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Author and journalist

David Suzuki profile, Books in Canada

Cover, October 1989

One of the really shocking things about environmentalists, says David Suzuki, is that they’re so busy saving the world they don’t have any time to spend in nature

WHEN HE APPEARS on television somebody must comb his hair with a rake in order to tame it. In person, David Suzuki may be sitting in a restaurant drinking a beer and tossing back a few shrimp, but his hair is threatening to leave the room. His fellow CBC broadcaster Larry Zolf and some of the longerhaired employees of Maclean’s magazine are also frequent patrons at this downtown Toronto pub, observing some unknown tress code for journalists.

Normal conversation is drowned out by the clink of glasses and the occasional argument. But when Suzuki begins gently to put forth his opinions on off?shore oil spills, with words I won’t repeat here, it becomes evident that in person he is a man without a volume control. Everyone around the room stops their own conversation to listen.

What he says ? volubly in person, in print for his newspaper columns for the Southam chain, and on the airwaves for his CBC television program “The Nature of Things” ? can inspire or annoy, depending upon his listener. A logging company executive is annoyed for obvious reasons ? Suzuki rejects the Western concept of progress (and the resulting profit). A scientist may share a little professional pride but then complains that Suzuki has espoused an advocacy forbidden to academe and no longer deserves to call himself a scientist. An editor says he talks too much about the environment and too little about more cheerful high?technology subjects.

For the ordinary person the voice of Suzuki in his newspaper columns is the conscience of a weekend’s reading. Collected and published last month in Inventing the Future (Stoddart/General), they tell us in energetic prose why children should be allowed to play with snakes and worms, why the Ontario Blue Box program of recycling is a farce (they’re stockpiling the glass and newspapers, he says, and he’s right), whether food irradiation is perfectly safe (he’s dubious), whether genetic discoveries might lead some day to parents tampering with their children’s appearance. His passion and his righteousness always make for a more thoughtful morning amid the cornflakes and the comics. Sometimes, though, it is enough to make the average cottage?industrial polluter say, Hold on ?who. gave you all this authority?

There are even times when Suzuki doesn’t even have to say anything to attract criticism. “I saw David Suzuki in the supermarket a while ago,” a Toronto lawyer confided recently. “He had half a barbecued chicken and some boxes of macaroni and cheese in his basket. I was very disappointed.”

BEFORE he began his second career as a broadcaster, David Takayoshi Suzuki was a top?flight geneticist, the recipient of the Steacie Memorial Fellowship in 1969 as Canada’s best scientist under the age of 40. His work in those days at the University of British Columbia explored mutations in fruit flies. His team of researchers uncovered the first temperature?sensitive paralysis in the fruit fly, a discovery that would prove useful for studying nerve and muscle defects A along the evolutionary chain. The fact that an insect ?could be paralysed or mobile depending on the heat only emphasized to Suzuki just how much environment links with heredity to affect a living being.

He had already seen the effects of heredity when he was only six. In 1942 his second?generation British Columbian family was stripped of its assets, split up, and sent to internment camps for having Japanese genes while Japan was an enemy country.

Suzuki was a very bright little boy’ who worshipped his father, a colourful, brilliant man of many jobs whose impulsive ideas occasionally landed the family in debt. Father and son went camping and fishing when David was a toddler, and he learned to stand still when a bear crossed his path and to bait his hook with morning grasshoppers. To outdoorsman Carr Suzuki, the sun rose and set on his son, although he occasionally called David an “educated fool” when his textbook knowledge proved useless in the wild. Suzuki also had three sisters culturally trained to tend to his every need, who filled his rice bowl almost as soon as he could lift it in the air. His home life contrasted deeply with the world around him, with neighbourhood children who called him a Jap and a government that, for several months, took his father away. The competing din?of two inner voices saying together, “you are the apple of my eye,” and “you are a second?class citizen,” has shaped his personality and fuelled his ambition over the years. It’s as if he never knows which voice will wake him up in the middle of the night.

Suzuki excelled in the gentlemanly world of university science, where one’s masculinity. is equivalent to the size of one’s grant and one’s self?worth increases with the number of papers published. He remembers being devastated when a female microbiologist got a bigger grant than he had. And he still periodically wishes he were back in the genetics lab, dissecting fruit flies. “All those years of training,” he laughs. ‘They say, ‘I want to publish a paper! I want to say I’m a scientist, goddammit!’ God, we sure take ourselves seriously.” He confesses a slight envy of his brother?in?law Pieter Cullis, a biochemistry professor at his old university and one who has achieved the academic stature Suzuki chose not to seek. Cullis, for his part, merely scoffs. “David is totally’ unique,” he says. “Mere are an awful lot of people, like deans and managers, going around calling themselves scientists. He’s more tuned in to what’s going on in science than 95 per cent of the scientists I know.”

‘Me highlight of Suzuki’s academic life was neither his scientific discoveries nor the respect he was accorded by his colleagues upon winning the Steacie, but the year he was granted tenure.

“Tenure to me was insurance that we could speak out on issues that mattered without fear of political reprisal,” he says. “Tenure made me the person I am. When I look at my colleagues who have tenure and regard it simply as a guarantee of a job for the rest of their lives, who will not speak out not for fear of losing their lives or their livelihood, but for their grants and promotions ? I simply have no sympathy.”

In 1969 Suzuki was filmed by a Vancouver CBC producer talking genetics with a friend from Rockefeller University. Dressed in the academic uniform of the day, bell?bottoms and a wildly patterned shirt, Suzuki was so interested in the ideas he was discussing he forgot to be self?conscious in front of the camera. The producer’s idea for a regular science show was approved by the CBC executive Knowlton Nash, and “Suzuki on Science” was launched with a $1,600 budget and with Sunday afternoon football games for its television neighbours. Unknown to Suzuki, the producer of “The Nature. of Things,” Jim Murray, was watching this tiny source of competition, and after the program died he asked Suzuki to host “Science Magazine,” a halfhour digest of contemporary news about science. The association proved mutually beneficial and in 1978, when “Science Magazine” was combined with “The Nature of Things” in a onehour format, Suzuki was again called upon to be the host. He had also done a few years on radio with “Quirks and Quarks,” a science program that was moved to a Saturday prime?time slot based on the audience numbers Suzuki drew in.

The success of the man as a sort of shaman of science has been unprecedented in any other field in Canada, and now he is often accosted by strangers in restaurants or on the street, people who want to enjoy in person the warmth they feel from him on television. They are sometimes surprised by the chill of their reception by a man who admits he enjoys being liked. “If you establish eye contact, you pay an enormous price,” he says. “People immediately feel they can dive right in and grab you ? and they all want something.” He does not suffer followers easily.

“In retrospect,” he reflects, “it’s stupid not to have realized that what people saw was me giving them the message. I say, This is what has to be done. Now go and do it.’ They say, ‘No, you do it and show us the way.'”

At about the same time he metamorphosed from research scientist to scientific broadcaster, Suzuki met and married his second wife, Tara Cullis, an English scholar and committed feminist, and emerged from a second chrysalis. He had been married once before, to a Japanese?Canadian high school sweetheart who finally asked him to choose between his marriage and his research. He spent so much time at his University of British Columbia laboratory it took his three children a year to realize that their father had moved out of the house.

Early in his marriage to Cullis, Suzuki tossed off one of the derogatory comments about whites that had become a convenient weapon with which to stab liberal consciences. “‘You white people, you’ll never understand what I’ve been through,”‘ he recalls saying. “Rather than being cowed by it and pulling back, she immediately said, ‘How dare you say that? I as a woman have been through things . . .’ And she launched into this attack that said essentially just because you’re the victim of racism doesn’t mean you can’t be as bigoted as anyone else. That for me was a real turning point.”

The favoured son who once held out his rice bowl to be refilled by his mother and sisters learned to scrub floors and wash clothes. They had two children while Cullis earned her Ph.D. and accepted a faculty position at Harvard University. Suzuki learned to look at the world around him from a participating father’s ? and a woman’s ? point of view’.

“Women are concerned about their children’s lives,” he says when speaking about environmental issues. “Men are concerned about the immediate bottom line, which is success, power, and profit. Women know goddamn well that we’re talking about? our children’s future.” Cullis has also been active in environmental causes, from fund?raising for Brazilian natives looking to save their rain forests to political activism on behalf of the South Moresby area of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Suzuki’s third career as an environmentalist is one where he has allowed his emotions to come to the surface. He has wept at video screenings showing research animals maltreated at an American biomedical institute. He let himself be fired from the Globe and Mail for harping on environmental causes when he had never been fired before in his life and still feels wounded by the experience. There is a feminist saying that as a man grows older, he becomes more conservative, but as a woman grows older, she becomes more radical. Suzuki chooses to swim against the tide of gender. In speaking of the issues he tackles, he says,

“There are many times when I feel I don’t want to do it, I’m afraid. It’s my wife and family that make me do it. Tara is the big figure in my life.”

He notes that the really powerful people in environmental groups are almost always women. “What has really excited me,” he says, “is that in the feminist perspective it is something far more profound than just a civil rights issue. It has to do with the whole thing of Mother Earth.”

David Suzuki is a cottage?industrial polluter just like his audience. An advocate of limited population growth, he is the father of five children. A devotee of recycling, he sometimes has to be brought up short by his wife when it’s late at night and he would rather go to bed than wash any more plastic bags. An opponent of excessive fuel waste, he regularly criss?crosses the continent on airplanes. He admits all these weaknesses. “The great claim is ‘ that we are rational human beings,” he says. “I think we are rationalizers.”

On the other hand, he drives a 10year?old car in Vancouver and takes local transit when he’s in Toronto. He wears clothing that he wore in high school, partly, he admits, out of a distaste for fashion. The children in his family were diapered with cloth while they were young. And he donates his book royalties and speaker’s fees to environmental and aboriginal causes. Still, Suzuki admits, “I am not a living example of what a truly environmentally proper person would do. Every environmentalist I know is struggling with this reality.” His words are, to some, proof that he shouldn’t be occupying any pedestal as the guru of Canadian environmentalism, a pedestal they probably set up for him. The environmental field is littered with stones and broken glass.

The people Suzuki does respect as environmentally proper tend not to be back?to?the?land recluses but aboriginals who hunt and trap for a living, and see themselves as intrinsically linked to the world around them. “I interviewed a Haida carver in the Queen Charlotte Islands,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Look, what difference does it make to you if they cut those trees down? You’ve got a job, you’ve got a house, you’re not going to die.’ And he said, ‘Well, then I’ll be just like everybody else.’ What made him unique was the existence of those woods and the salmon and the whale and all of those things. Sure, you could kill them and he would survive, but then he would be just like everybody else. I absolutely believe they have a different sense of connection with the natural world.”

It is a sense of connection that Suzuki and Cullis have learned to feel themselves. He moves his hands in the air as he tries to explain. “Many native people speak of the Creator whatever are the forces that led us to being here ? the Creator who made the plants and animals to. be our brothers and sisters,” he says. “Our very identity, the very meaning of our existence, resides in all of the other creatures of which we are a part.” It constitutes a leap of faith for someone who considers himself a devout atheist. He still considers spirituality “ultimately a creation of the human brain. That doesn’t diminish it in any way ? it’s very real and very powerful. I have found a sense of connection that is real to us.”

When Suzuki and his colleagues were researching the environmental series “A Planet for the Taking,” they rejected the idea of offering a prescrition for environmental survival, but he has decided that some kind of foundation needs to be established to offer solutions towards the kind of society that lives in harmony with its environment. ‘Mere’s got to be a really profound change,” he says, and muses about the resulting problems. “How, for example, do we maintain employment? What kind of an economy are we talking about? Can I go out and buy kiwi fruit in the winter ? I don’t think we can. If we have 10 years in which we can deflect ourselves in a really significant way from. the path we’re on, how do we do it without, essentially, getting a dictatorship?”

The kind of politicians he admires for this kind of job, like Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader and United Nations ambassador, aren’t running for public office. Nor is he. At one time during the brief Joe Clark administration Suzuki was offered the presidency of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and was on the point of accepting when the government fell. He calls himself a “terrible administrator” and notes, “Politics would absolutely destroy me. I always wanted everybody to like me.”

The foundation would have another’ purpose: to free David Suzuki to spend more time among his family and friends. Both family and friends doubt that he will be able to stop saying yes to every interesting project that comes along, but he insists he will. “One of the really shocking things about environmentalists is that we’re so busy saving the world we don’t spend very much time in nature.” He and Cullis used the proceeds from a Royal Bank award several years ago to purchase a piece of property in the Queen Charlotte Islands. They call it Tangwyn, a Welsh name that he says means “blessed peace.”

For a man who left the university a long time ago, he still lives his life as if some invisible body had granted him tenure. “Now my father, he was totally irresponsible,” he says. “He was always excited by a new idea. He wasted money, he got us into trouble. But there was something about that quality ? of always being excited by a new project and being willing to take a chance ? that I’ve loved. I look at my colleagues who are locked up in mortgages and getting braces for their kids’ teeth and all these other things and ? Jesus, they just don’t want to take a risk. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I wouldn’t want to put everything on the line because of something important to me.”

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