The Nature of David Suzuki

November 1, 2007

By Chris Cannon

The church pews creak and groan from the weight of the sinners. Hundreds of bodies cram the room to capacity, seeking a more practical salvation than the venue usually provides. This is God’s house, but David Suzuki-freakishly deific in the early-morning light streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows-has borrowed it for a revival of his own. Even the students on a field trip stare raptly from the mezzanine. Flash photography is not allowed, but the click and whir of shutters creates a barely audible white noise, and every few minutes a cellphone pokes its head above the audience, like a harbour seal surfacing, for a shot of nature’s minister.

It’s February 26, Day 27 of the Suzuki Foundation’s “If You Were Prime Minister” tour, a month-long, coast-to-coast bus ride through 41 Canadian communities to spread the environmental gospel. This morning event in Surrey-one of three scheduled for the chilly day-finds Suzuki remarkably spry for a 71-year-old man who’s spent the past month living on a bus. His well-rehearsed speech is effortless but passionate. When it’s over, he can barely navigate the throngs of grateful fans who block his escape. At a sushi lunch before the afternoon event, in New Westminster, he jokes with his staff about the “close call” early in the tour when he almost didn’t get a standing ovation. Later that evening, his routine at the Stanley Theatre on Granville elicits a salvo of women’s panties from the front row.

To call Suzuki a rock star may be a bit hammy-the night of the panty barrage his wife and daughter were in the audience and Raffi joined him onstage for a less-than-Zeppelin tune-but the metaphor is often applied to his public appearances. Despite his age, Suzuki retains a boundless energy and a physique Robert Plant would have envied in his heyday. Besides, his lyrics are a whole lot easier to understand.

“If I have any talent, I thank my father for it,” Suzuki says, explaining how he managed to sell out every show on his bus tour. “When I was a kid, my dad would come home from work, and after dinner he’d say, ‘What did you learn today?’ And I’d have to explain. If he didn’t understand it, he’d say, ‘What are you talking about? Tell me in a way I can understand. I love you, I’m interested, but if I don’t understand it, it’s not my fault, it’s your fault.’ And he’d make me explain so that he understood it. If I have any talent, it’s that I can take arcane stuff and try to find a way to make it not only accessible but exciting.”

As the planet begins to face up to the complex topic of global warming, accessible and exciting presentations are in short supply. Neither adjective applies to this year’s damning series of reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-the watered-down cornerstone of the current discussion-and most of us get our information in pre-chewed, easily digestible chunks that lack real nutrition, such as the Time magazine cover story that opened with the Pulitzer-worthy line: “Climate change is caused by a lot of things, and it will take a lot of people to fix it.”

I, for one, am looking forward to the end of the world. It kind of takes the pressure off. Why concern myself with winning a Nobel prize if my grandkids can’t take it to show and tell? Why bother the cat, who likes to sleep on my un-optioned screenplay that no one will be left to see? Why worry about the fate of a lifetime of scribbled words if they are destined for a lost race, empty messages to an extinct species?

Suzuki doesn’t agree. He thinks we can pull it off. His Foundation’s slogan-“Solutions Are In Our Nature”-reeks of the hope mirrored in the doe eyes of his adoring fans. My own position-“Self-Immolation Is In Our Nature”-not only lacks a clever double entendre, but collapses hope in the face of foregone conclusion. When I utter the word “doomed,” Suzuki’s jaw tenses and he threatens to end the interview. “Then what the hell are you doing here?” he screams. “Get out of the way! Shut up and get out of the way if you believe that!” I would have been stunned had I not seen it before, and, indeed, expected it.

There are really two David Suzukis, and unless you own a coal plant, it’s hard not to admire them both. The first is the engaging, mild-mannered scientist who’s charmed his way into millions of living rooms since 1979 as host of CBC’s long-running The Nature of Things. The second, a fiery, outspoken critic of all things pollutant, is an extension of the first, emerging, Incredible-Hulk-like, when a comment angers him or he senses nature is in pain. The combination of the two has catapulted him into the pantheon of celebrity scientists-Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Noam Chomsky-who draw large crowds of neophytes into their folds, eventually finding voiceover work on The Simpsons or having a species of fruit fly named in their honour.

In the environmental arena, Suzuki’s only rival is the suddenly charming Al Gore, whose Oscar-winning apocalypse doc An Inconvenient Truth helped move the discussion off the internet into mainstream media. When the two met, in the 1980s, Suzuki asked then-Senator Gore how he could help environmentally minded politicians like him. “Don’t look to politicians like me,” Gore told him. “You’ve got to convince the public there is a problem, show them there are solutions, and then get them to care enough to demand action. Then every politician will jump on the bandwagon.”

Suzuki took the message to heart, and in 1990 he established the David Suzuki Foundation, whose mission is to translate the science into solutions-oriented answers for the public. The foundation’s website is a one-stop activities centre for environmental pacifists looking to up their motivation-blogs, podcasts, petitions, and challenges help the uninitiated move the conversation from “What’s happening?” to “How can we fix it?”

Hardly Suzuki’s style to sit behind a desk encoding hyperlinks and signing paychecks, he leaves the day-to-day operations to the foundation’s board and staff, playing the role of spokesman rather than CEO. The arrangement frees him to maintain a tightly choreographed tap dance in the spotlight, whether ambushing Environment Minister John Baird in front of the cameras at Toronto’s Green Living show, serving as guest editor of the Vancouver Sun, or convincing the Calgary Flames to go carbon neutral.

With the foundation serving as his alter ego-providing the science and the public support to reinforce his initiatives-Suzuki’s iconic status as nature’s spokesman has made him the media’s go-to-guy whenever a hurricane devastates a Pacific nation or a tree frog breaks its leg in Bolivia. “Because he’s been in the media so long, he knows how to get his point across effectively,” says filmmaker Kyle Welton, who is producing a documentary about Suzuki’s bus tour. “It’s a two-way street. The media knows what they need and he knows what he needs from the media. They need each other to exist.”

The downside to constant media exposure, of course, is that you are constantly being mediated-that is, at a certain level of saturation, you cease being yourself and become what others represent you to be, which is often an interpretation of someone else’s interpretation. “When you get media response to that media, it gets distorted and distorted,” says Suzuki. “I get letters all the time saying, ‘You’re going on a delegation to China and you’re pushing for’-I don’t know-‘killing the porpoises in the Yangtze River,’ and I think, ‘Where the fuck did this come from?’ But that’s the nature of this world where celebrity is amplified by reports based on other reports.”

The distorted amplification of celebrity, despite its drawbacks, still favours those with a specific message-as the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Unfortunately, those who seek constant publicity make good targets for others trying to generate some buzz of their own. Noble cause notwithstanding, Suzuki has been accused of favouring activism over research, of polluting the environment with his bus tour (even though it was a carbon-neutral venture), and, for those who have approached his Dr. Jekyll but encountered his Mr. Hyde, of just plain being a jerk. Upon encountering Suzuki for the first time, one might be surprised at how quickly his voice can raise and the expletives can fly. “I can see why it would put some people off that he gave them some lip,” says Welton, “because you expect David Suzuki to be almost like a Care Bear. You really do. You go up to David and you want to just give him a hug and be like, ‘You’re the greatest’ and just shake him around-that’s what I want to do when I see him now, I want to give him a hug and shake him around. But he’s a 71-year-old man with his own ideas and he gets it constantly, so I can see why he’d want to push back.”

Day 24 of the bus tour finds a clear Saturday in Calgary. Capacity seating and standing ovations marked the previous day’s breakfast event, and more of the same is expected at this evening’s speech in Edmonton. Between lectures, Suzuki’s schedule is packed with media engagements, ranging from morning shows and an Entertainment Tonight appearance to PR-hobnobs with scientists, politicians, hockey players, and Barenaked Ladies. This sunny morning finds him strolling down a Calgary side street on the way to a radio interview, his tour assistant Teresa and cameraman Kyle in tow. The occasional driver breaks to gawk, recognizing Suzuki’s Brillo-pad goatee and mischievous smile. A white work van slows. The driver rolls down his window and yells, “Global warming is a scam!” Kyle and Teresa-insulated by the warm receptions they’ve received throughout the tour-are stunned, repeating the phrase quietly to each other to make sure they heard right. Suzuki doesn’t break stride.

He’s been here before. Since the 1970s Suzuki has been vilified by those who question the validity of global warming science. As recently as February, he was taken to task by the National Post in an article championing the environmental views of novelist Michael Crichton, who called global warming “at best unproven and at worst pure fantasy.” The writer, Barbara Kay, dismissed Suzuki’s passionate preaching under the rubric “tantrums by self-appointed prophets.” Even as the evidence of global warming has grown from convincing to downright obvious, he still faces the possibility of verbal assault whenever he steps out in public-a stranger insults him as he works out on a treadmill in Winnipeg; an airline passenger accuses him of being friends with Saddam Hussein as he deplanes in Edmonton; and now, in Calgary, a stranger suggests that global warming is some kind of pyramid scheme.

Annoying, yes, but any talk of global warming is good press, and if it replaces the wolf whistle from van windows, all the better. Ideas without conflict don’t make news-drama is what keeps us glued to the page, screen, and speaker. So if a stranger in Calgary wants to make an ass of himself, Suzuki should be pleased that his message is getting out and global warming is on everybody’s mind.

The problem is, he’s been here before, too. The recent explosion of ecology chatter echoes the mass flirtation with jungle-love awareness of the late 1980s when Brian Mulroney and George Bush Sr. promised to make the environment their priority. “All of that was there in 1988,” says Suzuki. “We’d done a two-hour special on global warming. It was on top of the agenda. Then the fossil-fuel industry began to pour millions of dollars into a campaign of disinformation. They created the skeptics. They called global warming ‘junk science.’ And they were very successful.” With the global recession at the turn of the 1990s, voters’ attention turned to jobs and the economy, and the innocent flirting with environmentalism became a summer-camp crush rather than a full-blown love affair. “The thing that makes me mad,” Suzuki says, “is that it’s taken us 20 years to get back to where we were 20 years ago.”

So instead of retiring to his cabin in the Gulf Islands and enjoying the fresh, clean air he helped preserve, Suzuki is spending his sunset years watching a harrowing race to save our sorry butts from total annihilation. In LANE ONE we have the ecological tipping point for worldwide environmental collapse. Some climatologists believe this to be the increase in global temperature of a mere two degrees Celcius (only decades away by most estimates). In LANE TWO we have the behavioural tipping point, where human beings move beyond the will to simply recycle and get regular tune-ups, and accept that they are so far behind in the race that only a mass rethinking of how we live will allow us to overtake the exponential perversion of the environment.

So which will come first-the plankton disappearing from the ocean and wiping out everything higher on the food chain, or a major government finally caving to pressure and enacting legislation that will bring about more than token change? Once tipping points are reached, things happen quickly-the gradual, positive changes the environmental movement is bringing about is being exponentially outpaced by climate change. Fifty years ago, global warming was easily avoidable. Fifty years from now, it will be impossible to stop. Unfortunately, it is in our nature to lag behind, assume we can sprint when need be, and not realize that our opponent is pulling away. We assume we can catch up once the finish line is in sight, but God bless us, we’re just not that fast.

“This is a sad time to depart from this life,” Suzuki writes in his 2006 autobiography. “[T]he once unthinkable, the coming extinction of our own species, is actually conceivable. Our trajectory to dominance of the planet has been spectacular, but we have not fully comprehended the price of that success. It has been my lot to be a Cassandra or Chicken Little, warning about imminent disaster, but it gives me no satisfaction at all to think my concerns may be validated by my grandchildren’s generation.”

It’s a rare moment of despair for Suzuki, an admission of potential failure from the environment’s bubbliest cheerleader. Through the 1980s Suzuki cut a figure like Atlas, pinching the world between his shoulder blades at the cost of family and leisure, believing if he relaxed for a second it would all come crashing down. But at the height of anguish, he looked himself in the mirror and breathed a sigh of relief, reconciling the bare truth of his reflection-that he is only one man.

“All I can do is the best I can do,” he tells me. “I am not carrying the weight of the planet on my shoulders. I’m not going to save the world. My organization is not going to save the world. You asked, are we gonna make it? I have no idea. There are lots of people I know that say we’ve already gone too far. And that, I think, is what you’re expressing. But you can’t ever say that in public because…well, there’s just no point. All I can say is that you operate on hope. There’s nothing scientific about it, but that’s what keeps me going.”

The message echoes the closing words of Al Gore’s documentary: “There are a lot of people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem. We have everything we need, save perhaps political will.” Sadly, the political will of the non-greens seems healthy. Within weeks of Suzuki’s tour, Canada unveiled a distressingly ineffective environment plan, and religious leader Jerry Falwell convinced thousands that global warming is “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus” from from evangelism to environmentalism (a claim he was soon able to verify at the source).

But if Suzuki’s powers of persuasion are lost on conservative leaders, they are doubly validated in the grass-roots ensemble. Thirty thousand well-intentioned souls packed theatres, churches, and school auditoriums on his tour, and another 250,000 tuned in online. Under pressure from their citizens, B.C. leaders picked up the ball dropped by the federal government when they adopted an aggressive new green plan in March. And local writers Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon-who called Suzuki “one of the stars to navigate by”-are helping to foster an international local-food movement with their 100-Mile Diet.

If the medium is the message, and Suzuki is the medium of environmental action, then the message he brings is not information, but passion. “I don’t think there are many people on this planet who are as passionate as David Suzuki,” says Welton, “which is why he’s the champion that he is. He can convey that passion and he’s able to bring that out in others.” Welton gathered 110 hours of Suzuki footage on the bus tour-speaking, eating, sleeping, shaking hands, listening to ideas, walking with large groups, sitting alone with his thoughts. But there was one thing he didn’t glimpse. “I never saw him lose hope.”

On Day 30 of his journey, Suzuki arrives at the finish line by bicycle. An escort of fellow cyclists and bike police surround him, children lining Victoria’s makeshift parade route, screaming his name as if the end of this tour is the end of global warming itself. “Hope is what sustains me,” Suzuki tells the crowd beneath the Terry Fox memorial. “We can never give up hope or stop believing that we can be part of the solution.”

Fox’s shadow looms over Suzuki in more ways than one. Both men took on impossible missions. Both realized the route to success was not a solo journey, but could only be accomplished by inspiring others to action. And while neither will be alive to enjoy the fruits of his labours, both will be remembered as people who made it happen. “It’s a very difficult time to see young people in the world, to know what they’re headed for,” laments Suzuki. “All I want to do is to look my grandchildren in the eye and say, ‘Look, I did the best I could. I tried.’ And if there are enough people trying, you have to hope this will have an effect.”

Since meeting Suzuki, I’ve sold my car, replaced my light bulbs, started a garden, and rekindled a shaky love affair with my bike. I hope my efforts will make a difference. I hope.

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