“I’ve made a lot of mistakes … I’ve had a few successes,” says David Suzuki modestly – at the age of 79, he’s recognized as a world leader in sustainability and climate change. He has more than 55 books to his name; has won acclaim for his writing, documentaries and radio series’ about nature and the environment; has been awarded a Companion of the Order of Canada; and, in 1990, established the David Suzuki Foundation “to find ways for society to live in balance with the natural world that does sustain us”.
“These are life lessons, and I believe they’re worth thinking about and passing on to my grandchildren.” Which is how his latest book, Letters for My Grandchildren, came about.
“My parents were hugely influential on me, as were my grandparents. They [my grandparents] left Japan to come to Canada – that was the biggest decision that impacted my life. They were driven out of Japan by poverty. They arrived [in Canada] between 1904 and 1906. They never learned to speak English. My parents were born in Vancouver, and were fluently bilingual. But at home they spoke English. So I never spoke Japanese; I never had a serious conversation with my grandparents. I never got to ask them why they left Japan: what was it like travelling to eight weeks across the ocean? Are you glad you came? I really regret that. And that is a large part of why I wrote the book. I don’t want to die and have my grandchildren think, ‘gee, I wish I had asked grandpa this or that’.”
Having spent eight years studying in the US when he was younger – “This is after Sputnik. The Americans were trying to catch up to the Russians and they were throwing money at students wanting to study science” – Suzuki returned home to Canada as he saw an opportunity of demystifying issues relating to sustainability, climate change and environmentalism for the general population: through TV. “There are a lot of bright people in science, but [at the time] there weren’t many scientists taking TV seriously.”
My father was a very unusual Japanese man. He loved to tell stories. He was very gregarious and always curious about people … He trained me to become a public speaker, hence my inherit love for storytelling now. I’d have to write my speech out longhand. I’d have to narrate. If I stumbled, I’d have to begin all again. I was about 12. Every night I’d end up crying because I’d done it over and over and over. But by the end he could wake me up at 3am and I’d give a perfect speech. That’s how I became an orator. And that became very important in TV.”
Suzuki went on to host long-running CBC Television science program, The Nature of Things, seen in more than 40 countries. Off air, he was much more direct in his criticism of governments for their lack of action to protect the environment. “Being able to speak well is helpful if you’re going to be an activist. You need to tell people what the problem is and what the solutions are … in a way that is powerful and entertaining. My Dad told me that if you believe in something, you have to stand up for it. Expect opposition, but if you believe in things you have to be prepared to stand up and defend them. There are times where I’ve thought, ‘I don’t want to fight with these people’. But I feel compelled to stand up for what I believe.”
Today, Suzuki’s grandson Tamo Campos is following in his grandfather’s footsteps as an activist. “He has been arrested for protesting a pipeline [development]. He’s using social media to crowdfund money and get coverage beyond anything I know,” says Suzuki. “I feel if I kick the bucket today, it won’t make a difference. There are activists all over Canada; the movement is very strong. My only fear is that we have very little time to make big changes.”
David Suzuki is in Australia for WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks series, March 11 – 14, 2016.