En­vi­ron­men­tal Guru En­er­gizes Cana­di­ans

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Doug Struck

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.

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