David Suzuki: Still a Force of Nature
With 31 years on television and decades spent raising awareness through his foundation, David Suzuki has changed the way we look at the environment. Photo: Malcolm Tweedy
David Suzuki will soon have one more job title to add to his already impressive list: movie star. For several years, the world-renowned geneticist, environmental activist, broadcaster, author and professor had been wanting to make a feature film that would stand as both an urgent message to rethink our relationship with the natural world, and a legacy “in case I kick the bucket,” as he puts it. Suzuki, turning 75 on his next birthday, had assumed the movie would take the form of a “last lecture,” a university tradition in which retiring professors distil their accumulated wisdom.
But Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson, winner of multiple honours including an International Emmy, the Prix Italia and even an Oscar nomination, suggested that instead of another Al Gore-style documentary — and really, An Inconvenient Truth merely encapsulated what Suzuki and other scientists had been saying for decades — the film would have more impact if it interwove the lecture with crucial events that shaped Suzuki’s life.
So we follow him on a poignant journey: to the B.C. internment camp where young David and his family were sent during the war; an emotional pilgrimage to Hiroshima, the final resting place of his grandparents; a reunion with colleagues from his Tennessee lab, where racism was rampant and where his first marriage started to crumble; a visit to Haida Gwaii, a group of islands off the British Columbian coast, where his youngest grandchild, one-year-old Ganhlaans, lives.
The powerful Force of Nature is scheduled to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will be in general release nationally in October. There’s a new book, too, his 48th, for which he’ll be doing an international book tour. Entitled The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future, and with a foreword by Margaret Atwood, it’s a summing up of his life lessons. “I offer my vision,” he says, “based on a lifetime’s worth of experiences, for a future that is possible, one rich in joy, happiness and meaning.”
If all this sounds like a final hurrah before Suzuki checks out for good, he chuckles. “I’m in the death zone,” he says cheerfully. “Not to be morbid, but I’m fully prepared to die. One thing about turning 75 is that it forces you to get your shit together.”
It’s difficult to believe that the omnipresent, the boundless, the indefatigable David Suzuki could, in fact, ever be a non-renewable resource. When he bursts into a room, he’s the very embodiment of his oft-spoken conviction that we, like Planet Earth, are all created by the same four sacred elements— air, water, earth and fire. And in his case, it’s quite obvious.
Take air, for instance. When Suzuki moves, he’s like a wind unleashed, rushing to get one job done before suddenly changing direction and dashing off to do the next. When he pauses long enough to sit, he has a coiled energy, like a tornado gathering momentum. Moreover, it’s the air — more specifically, the airwaves—through which his image has been coming to us every week for more than 30 years on CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki.
And fire? When Suzuki gets on the subject of the environment, which is almost all the time, he blazes, he smoulders, he flares. His eyes burn with passion as he blasts governments for their petty squabbling. “I feel like we’re in a giant car heading for a brick wall at 100 miles an hour, and everyone is arguing over where they want to sit!” he fumes.
As for the element of water, Suzuki can’t get enough of it. He lives in Vancouver near the ocean and retreats to the family cottage on Quadra Island. He named his daughter Severn after a river. He reveres lakes and swamps and wetlands. And fishing! While people assume environmental activists abhor fishing, Suzuki has had a lifelong passion for it. Not sport fishing, which he considers wasteful. He catches only what he’ll eat, accepting that as an animal he’s dependent on other life forms, including plants and protein, to survive.
And what of the final element, earth? Suzuki is as down to earth as you can get, says his wife, Tara Cullis: “With David, what you see is what you get. He’s pretty well the same person in private as in public.” Like the earth, he’s physically rock-solid. It’s perhaps more than coincidence that of the several aboriginal names he’s been honoured with by First Nations groups around the world, most incorporate the word “mountain.” Mountain Man. Big Mountain. Sacred Mountain.
But despite his vigorous appearance, his hair, while still luxuriant and wavy, is almost completely silver. His fingers are crooked with arthritis. “At my age I know I’m going to be on borrowed time soon,” he says. “I can’t see going at this rate for that much longer.”
His wife, however, bemoans, “I’ve been trying to get him to slow down for at least 25 years, and I haven’t been successful at all.”
The man has certainly earned a vast supply of laurels to rest on. He’s a Companion of the Order of Canada, a winner of UNESCO’s highest prize for science and the recipient of the 2009 international Right Livelihood Award given for personal courage and social transformation (dubbed the “alternative Nobel Prize”).
International scientists have honoured him by naming a newly discovered Central American species of fly after him: Dixella suzukii. (He’s the first to admit his tiny namesake is a scum-sucking swamp insect.) He’s fathered five children, every one of them a committed environmentalist.
Oh and, in his spare time, he chairs the David Suzuki Foundation, which uses science and education to promote solutions for conserving nature and achieving sustainability within a generation. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien credited the foundation for raising awareness of climate change. This fall marks its 20th anniversary.
Suzuki can’t ease up, for two reasons. The first, of course, is the imperiled planet. The second is Suzuki himself. He’s a man who, despite an air of confidence that some interpret as arrogance, harbours a lifetime of deep-seated insecurities. “I’m just kind of constantly, psychically, trying to affirm that I’m a worthwhile person,” he says, adding with a smile, “which, when you’re my age, is kind of sick.” Exaggerated modesty? Perhaps a little. But it’s more the legacy of a childhood where you’re continually told you just don’t belong, that even your own country doesn’t really want you.
David Takayoshi Suzuki was ripped off right from birth. He was a twin, not an auspicious event in traditional Japanese families in 1936. And although he was born first, he was bumped to number two status: according to Japanese tradition, the second-born is considered the elder twin, having graciously moved aside to allow the younger one to enter the world first. So nine-pound David was one-upped by his barely three pound sister, Marcia. Two more sisters followed in later years, Aiko and Dawn. All were born in B.C., as were his parents, Setsu and Kaoru, who ran a small laundry and dry-cleaning business in Vancouver.
In 1942, the Canadian government declared six-year-old David and 22,000 other Japanese Canadians to be enemy aliens. The RCMP confiscated homes and businesses and froze bank accounts. Even though the entire Suzuki family were Canadian citizens, and even though there wasn’t a single case of treason in North America by people of Japanese descent during the entire Second World War, the Suzuki kids and their mother were sent to an internment camp in B.C.’s Slocan Valley, while their father headed for a road camp as a 25-cent-a-day labourer on the Trans-Canada Highway.
While the move was agonizing for his parents, for Suzuki the scenic valley— on the edge of what is now Valhalla Provincial Park — was a paradise, its rivers jumping with rock cod and its forests alive with deer. But school was a harsh awakening for the boy who couldn’t speak Japanese. “The Japanese kids used to beat me up all the time,” he recalls. It didn’t help that he excelled academically, earning an unwanted reputation as a brainer.
At war’s end, the internees were freed but kicked out of B.C. The destitute family headed for farm country in southwestern Ontario, where they found work picking fruit. But while Suzuki had previously been considered too white, now he was too Japanese. “Get lost, Jap!” said one boy. “We beat you!” Others called him “Chink” or “Coloured.” He says today, “Deeply in me, there has always been a sense of alienation from both the surrounding community and the Japanese community.”
Nature, on the other hand, had no such prejudice against the intensely lonely boy. He waded fully dressed into swamps and adorned his bedroom with collected fossils and found animal parts. He poked around in cowpats in search of dung beetles (perhaps a foreshadowing of his future reputation as a shit disturber). He loved camping with his dad, an avid outdoorsman who taught his son to respect Nature. As a boy he penned a poem that begins, “Let us take a walk through the wood/While we are in this imaginary mood/Let us observe Nature’s guiding hand/Throughout this scenic, colourful land -.” Even at 14 he was waxing rhapsodic about the great outdoors.
In his London, Ont., high school, Suzuki couldn’t talk to the cool kids, but he certainly knew how to give speeches. Coached by his dad, who insisted his son practise over and over until he was letter-perfect (and often in tears), Suzuki excelled in oratorical contests. His few friends, geeky outsiders like himself, pushed him to run for student council president. He was terrified of failure, but students responded to his “You’ll Rave About Dave” posters, his well-rehearsed speeches and his underdog status and, to his astonishment, he won. His greatest accomplishment as president: Neptune’s Night, a big dance with an undersea theme. “It was pretty corny, but I loved it,” he recalls. Of course he did: it was all about the fish.
Suzuki’s star continued to rise, both socially and academically. No longer the skinny geek, he’d become buff and tanned from working construction in the summers with his father and uncle. He won a scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts, supplementing his grants by bussing tables in the campus dining room. By age 25, got his PhD at the U of Chicago, then worked at a lab in Tennessee.
By age 26 he was back in Canada at the U of Alberta he had a PhD in zoology, a beautiful Japanese-Canadian wife named Setsuko Joane Sunahara and a baby daughter Tamiko, followed soon by Troy and then Laura. “I loved being a father — it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me,” he says. Trouble was, he was never around long enough to show it. He was at the lab till midnight seven days a week, obsessively studying fruit flies, while his wife raised the kids. “Her whole life was subsumed by what I did,” he says today. “She finally said, ‘Look, you’ve got to start spending time at home.’ When I couldn’t, she basically said, ‘Get outta here.’ ”
Newly single, Suzuki now devoted even more time to his work. He became a popular lecturer at the University of British Columbia, with his groovy headband and John Lennon glasses, often holding court while sitting cross-legged in his jeans on the campus lawn or swinging in a hammock in his office and saying things like “We are all fruit flies.” (Hey, it was the ’60s.) Articulate and engaging, he was often asked by TV and radio reporters to comment on science news. Fellow scientists condemned “Kooky Suzuki” for both ego-tripping and dumbing down science for the masses.
As a visiting lecturer at Ottawa’s Carleton University in 1971, Suzuki was struck by a stunning young woman in the audience: it was Tara Cullis, a student of comparative literature. She was 22, he 35, but the attraction was mutual. “I just found him very intelligent and astute but also humorous, and I loved that combination,” Cullis says today. “He was brilliant but he wasn’t conceited, because of what he went through in the camp.” He invited her to go to a post-lecture party. One year later they were married.
Suzuki’s media career blossomed, with CBC-TV shows Suzuki on Science, then Science Magazine. In 1975, he founded the CBC Radio show Quirks and Quarks, which he hosted for four seasons, before becoming host of the weekly TV series The Nature of Things. From his lab work on how temperature fluctuations dramatically affect the flying ability of fruit flies, he became increasingly aware that the environment can trump genetics to produce profound and sometimes irreversible changes in nature.
The show quickly became a solid success, reaching 400,000 Canadians a week and an international audience in more than 40 countries. Suzuki also created and hosted other series, including A Planet for the Taking for CBC, The Secret of Life for PBS (called Cracking the Code for the BBC) and The Brain: Our Universe Within for the Discovery Channel. But after he spent several years successfully scaring viewers with his Chicken Little pronouncements, it was his wife who suggested starting an organization to focus on positive change, educate people and celebrate victories.
In 1990, Cullis, who had already helped found nine academic and social justice organizations, quit her prestigious job teaching writing at Harvard University to become the volunteer founder and president of the David Suzuki Foundation.
Their 30-year-old daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who holds a master’s degree in ethnobotany and who has been giving speeches about the environment since she was 12, now also serves on the board. But it’s her father who’s always out hustling on the foundation’s behalf. “He’s a workaholic,” Severn says. Her mother says, “David sleeps and goes to the gym, and other than that he’s working.”
Suzuki’s work has taken him around the world: to the dwindling populations of baboons in Kenya, the threatened Amazon rainforests, India’s vulnerable Ganges River and the ancient watertemple irrigation system of Bali. He and Cullis have also helped First Nations’ groups win environmental battles, such as in B.C.’s Stein Valley and Gwaii Haanas. “These battles are long and hard,” Cullis says. “But such great adventures! Sitting around the campfire listening to the drum and talking about why you’re there reaches a part of you that’s very, very profound.”
There have been terrors, too: during the worst of their battles against clearcutting, someone fired a bullet through their home’s front window; twice thieves broke into Suzuki’s office to get at his computer; once, by a logging village, a truck purposely tried to hit him while he was out jogging. Suzuki’s colleagues have also had to bring their sometimes impatient host down a notch or two. When the show’s cameraman was taking time to set up a shot, Suzuki, tired of waiting to deliver his lines, raged, “For chrissakes, let’s do it!”
Jim Murray, the executive producer, took Suzuki aside and said, “Listen, Suzuki, everyone here is doing the best they can to make you look good. And believe me, with you, that’s not easy.” The reality check had a profound effect on Suzuki. His wife says, “David never forgot that. He put his tail between his legs and tried very hard to be professional.”
Suzuki’s impatience still asserts itself, especially when he’s out for dinner with his family. “I feel really bad when he’s rude to someone who just wants to shake his hand,” Severn says. “Sometimes he’s really nice, but sometimes he’ll say, ‘Look, I’m here with my family!’ He’s just being real. He’s not trying to always be a nice guy.” She says his inner insecurities reappear at times, too. “He can be quite shy, especially with a lot of people he doesn’t know. But other times, he’s the most forward guy in the room. He’s just very human.”
And he knows it. He’s aware of sometimes harbouring the same kinds of prejudices that once victimized him. He says, “I told my kids, ‘Look, don’t get involved with these native kids. They carry a lot of baggage.’ ” But two years ago Severn, ignoring her father, married a Haida man, Judson Brown. After spending time with him, Suzuki admitted he was wrong. “I said, ‘Sev, if you ever break up with Jud, you’re out of the family! We’re going to keep him!’”
An atheist, Suzuki puts his faith in people, especially the older generation who are the most affluent group in history and who have witnessed the biggest changes. “People will tell you, ‘When I was a kid I used to go to the old swimming hole’ or ‘I used to spend lots of time in the woods,’” Suzuki says. “You think those things are still there now? People know very well the planet has changed in their lifetime. And that’s depriving their grandchildren of the opportunities of a richer world.”
Suzuki himself is a grandfather of four, including a blind boy with cerebral palsy.
“I’m begging people to get involved in environmental groups,” Suzuki says, “to give money, to do whatever they can to support those of us who are working like mad to try to salvage something for our grandchildren.” Through his new movie and book, he has harnessed something very tangible.
Perhaps it’s the fifth sacred element, the one that science has never been able to quantify. “Hope,” Suzuki says as he races off. “All I have now is hope.”
For more information or to make a donation, go to www.davidsuzuki.org.