David Suzuki has such boundless energy, and his place in the Canadian firmament so fixed, that audiences were surprised in October to learn that he was retiring from his CBC series. The nature of things. Even though he is 86 years old. Even if he has been hosting it for 43 years, literally half of his life.
Suzuki formed “a close bond with nature” at the age of six, forced with his family into an internment camp in British Columbia during World War II. A third-generation Canadian, he spoke no Japanese, and when Japanese-speaking children bullied him, he found solace “deep in the bush,” he said in a recent video interview from his couch. of the show in Vancouver. He wore a zip-up gray fleece and was very alert, even though it was 7 a.m. “This area is now Valhalla Provincial Park, one of the most beautiful areas in British Columbia”
He has spent his life communicating his respect for nature and fighting to protect it. He was an early warning system for the climate emergency – he just released a 25th anniversary edition of his bestseller The Sacred Balance, which advocates systemic change in the way humans live on Earth. In 1990, he co-founded the David Suzuki Foundation, which supports multiple actions and organizations in the fields of climate, clean energy and sustainable development. And even if the environmental crisis is worse than ever – “I have moments where I literally cry”, he admits – he will not give in to despair. “It’s a luxury we can’t afford,” he says. “Without action, there is no hope.” Here are the highlights of our hour-long conversation.
Johanna Schneller: You received the Order of Canada from a country that once imprisoned you. How to reconcile this?
David Suzuki: I have always had an instinctive reaction against bigotry. When the victims of racism become bigots themselves, racism wins out. Look at Kanye West now, his anti-Semitism, he is an illustration of that. It’s tragic.
JS: After the war, inmates had a choice: take a one-way ticket to Japan or leave British Columbia. Your grandparents took the ticket. Your immediate family moved to Ontario and eventually settled in London.
DS: My mother’s parents were dumped in Hiroshima, and both died within a year. My parents said, “The way out of our poverty is to work twice as hard as any white man. And educate yourself. Fortunately, working twice as hard as white people was not difficult – we produced our own food and we still had jobs – and school was easy for me. The hardest part was puberty. For me, asking a white girl out was too much of a hassle. But in London there were 10 Japanese Canadian girls and three of them were my sisters. So it was difficult. [Laughs]
JS: A confluence of events led to your career. Your father signed you up for public speaking contests, to hone your speaking skills. While you were doing your PhD at the University of Chicago, the United States was throwing money at scientists to compete in the space race with the USSR. In 1961, you accepted a job at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, birthplace of the atomic bomb, to do genetic research on fruit flies. Why did you come back to Canada?
DS: Oak Ridge was north of the Mason/Dixon line, but it was isolated. My best friend there, my research associate Ruby, was black, and she couldn’t go to restaurants, the laundromat, the movies. As she walked down the street, she would automatically step aside for a white person. For a while, I became virulently anti-white. Americans also evaluated everything in terms of money, and I hated that. So even though Canada had me incarcerated, I felt its values were more in line with mine. I loved Tommy Douglas and the NDP – in the US they would have been branded Commies. I loved the National Film Board, the CBC. So I took a job at the University of Alberta.
JS: U of A did a rudimentary TV series with local CBC in Edmonton, Your university speaks. They asked you to do a show about your specialty, genetics.
DS: I ended up doing eight episodes. That same year 1962, a woman changed my life: Rachel Carson published silent spring. I read it like this [hands on mouth in shock]. The guy who discovered that DDT kills insects won a Nobel Prize, but nobody knew it would biomagnify through the food chain and concentrate in the breasts of women and the glands in the shells of birds. I was studying fruit flies, but I didn’t care – I called them flying bags of chromosomes. I realized that a flaw of scientific research was its narrow focus. I started thinking about the wider implications of what we were doing.
JS: You have become an ecologist. Now you say the move failed. Why?
DS: Because we haven’t changed our perspective. In the early years, I thought our problem was, “Humans take too much and produce too much waste.” We thought the answer was regulation. And we have won small victories. We fought against a dam on the Peace River in the 1970s and on the Xingu River in the 1980s. But guess what? These roadblocks are now almost complete, because the mood has not changed. We need to realize that there is no environment “out there” to regulate. We are the environment. It’s in us – it’s us. We need to change the relationship we have with the world. Nature is not a pyramid, with humans at the top. Nature is a canvas, and we are only a strand.
JS: What do you think of recent guerrilla militancy, young people throwing soup and mash on famous paintings?
DS: It’s a brilliant way to show how we have a contradictory and twisted value system. The paintings are protected by glass. Meanwhile, industries are coating the oceans with layers of oil, and no one is expressing such a level of outrage. The children are increasingly desperate because their future is in jeopardy.
JS: What change can a reader make now?
DS: Get politically involved at all levels of government and demand that climate change be the number one issue. Look what we did during COVID. The government has found billions of dollars for this emergency. We must think of our children and grandchildren and be warriors on their behalf.
JS: So you are not withdrawing from activism.
DS: Nope! This is the most important step of my life. I made a lot of mistakes, I had some successes, I learned a lot. All elders, for God’s sake, collect your values! Sift through your life for important lessons and begin to trumpet them for the generation to come so they don’t repeat our mistakes.
JS: What do you expect The nature of things done after you left?
DS: I am so grateful that the CBC and the viewers supported me, because we discussed the issues of big pharma, tobacco, logging and fossil fuels, and we got hammered over and over again. There were always screams to fire me. We have always been accused of being biased. And we were – we were biased saying, “Nature should be the priority. I hope they don’t lose that perspective, water it down by saying things like, “Jobs are important too.
JS: What are you most proud of?
DS: I did a podcast with Jane Fonda last year, and I asked her how she had the strength to prevail when everyone was attacking her for protesting the Vietnam War. She said a profound thing. She said: “I never felt alone. There were always people supporting me and guiding me. She is absolutely right. It would be a terrible vanity for me to think that I was critical. I was part of a movement and I’m proud of it. If my six grandchildren are by my side as I die, I want to be able to tell them, “I did my best. It’s my greatest pride: I tried.