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Chris Young

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

David Suzuki, scientist, environmentalist, broadcaster and author, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.


For his efforts to educate the public about climate change, overfishing and other looming catastrophes, David Suzuki has been branded an alarmist and a doomsayer. If people want to call him those names, so be it, says the pioneering scientist and environmentalist. In Dr. Suzuki's opinion, our species' big advantage is the ability to see potential dangers and opportunities - and then find ways avoid the former and exploit the latter.

"Foresight got us to a position of dominance," he says by email from Japan, where broadcaster NHK is featuring The Nature of Things With David Suzuki, his long-running CBC series. "But now we throw out epithets like 'alarmist' and 'doomsayer' to avoid confronting the reality of those threats and opportunities."

Besides, notes Dr. Suzuki, 74, his message is based on scientific evidence. A world-famous geneticist who authored one of the standard textbooks in his field, the University of British Columbia emeritus professor branched out into television and radio in the early 1970s. The Nature of Things - which demonstrates Dr. Suzuki's extraordinary gift for making science and natural history accessible - has since aired in more than 50 countries.

In 1990, when environmental consciousness was still dim, Dr. Suzuki co-founded the David Suzuki Foundation. Working with government, business and citizens, this Vancouver-based organization aims to safeguard biodiversity and quality of life through initiatives such as education and advocacy.

Dr. Suzuki says he's encouraged by the proliferation of bike lanes and community gardens - two signs that urban Canadians are seeking to live more sustainably. "The real challenge is our hyper-consumption that seems to be at the heart of how we define ourselves," adds the Vancouver native.

One of his great frustrations is Canada's inaction on climate change. While nations like China and Germany take the problem seriously and are benefiting enormously by moving toward a green economy, Dr. Suzuki says, we lag behind. "The issue has effectively been taken off the table by the federal government, and the media have played along with it."

Pointing to James Hoggan's 2009 book Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, Dr. Suzuki says the fossil-fuel industry has denied, downplayed and sown confusion about climate change. "To me, it is tantamount to an intergenerational crime while our politicians to whom we entrust the future are criminally negligent."

Asked what kind of leadership he wants Canada to offer the world, Dr. Suzuki is equally blunt. "I'd love to see our 'leaders' get off the horn that constantly brays about how great we are," he says. "My dad taught me you are what you do, not what you say, and for me, too many people think what they say is all that matters even if it belies the reality of their track record."

On the other hand, corporations are now asking Dr. Suzuki and his foundation for input on their sustainability programs. He names U.S. carpet manufacturing giant Interface - whose founder, Ray Anderson, sits on the David Suzuki Foundation's board - as the best example of a company that follows sustainable business practices while staying profitable.

Dr. Suzuki may have critics, but he's been widely celebrated throughout his distinguished career. He holds 24 honorary degrees, and last year he won the Right Livelihood Award, which is known as the alternative Nobel Prize.

He's also fathered five children - including environmental activists Sarika Cullis-Suzuki and Severn Cullis-Suzuki - and found time to write 48 books. His latest is The Legacy: An Elder's Vision for Our Sustainable Future, a companion to the new Sturla Gunnarson documentary Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie.

Today, Dr. Suzuki says his main priority is to help the David Suzuki Foundation remain a vital force after he's gone. With that goal in mind, he's trying to build up its endowment so it can withstand events like the 2008 financial meltdown.

Meanwhile, Dr. Suzuki will keep pushing for a fundamental change in humanity's relationship with the natural world. "The global economy hides the true ecological and social costs of the products that we consume," he warns. "To see our place on the planet, we have to shift from an anthropocentric view that we are at the centre of everything to a biocentric view that we are part of and utterly dependent on a web of life."

David Suzuki on the challenges of leadership

[Being a strong and effective leader requires]an ability to remove oneself from the immediate demand of reelection or profit margin, and see with clarity. I think this is the most difficult thing because when one is in office either as a politician or businessperson, one is swept up in the game of politics and business that subsumes the best interests of society and blinds people to the reality of what is happening.

On the hardest decision of his career

I left the U.S. to return to Canada at a time [1962]when the U.S. was playing catch-up in the space race with the Soviet Union. It was a glorious time because all one had to do was say one liked science and they threw money at you, even to a foreigner like me. I received job offers from prestigious universities but decided I didn't want to live in a country that had such racist policies in the South. To my shock, my first research grant was $4,200 when my peers in the U.S. were getting grants in the order of $60,000 or more. I vacillated between toughing it out and taking a job back in the U.S. That, to me, was the toughest time. The irony is that I was able to secure a large U.S. grant that I could keep in Canada!