David Suzuki has such boundless energy, and his place in the Canadian firmament is so fixed, that audiences were surprised in October to hear he was retiring from his CBC series The Nature of Things. Even though he’s 86. Even though he’s been hosting it for 43 years, literally half his life.
Suzuki formed “a tight bond with nature” as a six year old, forced with his family into a British Columbia internment camp during the Second World War. A third-generation Canadian, he spoke no Japanese, and when the Japanese-speaking kids bullied him, he found solace “deep in the bush,” he said in a recent video interview from his living room sofa in Vancouver. He wore a zipped gray fleece and was keenly alert, even though it was 7 a.m. PT. “That area is now Valhalla Provincial Park, one of the most beautiful parts of B.C.”
He spent his life communicating his reverence for nature and fighting to protect it. He was an early warning system for the climate emergency – he just published a 25th-anniversary edition of his bestseller The Sacred Balance, which advocates for systemic change in the way humans live on Earth. In 1990, he cofounded the David Suzuki Foundation, which supports multiple actions and organizations in the areas of climate, clean energy and sustainability. And though the environmental crisis is more dire than ever – “I have moments where I’m literally weeping,” he admits – he won’t give into despair. “That’s a luxury we can’t afford,” he says. “Without action there is no hope.” Here are highlights from our hour-long conversation.
Johanna Schneller: You received the Order of Canada from a country that once imprisoned you. How do you reconcile that?
David Suzuki: I’ve always had a knee-jerk response against bigotry. When victims of racism become bigots themselves, then racism wins. Watching Kanye West now, his antisemitism, he’s an illustration of that. It’s tragic.
JS: After the war, the incarcerated were given a choice: take a one-way ticket to Japan or leave B.C. Your grandparents took the ticket. Your immediate family moved around Ontario, eventually settling in London.
DS: My mother’s parents were dumped off in Hiroshima, and both died in less than a year. My parents said, “The way out of our poverty is, you have to work twice as hard as any white person. And educate yourself.” Fortunately, working twice as hard as white people wasn’t hard – we grew our own food and we always had jobs – and school was easy for me. The hard part was puberty. For me, asking a white girl out was too much of a leap. But in London there were 10 Japanese-Canadian girls and three of them were my sisters. So that was difficult. [Laughs]
JS: A confluences of events led to your career. Your dad entered you in oratorical contests, to polish your public-speaking skills. As you were earning your PhD at the University of Chicago, the U.S. was throwing money at scientists, to compete in the space race with the USSR. You took a job in 1961 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee – home of the atomic bomb – doing genetic research on fruit flies. Why did you return to Canada?
DS: Oak Ridge … was segregated. My bestfriend there, my research associate Ruby, was Black, and she couldn’t go to restaurants, the laundromat, the movies. Walking down the street, she would automatically move aside for a white person. For a time I became virulently anti-white. Americans also evaluated everything in terms of money and I hated that. So even though Canada had incarcerated me, I felt its values were more in line with mine. I loved Tommy Douglas and the NDP – in the States, 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 CBC local in Edmonton, Your University Speaks. They asked you to do a show on 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 found that DDT kills insects won a Nobel Prize, but no one knew it would be biomagnified up the food chain and concentrate in women’s breasts and the shell glands of birds. I was studying fruit flies, but I didn’t care about them – I called them flying bags of chromosomes. I realized that a flaw of scientific research was its narrow focus. I began to think about the larger implications of what we did.
JS: You became an environmentalist. Now you say that movement failed. Why?
DS: Because we haven’t shifted the perspective. In the early years, I thought our problem was, “Humans are taking too much stuff and producing too much garbage.” We thought the answer was regulation. And we 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? Those dams are now almost completed, because the mindset didn’t change. We have to realize, there is no environment “out there” to regulate. We are the environment. It’s in us – it is us. We have to change the relationship we have with the world. Nature is not a pyramid, with humans at the top. Nature is a web and we are just one strand.
JS: What do you think of the recent guerilla activism, young people throwing soup and mashed potatoes on famous paintings?
DS: It’s a brilliant way to show what a contradictory, screwed-up value system we have. The paintings are protected by glass. Meanwhile industries are coating the oceans with layers of oil and no one is expressing near this level of outrage. Kids are increasingly desperate, because their future is being compromised.
JS: What’s one change a reader can make right now?
DS: Get politically involved at every level of government and demand that climate change is the top issue. Look what we did during COVID. The government found billions of dollars for that emergency. We have to think about our children and grandchildren and be warriors on their behalf.
JS: So you’re not retiring from activism.
DS: No! This is the most important stage of my life. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve had a few successes, I’ve learned a lot. Every elder, for god’s sake, get your values together! Sift through your life for the important lessons, and start trumpeting them for the coming generation so they don’t repeat our mistakes.
JS: What do you hope The Nature of Things does after you’ve gone?
DS: I’m so grateful that the CBC and the viewers hung in there with me, because we discussed issues of big pharma, tobacco, logging and fossil fuels, and we got hammered over and over. There were always cries to fire me. We were always accused of being biased. And we were – we were biased in saying, “Nature should be the priority.” I hope they don’t lose that perspective, that they don’t 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 there supporting and leading me.” She’s absolutely right. It would be a terrible conceit for me to think I was critical. I was part of a movement, and I’m proud of that. If my six grandchildren are beside me as I’m dying, I want to be able to tell them, “I did the best I could.” That is my proudest boast: I tried.