In a promo for the 47th season of The Nature of Things, David Suzuki, the 70-year-old science and environmental activist, appears as naked as the jaybird he tries to protect, wearing nothing more than a strategically placed maple leaf. Held high over his remarkably buff physique, he literally carries the world on his shoulders. Although Suzuki is posed like the muscle-bound god Atlas, the key message in his new autobiography is slightly more modest—the real David Suzuki is a husband, a dad and a worker who makes human errors, not a celebrity to be deified.
Suzuki’s latest, self-titled memoir is much more candid than his first, Metamorphosis: Stages in a Life, written in 1986 when he was a sprightly 50. It’s Suzuki’s attempt at dispelling the “cartoonish caricature” of environmentalists, as he says over the phone from Toronto, where he’s speaking that night. Touring the book has taken him right across the country on a hefty 40-stop tour. According to a blog on his charitable foundation’s website,
davidsuzuki.org, many dates were sold out and in some cities, ticket scalpers made an appearance. Currently, his MySpace page counts over 8,000 friends.
For Suzuki, it’s all part of getting his message out. “It’s the last big book that I’ll ever do,” he says. “I want it to be widely read, not because I want to be a big hero, but I want people to understand that an individual can get involved and can do things.”
He’s not a journal writer. In fact, he says his wife (and fellow activist) Tara Cullis, who acted as fact-checker for the book by filling in details that Suzuki couldn’t remember, gives him “heck all the time” because he doesn’t document his life. “What I’ve done basically is made up a story,” he says. “There are certain things that are so vivid in my memory they dominate everything else. You just pull out those things that you remember and construct a story around that.”
The result is a fast-paced read that provides Suzuki room to contemplate his life—“When you get to be 70,” he laughs, “and you know that the end is in sight, you have no choice.”—and assess the more painful points, including the break-up of his first marriage. At times his candidness is jarring, if only because you’re not ready to read that “Sex has been a driving force in my life,” from the good doctor, which also may be why Cullis says that he is “far too open about my life with other people.”
Personal confessions aside, Suzuki’s book is a detailed chronicle of environmentalism over the past 30 years, most vividly presented and accessible through his family’s travel stories. His sincere respect of indigenous cultures, including the Amazonian Kaiapo Indians (made famous in part by Sting’s Rainforest Foundation), Australia’s Aboriginal population and Canada’s First Nations, is forefront. He meets the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, hangs with Gordon Lightfoot and Prince Charles. He has moments of egotism, but also acknowledges when he’s been wrong, admitting it was his beloved Cullis who transformed him into a feminist thinker.
He presents scientific discovery as an ever-changing form. Take global warming. In 1988, Suzuki says he saw it as an important issue, but figured that the consequences were hundreds of years away. “I didn’t think it would become the priority it has. What’s been amazing is that every year the science becomes more and more urgent and surprising. I never imagined that the Arctic would be melting as fast as it is. The Greenland ice sheet is disappearing, not at the rate of a few yards a year, but a few kilometres a year! Just shocking”—his voice gets louder and speeds up slightly—“to see what’s going on and the speed of it all.”
It’s somewhat of a relief to hear Suzuki speak with passion. Activism is a tough life, even for the experienced: He writes with detail about the physical and emotional toll establishing his foundation took, especially on Cullis. Depression is a pressing concern among activists; Suzuki knows a former Greenpeace worker updating his address book who was shocked by the number of people who had committed suicide over the years.
Suzuki experienced the pain himself when a colleague, with whom he worked on fighting the forestry industry, ironically drove into a forest and gassed himself. “We were devastated because we’re so busy fighting that we don’t mention it to each other,” he says. “That’s another thing about the book, is that I hope people read it and recognize that it wasn’t Suzuki all by himself and there were all kinds of people that were battling away. It’s not a solitary battle.”
As an elder, his biggest advice to young activists who want to throw their life into a cause is to go out and enjoy whatever they’re trying to protect. It’s what he refers to as sustainable activism. “I think we have to be lifers. You can’t just come in, and burn out and disappear, you’ve gotta pace yourself in a way that you can do it and stay in there forever,” he says. “A lot of people fighting clear-cut logging are living in cities. Get out there and see the forest and value why we’re trying to protect it! That’s what renews your spirit and renews your soul. It’s very, very important or else it becomes overwhelming.”
Born in Vancouver in 1936, David Suzuki, a Sansei (third generation Japanese Canadian), was first exposed to the natural world and First Nations culture by his father, who loved fishing and camping. In the first chapter of the book, “My Happy Childhood in Racist British Columbia,” he credits his dad with exposing him to basic rules of humanity. Those rules were tested early on when his family was sent to an internment camp, like 22,000 other Japanese Canadians who were deprived of citizenship rights, land and possessions during World War II.
Suzuki is adamant that he isn’t vying for public sympathy, but he’s concerned that every gay marriage debate and every Caledonia land dispute is another warning. “I want people to understand that bigotry is quick to flare up,” he explains. “Those people—the sexists, the bigots, the homophobes—they’re all the same people and we always have to be on the lookout for this because all the freedoms and privileges that we feel are guaranteed by our democracy are very, very fragile. My role in society is really just to remind people of what we did against Japanese—let’s learn and not do it again to the Chinese or Indo-Canadians, or whoever.”
Over the years, Suzuki has learned to deal with personal attacks as well. He receives dozens of requests each month to help out with local causes, and when he’s turned them down, he’s been called a hypocrite, a fact that he admits hurts a lot. Those on the right side of the forest accuse him of being an “econut.” In April’s edition of Reader’s Digest, writer, Globe and Mail columnist and self-proclaimed car lover Margaret Wente deemed him a “menace,” guilty of ignoring the economic ramifications of adopting Kyoto regulations, eliminating genetically modified foods and the fish-farming industry. To this, Suzuki simply says, “Show me the money.”
He continues, obviously riled up. “You don’t have to listen to the econuts like me, but who are we going to use as our authority? Are we going to base our decisions on science? What’s in it for environmentalists? Are you telling me you think environmentalists would try and scare us with a scam to get more money? Is that what you’re saying? And what is the motive of environmentalists? What about these guys who are getting paid by the fossil fuel industry?” He blames the fossil fuel industry for dirtying the scientific water with their paid experts, but suggests it’s time the public did a little research of their own. “You don’t have to believe me, but go and make up your mind as to who is credible. If you have a scientist who has a PhD who is paid by the tobacco industry and says smoking doesn’t cause cancer, do you trust that person?”
Suzuki’s biggest battle may be our country’s scientific illiteracy, which stretches from the street to Parliament Hill to the Alberta tar sands. He says we don’t take science seriously enough, and while the majority of us love the “‘Oooh, isn’t it amazing. What will they think of next?’ idea,” we don’t take time to get the facts behind issues like global warming.
“I can’t imagine a Ralph Klein, or even a Stephen Harper, sitting down and saying, ‘I want to find out the scientific evidence, show me so I can make up my mind.’ Can you seriously think they’re going to do that? They’re not.” His voice speeds up again. “Decisions get made for political, not scientific, reasons. That’s what’s so scary. How can we have a quick fix when we don’t even know how we broke it?”
Don’t get the wrong idea, though. David Suzuki is not the “Prophet of Doom” that Wente suggests. Really, he’s just an engaging, passionate guy doing his job. He laughs. “One thing I feel really good about is that I get on a plane, and there’s some guy, usually in first class, who grabs me and says, ‘Listen Suzuki, I’m pissed off at you. My kid’s bugging me to recycle; he keeps giving me shit and it’s all your fault.’ I think, ‘Good on ya, kid.’”
David Suzuki, June 13 at The Lord Nelson Hotel, 1515 South Park, 7pm, $5, 423-0419