big oceans. There’s nothing left in them.
CWC: You said technology companies have to sustain their business in such a way that it’s respectful of the environment. Yet it’s difficult when the bottom line is still making a buck.
DS: As long as the bottom line is making a buck, we’re screwed. That’s crazy to make that the bottom line when nature is the source of our ability to even make a living, and we’re going to say that economy is the bottom line. That doesn’t make sense to me. So I say, ‘Apple or whatever, it’s a privilege for you to try to make a living, but whatever you do should not impact clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy. You’ve got to live within that bottom line.’ We don’t want to hear scientists telling us bad things, we just want to carry on and keep making money. Yes, they’ve got to make money, but as long as that remains their fundamental bottom line, then we’re hooped. So they, like any other company, whether they’re fisherman, loggers, coal miners, they’ve all got to realize nature has got to be our highest priority. It’s very, very late, and I’ve spent since 1962 talking about this. I’d say I’m failing big-time.
Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau