Environmental Guru Energizes Canadians
TORONTO — The rough ghost town in the Canadian Rocky Mountains that became a prison home for four members of the Suzuki family during World War II did not really seem such a bad place to 6-year-old David.
“For a kid suddenly plunked down in a valley where the rivers and lakes were filled with fish and the forests with wolves, bears and deer, this was paradise,” Suzuki recalled years later in his autobiography.
Still, an internment camp for Japanese Canadians was an unlikely place to start for the man now embraced by Canada as a national icon, voted one of the country’s “Greatest Canadians,” the man seen as the guru of the environmental movement here.
His relentless hectoring on climate change, capped by standingroom-only rallies he held in 43 towns in Canada in February, has helped propel the environmental issue to the top of Canada’s political agenda, already influencing the jockeying ahead of the next national election.
Suzuki, 71, admits that the treatment of his family — which was split up during internment and forced to move east after the war — seared him. Even now, as a third-generation Canadian who does not speak Japanese, he said, “I hate looking at myself, hate my eyes, hate all the insecurities” that came from his appearance. From those days, he says, he always felt like an outsider.
But that gave him the strength, he says, to champion unpopular causes — global warming and other environmental issues — long before they became fashionable.
Suzuki, inevitably, is called Canada’s Al Gore, and Suzuki himself credits the former vice president with helping shape his grassroots strategy. But Suzuki has his own long list of credentials on the issue, and the background of the two men could not be more different.
Whereas Gore is a patrician born to wealth and politics, Suzuki’s father labored in the dry-cleaning business and chafed under the racism of the day.
Suzuki was a self-described loner who enjoyed spending his afternoons collecting insects in a bog. His father pushed him to join high school debate contests to learn public speaking. Suzuki excelled in the sciences, stopping for degrees or to teach at universities in Massachusetts, Chicago, Edmonton in Canada’s Alberta province, and finally at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He chose genetics as his specialty.
He got his first exposure on television explaining science on a sleepy Sunday morning college program in Edmonton called “Your University Speaks.” He liked it and was amazed that people watched the show.
“I realized, holy cow, TV is a very powerful medium,” he said. Before long, Suzuki was hosting a weekly science program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1979, he took over “The Nature of Things,” a CBC show he still hosts, and he has done dozens of other environmental programs broadcast in Canada and the United States.
Suzuki balanced his academic career with a growing list of environmental broadcast awards. In 1988, he interviewed Gore and professed himself awed by the then senator’s grasp of climate-change issues. “He sent shivers up my back.
“He said, don’t look for politicians like me. If you want to bring about change, you have to convince the public there is a problem. Show them there are solutions. Get them to care, and demand that something be done.”
In 1990, Suzuki decided to do just that. He and a handful of others, including his wife, Harvard instructor Tara Cullis, gathered in a lodge and started the David Suzuki Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to environmental change.
The Vancouver-based organiza- tion is now the premier voice for the green movement in Canada. It has grown to a $6 million-a-year operation, with 55 full-time staff members, and speaks out on such issues as organic foods, overfishing and climate sustainability.
Suzuki maintains a peripatetic schedule as the chief spokesman. He flits from a school classroom that is trying to raise money for solar panels to a parliamentary hearing where he scolds the federal government for its abandonment of the Kyoto accord on climate change. He assails fellow geneticists for their genetic tinkering, the Christian right for its rejection of evolution, and the Bush administration for what he calls its arrogance.
His sharp criticisms have raised some hackles. Suzuki thinks he is “chief of the Morals Police,” grumped conservative columnist Barbara Kay in the National Post newspaper.
But most Canadians have embraced the wiry, bespectacled scientist who was game enough to pose at age 63 in nothing but a fig leaf for a publicity shot. In a 2004 nationwide CBC vote for “Greatest Canadian,” he came in fifth — and the four ahead of him were dead. Women in a Maclean’s magazine poll voted him the man with whom they would most like to be stranded on a desert island.
He has garnered near rock star status with sell-out crowds and squealing fans. But Suzuki himself takes it all with an impish twinkle. There is none of Gore’s polished reserve. Suzuki is animated, profane and passionate about his topic. He bluntly dismisses critics who question the theory of man-made global warming. “I’m amazed you are even bringing this up,” he fumed in a February radio interview when asked about global warming skeptics. “Don’t even get on to that,” he said angrily. “The science is in.”
Nor does he shrink from daunting predictions: “I think the future for our species is very, very much in question right now. Maybe pockets of people will survive, but it will take heroic measures.” He laments what he considers lost years of opportunity, since scientists’ early warning that humankind must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “If we had done what they said in ’88, we would have been so far past the Kyoto targets,” he said. “The world would be a cleaner, safer place. Instead, it has taken almost 20 years” to regain momentum.
But that moment has come again. Canadians have put global warming on the top of the list of their chief worries, according to polls. Provincial governments are competing to put forth the greenest agenda. And the opposition Liberal Party selected a backpacking environmentalist to lead the party, betting the chief issue in the next national election will be climate change.
The ruling Conservatives, scrambling to catch up, gave Suzuki grudging credit in a secret strategy paper pondering ways to appeal to a growing segment of Canadians they branded “the Suzuki Nation.”
Suzuki put the people-power principle on display when he spent the month of February on a cross-country bus tour in which he made 43 sold-out speeches, whipping up demand for action on global warming . He is considering another such trip, to college campuses across Canada, mimicking the grass-roots organizing of Ralph Nader.
Suzuki acknowledges that the sizzle of the movement could turn to fizzle as the costs of environmental action come clear. But he thinks, this time, the movement will not falter.
“Huge things are happening,” he said. “Industries know something is going on, and they can’t ignore it anymore. I think there will be a sea change. I think we can get there.
“If it passes,” he noted of the moment, “we are toast.” Researcher Natalia Alexandrova contributed to this report.
Climate change activist David Suzuki, 71, has been called the Canadian Al Gore.