By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
In the world of science, environmental activist and TV personality David Suzuki has risen to the top as one of its superstars. Since the launch of his award-winning science program (“The Nature of Things”), he has been well-known by science and nature enthusiasts all around the world. Formally trained in biology and zoology, Suzuki quickly found a niche for himself as a broadcaster of science programs on TV and radio. And he has used this as a platform to talk about the importance of science and environmental protection. Over the years, his passion for the environment and the natural world has caused him to become increasingly vocal about the issue on his programs. In his efforts to raise awareness, he has hosted documentaries, written books, and taken to the streets to march for greater environmental protections.
In addition to winning many awards for his programs and his books, Suzuki founded the David Suzuki Foundation, an organization committed to combatting climate change and exploring the different ways in which people can live in harmony with nature. Today, at the age of 81, Suzuki continues to advocate for the protection of the environment and wildlife. Although he has some concerns, he remains hopeful about our future and about the great unlocked potential of human nature.
“Change is never easy, and it often creates discord. But when people come together for the good of humanity and the Earth, we can accomplish great things.” – David Suzuki
IN THE SHADOW OF WAR
David Takayoshi Suzuki was born on March 24, 1936, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He and his three sisters, including a twin named Marcia, are the children of Japanese-Canadians Kaoru Carr Suzuki and Setsu Nakamura, owners of a dry cleaning business. Although it was a close and loving family, they were torn apart in 1942 when they were sent to Japanese internment camps because of Japan’s involvement with the Axis powers during World War 2.
After the family’s business was seized and sold by the Canadian government, Suzuki’s father was separated from the family and shipped to a labor camp. At the same time, the young David Suzuki (just 6 years old) and his mother and sisters were sent to a camp at Slocan in British Columbia. Overall, conditions were stark and austere, with very little privacy. Like most interned families, the Suzukis were frightened, confused, and anxious. Of course, when the war ended in 1945, they were all released and brought back together again. But it was an experience they would never forget. And like so many other families of Japanese descent, they were forced to relocate east of the Rockies. After living in Islington, Leamington, for a while, they eventually settled down in London, Ontario.
Despite the drama of his early years, David Suzuki was an excellent student, and he did well in school. At the London Central Secondary School, where he attended after internment, he was chosen to be Students Council President by popular vote. From his earliest years, it was clear he had an aptitude for science. At the same time, it was during his childhood years that David developed a deep appreciation for the natural world, thanks to the efforts of his father. These early experiences sparked an interest in both nature and science that would stay with him throughout his entire life.
A PASSION FOR SCIENCE AND NATURE
After graduating secondary school, David Suzuki left home to pursue a college degree in the United States. At first, he went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he received his Bachelor’s degree in biology in 1958. But his growing fascination with science compelled him to continue his studies, and from there he went on to study at the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in zoology in 1961, becoming a geneticist. Since then, he has held several teaching positions in his career from 1962 until his retirement in 2001, including assistant professor at the University of Alberta and as professor of genetics for forty years at the University of British Columbia.
Suzuki’s passion for science led to him wanting to share it with others. He created a weekly science show called “Suzuki on Science,” which was picked up by CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and debuted on TV in 1970. The show was a success, and several years later, in 1974, he founded a radio program called “Quirks and Quarks,” which he hosted from 1975 to 1979. He also hosted another weekly radio program specifically geared towards adults, “Science Magazine.”
But his most famous contribution to science programs was when he was asked to host a weekly TV program called “The Nature of Things,” a popular nature program that debuted in 1960 and was still airing in fifty countries. As the new host of this established program, Suzuki made it his primary mission to inspire in viewers an interest in the natural world, as well as to point out the harm humans were causing it. He hoped that by doing so, he would encourage people to take action to protect nature and learn to live more in harmony with it.
“I can’t imagine anything more important than air, water, soil, energy and biodiversity,” says Suzuki. “These are the things that keep us alive.”
David Suzuki went on to host other science programs, including “A Planet for the Taking” (1985), which earned him a United Nations Environment Program Medal, PBS’s “The Secret of Life (1993), and “The Suzuki Diaries” (2008), which he created and hosted along with his daughter. But throughout the years, his growing concern about the harm being done to the environment and the loss of the natural world dominated these programs more and more. The challenge of addressing and correcting climate change, in particular, became a primary focus for Suzuki as he came to realize that it was the single most important issue facing humankind today.
“We are upsetting the atmosphere upon which all life depends,” says Suzuki. “In the late 80s when I began to take climate change seriously, we referred to global warming as a ‘slow motion catastrophe’ one we expected to kick in perhaps generations later. Instead, the signs of change have accelerated alarmingly.”
STANDING UP FOR THE CLIMATE
Ever since the mid-1980s, Suzuki’s activism against climate change has been in high-gear. Beginning with his program, “A Planet for the Taking,” he has been vocally advocating for everyone, citizens, politicians, industry and businesses alike, to do their part in helping to minimize fossil fuel use and curb this dangerous phenomenon. “Scientists have been warning about global warming for decades,” says Suzuki. “It’s too late to stop it now, but we can lessen its severity and impacts.”
Determined to make a difference, Suzuki established The David Suzuki Foundation in 1990, hoping to influence people in a positive way. The DSF, a non-profit organization promoting solutions to environmental problems, cemented his reputation as one of Canada’s most recognizable and outspoken environmentalists. Through the Foundation, David Suzuki has travelled around the world to give lectures on the subject and encourage people to make changes in their lives to help offset the effects of climate change. However, realizing that all of that traveling has increased his carbon footprint (the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases your daily activities releases into the atmosphere), Suzuki has decided to reduce these events significantly.
In 2007, David Suzuki attended the “Global Day of Action,” held in Vancouver, B.C. The organized event was a public rally created to draw attention to the growing threat of climate change and to inspire elected officials to take action. As a key speaker at the event, Suzuki urged the government to meet its responsibilities and warned of the dangers of ignoring this increasingly destructive and dangerous phenomenon.
In February of 2008, while visiting McGill University, Suzuki urged the students to speak out against politicians who failed to act on climate change, saying, “What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there’s a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail, because what they’re doing is a criminal act.”
As a staunch defender of the natural world, Suzuki has written countless books and spoken abundantly about the need to respect and reconnect with nature. According to Suzuki, it is this deep disconnect that most people have that allows us to wantonly destroy the natural world without giving it any thought. Luckily, as he has pointed out, many people are starting to change course and are making efforts to curb their negative impact on the environment. As he wrote in a recent article for the Huffington Post, “There’s a hint of hope. The scientists note that co-operative government actions resulted in a ‘rapid global decline in ozone-depleting substances,’ and that global poverty and hunger rates have dropped. Investing in education for girls and women has contributed to falling birth rates in many regions, deforestation has been reduced in some countries and the renewable-energy sector has been growing rapidly. We can make positive changes if we co-operate, but it will take action from all of humanity.”
Now approaching his 82nd birthday, there is one question that David Suzuki keeps asking himself: What kind of planet am I going to leave my grandchildren? As the father of five and a grandfather to six, he wonders if we will do enough in time to curb climate change and help protect the natural world. In 2014, he launched the Blue Dot Tour, a 20-event campaign to bring attention to the fact that Canada does not officially recognize the right to live in a healthy environment, unlike over 110 other countries around the world. With the help of celebrities, including author Margaret Atwood and musician Neil Young, the tour’s goal was to promote the inclusion of this right in the “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.” The solutions are there, he argues. “We just need the will to act together to bring about change.”
Suzuki was deeply critical of U.S. President Trump for pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, a global arrangement that Suzuki called, “the best deal the planet has ever seen.”
Recently, CBC Life (a Canadian news program offering opinions and ideas) interviewed Suzuki, whom they call the Earth’s biggest champion. They asked him for solutions to some of the planet’s great environmental challenges. And they wondered if he thinks we’re doing anything right at all.
Suzuki’s answer was mixed, but he acknowledge the tremendous power humans have to help protect the planet: At the same time, he emphasized that the need for urgent action is right now. According to Suzuki, our survival as a species depends on what we do in the next few years. While there are many innovative ideas being discussed, there is a dire need for focused, coordinated, and co-operative action – in order for us to avert planet-wide catastrophe and reign in the effects of climate change. And while there are millions around the planet who are ready to take action, Suzuki has serious issues with two of the most powerful groups: politicians and corporations. Instead of being the leaders they ought to be, they are far too often wrapped up in their own greed and self-interest, according to Suzuki. And this fuels some of his more pessimistic feelings about the current crisis.
Despite his misgivings, however, David Suzuki does feel that we are getting some things right. For instance, while the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement last year, every other country on Earth signed on and is doing their part. With their combined and concerted efforts, we may see real progress in the years ahead. Many countries in both Europe and Asia, he points out, are embracing and aggressively moving forward with renewable energy. In addition, many U.S. states and cities, in defiance of President Trump’s fossil fuel-based agenda, are doing all they can to combat climate change – with many local governments embracing green energy sources, such as the sun and wind.
Globally, the carbon taxes that some countries employ is also helping to discourages the use of fossil fuels. The transition to renewable energy is a fact that is happening day-by-day, year-by-year, and is helping to set things right. In every detail, right down to the greening of buildings, how we eat, and the clothing we wear, there is a potential solution, Suzuki insists. In that sense, the opportunities are everywhere. What we need, he says, is for people to “embrace the concept of sustainability” – the notion that whatever we create, must be something we can maintain over time. It is a challenge for us to live beyond the current moment and think more about the future.
After a lifetime of learning and teaching science, a lifetime of lecturing and promoting the importance of respecting nature and fighting to protect its beauty, David Suzuki says he is at peace with his life in his old age. He has spent his life doing what he felt (and still feels) is important and meaningful work. Over the past 50 years, he has worked hard to change attitudes worldwide. And he is continually pushing our leaders to build a better future for our children and the animals and wildlife we share this planet with. Indeed, his goal to help protect the very planet itself: Earth, our only home.
“Do whatever it is you love to do,” says Suzuki, “but do it through the lens of environmentalism.”