The Nature of David Suzuki: On Leaving ‘The Nature of Things,’ the Joys of Grandkids and the Importance of Elders in Activism
At 87, David Suzuki, seen here in downtown Toronto earlier this week, is still on a mission to save the planet (while also making time to play with his grandkids). Photo: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
David Suzuki is sitting in a park in downtown Toronto. When he calls me for this interview, I can hear the birds chirping in the background and the occasional rustle of leaves in the wind — a fitting environment, I figure, for the beloved eco-warrior who signed off of his long-running CBC science series The Nature of Things on April 7 after 44 years at the helm.
“They kept saying, ‘Look, if you leave the show, you’re so highly identified with it, we might drop the series.’ So for many years, they blackmailed me into staying on,” Suzuki, 87, quips when I ask about the transition.
In truth, Suzuki’s happy with both the transition and the fact that the show will continue on without him, helmed by two young hosts — Anthony Morgan, whose background is in studies of psychology and science communication, and Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, a marine biologist who also happens to be Suzuki’s daughter.
“I’m just thrilled and excited because they’re gonna add a very different dimension to it. And now I can get back to what is really my most important job, which is being a full on grandfather.”
In fact, David Suzuki — who was in Toronto on Monday to be fêted at the CBC building for his incredible four-plus decades of educating Canadians while raising the alarm about climate change years before most people cared to listen — is being a little modest. He isn’t ready to hang up his activism and environmentalist hats just yet. But, more on that later.
To hear his voice soar with love for the grandkids he spends much of his time with now — an eight-year-old grandson and his siblings, twins (a boy and girl) who are five going on six — is to understand why he’s devoted decades fighting for the environment, enduring everything from public condemnation to bullets fired through the window of his Vancouver home.
Suzuki recounts games of soccer played with the little ones in the living room — “I’m just not as mobile as I used to be but I love them including me so I’ll stand there and be the goalie and kick the ball now and then” — and the enthusiasm of the youngsters when they go to the beach or explore in the woods and come running to show him small creatures they find.
“My God, when they catch frogs, it’s just a joy,” he laughs.
But at the same time, Suzuki notes that they ground him, in a sense, to the natural wonders of the world around him — the “nature of things,” if you will — and unknowingly provide him with the motivation he needs to keep working toward saving the planet.
“The thing that I love about that is I’m old and grumpy, and I say, ‘Oh God, they’ve clear cut this forest over here. This river is now polluted.’ But they don’t know that,” he explains. “And when they come back and they tell me, ‘Oh, look, we found the salamander under this log,’ they are discovering the world and it is still amazing. So they give me the energy to say, ‘It’s a wonderful place we live in, and we gotta fight to protect it for their future.’”
David Suzuki Isn’t Finished …
At 87, no one would blame David Suzuki for enjoying a well-earned, relaxing retirement.
Except, perhaps, David Suzuki.
As the saying might go, you can take the man out of the nature show but you can’t take the nature out of the man.
After all, who can retire when there’s a planet in peril? No, there’s still work to be done. But for Suzuki, it’s just not going to get done during a regular weekly time slot on CBC.
On that note, he returns to a point that’s close to his heart, as well as one exhibited in the Indigenous cultures he’s encountered around the world: the important role elders play, or should play, in our society.
Suzuki recounts the peace movement in the ’70s, and notes that “one of the most powerful groups … were retired admirals and generals against nuclear war.” The point is this: when they were working, they had to support nuclear armament. But once they retired, and had no masters to serve or jobs to hold onto, they were free to speak their minds freely about the dangers of nuclear weapons.
It’s a model Suzuki is attempting to replicate in the environmental movement, using retired CEOs and corporate leaders from the oil industry to speak out against the dangers the industry poses to the planet.
“And I think this is our job now,” Suzuki says of elders in general. “We’ve had the excitement and the honour of living a full life. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve suffered failures. We’ve had a few successes. We’ve learned a lot. And our job now is to tell the young ones what the hell we’ve learned.”
He adds, with a laugh, “And so I think that I’ve just changed jobs. My job now is to be a full-time grandpa, but also an elder who can tell the truth.”
Of course, these are polarizing times and climate change is a divisive topic for some. But that’s all old hat for Suzuki. He’s used to catching flack for standing up for the environment or encountering a wall of apathy when trying to raise the alarm over climate change.
He remembers, for example, meeting “my hero in nature shows,” and fellow “David,” David Attenborough, in the ’90s, when the other David came to Toronto on a book tour. Even more incredible — when Suzuki met him in the line to get his book signed, he discovered that Attenborough knew of him and The Nature of Things.
“So we chatted and I said ‘You know, a lot of the plants and animals that you show in your programs are probably going to go extinct. They’re endangered. How come you don’t have that in your programs?’ And his answer — this is in the 1990s — it shocked me. He said, ‘Well, whenever we do an environmental show, the audiences drop.’”
The response shook Suzuki, who couldn’t believe the BBC cared about ratings that much.
“Now, if you look at [Attenborough], he has come on really strongly about the environment. But The Nature of Things was in there in the 1980s. We were taking a very strong environmental position.”
However, of all the slings and arrows volleyed at Suzuki, a common one, he notes, is that activists like himself, or Jane Fonda or Attenborough, face accusations of bias and having alternative agendas. But it’s an accusation, Suzuki says, that doesn’t stick to the younger generation of activists like Greta Thunberg.
“Children tell you in very blunt terms, ‘We take science seriously. And the scientists tell us the way we’re going we don’t have a future.’ That was a really powerful impact.”
Suzuki walked with Thunberg at the Montreal portion of the 2019 global march for climate action and recalls apologizing to her for bearing the weight of a future that faces possible climate catastrophe.
He told Thunberg, “‘This shouldn’t be what you do now. Mom and dad have got to be the warriors on your behalf. As a child, you’ve got to be learning about the world and going on dates and finding out what you like and what you don’t like. That’s your job as a youngster.’ But then, of course, I thanked her for doing what she’s doing because she’s pointing out where we’re heading. And nobody can say she has an alternate agenda.”
“I Did the Best I Could”
Our talk inevitably turns back to The Nature of Things. Suzuki credits the show for opening his own eyes to the perils of climate change, noting he was a “light environmentalist” — with a “we just have to be more careful and not pollute and cut down [forests] in a different way” attitude — before taking on the show in 1979.
“Being involved with The Nature of Things, I met people and went to places where I realized, ‘Oh my God, that’s way too shallow a way of looking at it.’ Nature is the very source of the clean air we breathe. It’s the source of the water that we drink … So I’m ever grateful for the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been that have made me see in a much deeper way what the environmental issues really are.”
He says that the most memorable experience he enjoyed while making the series was visiting the Amazon and meeting its Indigenous people and seeing the battle to preserve the ecosystem there. But he also recalls a passage about the Amazon from a 2021 book by Mark Carney, the former governor of the banks of Canada and England, called Values: Building a Better World For All, that stunned him.
“He said, Amazon, the company that Jeff Bezos has created, is valued in the economy in the hundreds of billions of dollars,” Suzuki explains. “But Amazon, the rainforest, that is the greatest ecosystem on the planet, has no value in the economy until it’s logged or mined or burned and damned and flooded, or you build houses and cities. Until humans come and destroy the Amazon, it has no economic value. Now, that blows me away.”
Which makes shows like The Nature of Things — that speak up and defend against the degradation of the environment — even more important.
The series already enjoys rarified air in terms of longevity. At 44 years and counting, it’s up there with other non-scripted television institutions like 20/20, Nightline and the PBS series This Old House.
Suzuki thanks two groups — the CBC and the television viewers — for the success and longevity of the series.
“[The CBC] were under pressure over and over again to get me off the air, and they hung in with me. But, the other thing is the audience. If we didn’t have the audience there The Nature of Things would’ve been cut a long time ago … So I’m just ever grateful to the Canadian public that allowed the CBC to keep us going all these years.”
Going forward, in a society where science increasingly finds itself under attack, Suzuki believes the audience engagement will continue to be the key to success for The Nature of Things.
And as for himself, he’ll keep kicking the soccer ball around and exploring the natural world with the grandkids, all while continuing to galvanize the public — and elders like himself — to save the planet for those future generations.
“I did my job. I did the best I could and it’s good that people feel that that was a life well served. And I’m grateful for that. But I was just one person out of eight billion people. I just was fortunate in having television as an agenda,” Suzuki says.
And then, as you might expect from the tireless eco-warrior, he adds, “So the job goes on.”