The first thing that surprises me about David Suzuki is that his office is an epic mess.
Not the kind that takes a day or two to tidy, but rather one that includes layers of clutter that could well date back to Precambrian times – yellow papers, dusty textbooks and, weirdest of all, a life-sized cut-out of Mr. Suzuki himself standing in the corner, surveying the whole sorry state.
It's shocking, of course, because this is the office of a man who has devoted his life to the noble (but perhaps lost) causes of clean air, land and water.
Now, he is leading me away from the mess, down a greyish hallway into a greyish room, where I expect him to discuss these things as he marks a milestone: His 75th birthday.
Instead, he wants to talk about women. He has just heard a radio documentary about how Japanese Canadians are astonishingly unlikely to marry within their culture. That makes Mr. Suzuki an anomaly, because his first wife is Japanese-Canadian.
“That's because after the war, I never had the nerve to date a white girl. Really, we were the enemy,” recalls Mr. Suzuki, a third-generation Japanese Canadian whose family suffered internment in British Columbia during the Second World War.
The government sold his family's dry-cleaning business and sent his father to a labour camp. The Suzukis subsequently relocated to London, Ont.
“When I was a teenager, my dad took me into a room and said, ‘Listen, the only acceptable girl for you is a Japanese girl,'” Mr. Suzuki says.
“I said, ‘Dad, there are only 10 Japanese girls in London and three of them are my sisters.'”
Mr. Suzuki's father said that if his son couldn't find a Japanese bride, he should, in descending order of preference, seek out the following: Chinese, native Indian, black or Jewish.
“Unacceptable was white,” he says. Which is what his second, and current wife, Tara Cullis, happens to be. When he married her in 1972, his father was not pleased. “We'd go out to dinner and he'd say, ‘Your people did this,' and she'd end up weeping. Finally, one night, it was unbearable. ... I went to my dad's place and I said, ‘Listen, just because you've been a victim doesn't give you the right to be a goddamn bigot. You're nothing but a racist.' And he broke down and wept. I'd never seen my dad cry, but that was when he began to heal,” recalls Mr. Suzuki, whose father died at the age of 85.
That's 10 years older than Mr. Suzuki is today (his birthday was on March 24), but he says he has crossed the threshold into the “death zone,” where the obituaries he reads in the newspaper tend to be devoted to those younger than him.
That has him thinking about the inevitable subject of legacy.
Mr. Suzuki started his career as a geneticist in the 1960s, studying fruit flies, and spent the next decade distinguishing himself as a science broadcaster, with the weekly children's show Suzuki on Science, then Quirks and Quarks and, ultimately, The Nature of Things, which has aired in nearly 50 countries around the world. He helped to establish the David Suzuki Foundation in 1990, a non-profit environmental organization.
Today, Mr. Suzuki has become the very thing he claims to loathe: a personality, a face that fronts a cause. “I did not want [the foundation's success to be based on]a cult of personality,” he says. “The foundation has got to go on after I kick the bucket.”
But his popularity as a television personality drew donations. Started during the height of the environmental movement, the foundation seemed to tap into a demand for change.
Even right-wing politicians such George Bush and Margaret Thatcher were claiming to be environmentalists because they felt that the label would win them votes.
The World Watch Institute dubbed the nineties “the turnaround decade.” Mr. Suzuki says the environmental movement had momentum because “there was a feeling that the house was on fire.”
In 10 years, he figured at the time, either the foundation would have been successful or the world would have passed the point of no return. “I never imagined we'd still be around in 20 years,” he says.
He is, and we are. Meanwhile, his foundation – indeed, the environmental movement itself – is facing bigger problems.
After the financial meltdown of 2008, donations to his charity started to flag, and it reduced its staff from about 63 to 55. His efforts to establish an endowment of $60-million to $80-million are so far falling well short of that goal, sitting at $10-million. The environment barely registers as an issue Canadians care about in this election campaign, eclipsed in a big way by the economy.
Earth Day, always a symbolic gesture at best, has been a flop. Some say Mr. Suzuki's message has begun to sound like a broken record. Letter writers have started calling him an irrelevant, aging, Birkenstock-wearing hippie.
“Yes my message is a repetitive one. It ain't getting through. At the end of my life, I feel very, very sad. Well, angry, because whatever is or is not being done now is going to have virtually no effect on my life. But it's going to reverberate through the lives of my grandchildren and that really pisses me off,” says Mr. Suzuki (who, for the record, is wearing brown shoes, a grey cotton shirt and gold-rimmed glasses).
“Look at this election. It's a joke. We're not looking at the really big issues like where is Canada, where are we going in the future? Are you telling me that gun control, prisons and coalition threats are important?” he says.
Mr. Suzuki cites mistakes the environmental movement has made along the way. For one, it underestimated the willingness of big corporations to sink “hundreds of millions of dollars into campaigns of confusion” to obfuscate the truth about issues like climate change.
He also blames political groups, such as the Green Party, for ghettoizing environmental issues. “When there's a Green Party, all of the other parties are able to act like they don't have to deal with the environment. It marginalizes the Greens. ... Don't tell me that capitalism comes before very real biological realities,” he says.
Another mistake: Mr. Suzuki says he didn't spend enough time in the early days educating children about the environment. “That was a stupid error on my part. Back then, I thought, ‘We just don't have time,'” he says. “What I realize now is that the one vulnerable place that adults have is their children. Who better to remind them that their future is at stake than their own kids?”
Being in the “death zone” means that Mr. Suzuki realizes there simply isn't enough time to fix the past. He is spending a lot of time in schools, talking with students. He has a new series on CBC, The Suzuki Diaries, that aims to provide solutions to environmental problems such as water and energy consumption.
An atheist, he says he isn't preoccupied by thoughts of his own mortality, but he is practical. “I mean, I hate the thought of dying and that's it,” he says.
“But it gives me a bit of comfort to know that my body was created out of atoms that don't disappear. I emerged out of nature and I will simply go back to it. I am someone who doesn't enjoy the idea of disappearing forever.”
Sonia Verma is a writer for The Globe and Mail.
(Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story included incorrect information about staff reductions at the David Suzuki Foundation. This online version has been corrected.)