Thinking green, by Caitlin

Thoughts and ideas on environmental topics from Caitlin Howlett, editor of Green Lifestyle.

What's your legacy?

Caitlin at 4 years old.

G's writer, Caitlin, at 4 years old on the verandah of her childhood home.

Credit: Geoffrey Tozer

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By Caitlin Howlett, G writer.

What kind of legacy will I leave? That's the question I was left lingering on after seeing David Suzuki speak last Sunday at the Opera House.

Suzuki (for those who don't know, the award-winning Canadian scientist and environmentalist) surprised me by opening his talk with a deeply philosophical tone; by asking the audience to ponder the meaning of life. It's something I'm sure most of us weren't expecting to be quizzed on, but Suzuki is by no means a stereotypical scientist. He's also a philosopher who believes that each of us is connected by a desire to understand our purpose on Earth. But as a geneticist, he also argues that the identical genetic make-up of our ancestors means they would have been thinking and reasoning in much the same way that we do today.

As a species we've reached an unsustainable population where we now need to use the two things that got us into this suicidal situation - our intelligence and our foresight - to get us out, Suzuki argues, noting that we need to stop this ridiculous idea of 'growth' as a measure of our success.

Physicists invented the laws of physics based on their observations which show that we can't build a spaceship faster than light and that we can't build a perpetual-motion machine. Biologists have shown through their observation that exponential growth of a species leads to extinction, as there are finite resources available on Earth. Yet as modern-day humans we have also invented this mythical creature called 'the economy' which praises compounding growth as the Holy Grail of development, and regards the biological world an 'externality'.

Suzuki raised these significant points as I started to question whether it was a good idea for me to take a Commerce graduate along to this talk. After all, isn't 'growth' the reason why my beloved country Australia came out as more than just 'the lucky country' in the GFC?

Going on to define the word 'economy', Suzuki noted that it comes from the ancient Greek word oikos, meaning 'house' (which coincidentally is also the root word for ecology). He says we need to put the 'eco' back into the economy. Take, for example, your own home: what is it that makes it home, and where does its value lie? I made a list, similar to the one that Suzuki made for his home.

The value of my home:
- The place where our dog Alice is buried (her name was my first word).
- The height wall, which has measured the growth of my friends and family and where I once scrawled 'my doll' at the very bottom (she never grew).
- The roses Grandpa taught me how to prune. After he died we saved them from his garden before his house was bulldozed to build units.
- The row of native trees and shrubs that strangers volunteered their time to help us plant.
- The creek where I would spend hours catching frogs and digging up worms (and where as a kid I helped CSIRO's Double Helix Club gather research as part of a national earthworm survey).
- The stump of the huge pine I saw struck by lightning a few metres from the house - I'll never forget the shock I felt at the sheer force of nature, and how lucky we were as I watched it fall to miss the house by a few metres.
- The swing we re-built for my now six-year-old nephew to play on.
- The list goes on, mostly with memories of family and friends.

Just like Suzuki's home, the value I place on mine doesn't hold value on the economic market, but does hold a high personal and biological value. Many of the native plants the volunteers helped us plant died in the last drought, but the ones that are still there are holding water on our property around their roots, and providing habitat for the endangered legless lizard on our property. Furthermore, I can't put an economic value on the smile on my nephew's face as he hangs from the same branch I once used to swing on.

Suzuki rekindled for me and many others the realisation that my life is dependent on the biological environment that I am very much a part of, and any harm I do to the environment I am not only doing to myself, but also to others.

The kind of legacy I want to leave behind doesn't involve a fancy car, popular gossip, dinner-plates of endangered species and mountains of landfill. I want to leave an 'eco' legacy that's filled with memorable experiences, meaningful dialogue, wholesome food, and time spent with family and friends.

Suzuki exited the stage to a standing ovation after his enthralling 90-minute talk - no mean feat in the Opera House. And after a 'meaningful dialogue' with friends over a good wine, we all agreed that we need to change our perception to allow for more 'eco' in economy, and start thinking about the kind of legacy we're going to leave behind.