David Suzuki is telling the world he’s in “the death zone”. He enjoys the reactions it provokes. Still, at 75, he likes to provoke. He has, he says, delivered his final series of lectures and outlined his intellectual legacy. Yet, with a forest of silver hair, swift-moving limbs and brilliant, quizzical eyes, he looks fit as a fiddle and shows no sign of slowing down. His recent book (The Legacy) and film (Force of Nature) have set his life’s latter stage not so much for polite retirement as a lively sprint to the finish line.
To put matters in perspective, Suzuki has threatened retirement once before, at 70, when the second volume of his autobiography was published. Since then the renowned geneticist, environmentalist, author and media personality has continued to work on his CBC TV perennial, The Nature of Things, to lecture, write and steer the David Suzuki Foundation. In 2009 he received the Right Livelihood Award, which is considered the alternative Nobel Prize.
Yet, in Suzuki’s conversation, there is an increasing pull towards family. His family is the centre of meaning in his world and he would plainly like to spend more time with them. When he speaks of his hopes and fears for the future, it’s framed by a sense of his place in a natural continuum that is not confined to, but is most intimately expressed in, his family. He has five kids (for which he almost apologises, given his concern about overpopulation) and four grandkids, all of whom he hopes will carry his sense of wonder at nature into a world that will somehow sustain them. Certainly his offspring, a kind of royal family of the environmental movement, are all involved in steering the world towards sustainability. Two of his daughters, Sarika and Severn, are scientists and committed environmentalists. Sarika’s area of interest is marine biology. “Why am I passionate about the ocean?” she asked, while hosting CBC’s documentary series, One Ocean. “Massive tides. Extraordinary creatures. Our origins. Waves, currents, swell. Giver of oxygen. Salt. Ferocity, mystery, beauty and bounty. Healing. In short, everything!” As they say, her father’s daughter.
Severn founded the Environmental Children’s Organisation (ECO) when she was nine. At 12, she and her ECO mates sent a delegation to the ’92 UN Earth Summit in Rio. Her speech there shot her to stardom on the internet (look up “the girl who silenced the world for five minutes” some time) and her father believes it’s “just as relevant today”. Since then, Severn has studied ethnobotany, written a book, hosted a TV show and advocated tirelessly on behalf of nature – in particular on the links between environmental and human health.
“The two are inseparable,” says Suzuki snr. “If we use the air, the water and the soil as places to dump our chemicals, why are we surprised that health costs continue to rise? In Canada, 15% of our kids have asthma and it’s got to be related to the air they breathe. You don’t have to be a genius to see that we’ve got to stop putting crap into the air. We are the air, we are the water. There’s no environment out there, external from us. We are the environment. The environment is a health issue.”
Suzuki developed his understanding of humanity’s inseparability from nature as a kid, camping, fishing and hiking in the forests and streams of Canada with his father. “The greatest gift I got from my parents was a love of nature,” he explains. “You won’t fight to protect nature if you don’t love it.”
There were other lessons, too. “My parents came out of the depression and they taught me simple lessons about sustainability, about living within your means, sharing what you have with your family and neighbours and friends. My dad taught us not to run after money. He believed that you needed enough money to do the things that were most important to you but that it wasn’t an end in itself.”
Suzuki refers to his father as his “great mentor” and says he continued to learn from him right up until his death. “The most wonderful time we spent together was when I moved in to care for him in the last month of his life. He was dying of cancer, yet he was totally unafraid. In the evenings, my wife and children would come over and we’d look at photos of the times we’d spent together and we’d laugh and cry. My father said, ‘I will die a wealthy man,’ but he wasn’t talking about material wealth. He was talking about a wealth of family, friends, neighbours and experiences.
“Ultimately, those are the things we value. We’ve got caught up in this idea that having more stuff improves the quality of our life, but that’s not true. Is working longer and harder to buy more stuff an improvement in the quality of life? Would we rather spend more time with our children, with our friends, with nature? Of course we would.”