For David Suzuki, receiving the 2020 lifetime achievement award at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards is bittersweet. “Sweet” because, well, who doesn’t like to be celebrated? And “bitter” because as an environmental activist who’s sounded the alarm for more than 60 years, he’s seen a bad situation get much worse.
It’s not for lack of trying. Suzuki has hosted CBC’s science-based series The Nature of Things since 1960. In 1990 he co-founded the David Suzuki Foundation, a non-profit that works to conserve the environment. He’s a Companion to the Order of Canada, a winner of UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize for science and a recipient of the United Nations Environment Program medal. Plus, he’s written more than 55 books.
Suzuki will receive the lifetime achievement award on Thursday’s CSA livestream via Academy.ca, as well as on the Academy’s YouTube and Twitter channels. He spoke with Postmedia News about his career, the challenges facing the environment, what we can do about them, and possibility of retirement:
Q: What’s been your reaction to this award?
A: I feel that the CBC should take a tremendous amount of credit. Over the years, there’ve been a lot of calls to boot me off air, and we’ve raised a lot of hackles over issues in the nuclear industry, the fossil fuel industry, the forestry industry, the pharmaceutical industry. And it’s the Canadian public to which I really feel grateful for listening to our programs in numbers that have kept us on air.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: Well, I realize that I’m one human being and the environmental movement of which I am a small part is an important and profound one. And the reality is that the movement is losing. We’ve come to a point where the issues of climate change, species extinction and ocean degradation are so obvious that you can’t dispute that we’re in a crisis. So it’s hard to say what I’m proud of.
I’m proud that the (1989) CBC Radio series It’s a Matter of Survival generated over 20,000 letters with people saying, “You scared the hell out of me, but what do we do?” My wife said, “Look, Suzuke, you’ve been warning people long enough. They need more than just warnings that things are bad. They’ve got to be told their options.” And we set up the David Suzuki Foundation to look for solutions.
Q: What initially drew you to environmental issues?
A: I did all my university training in the United States and came back to Canada in 1962 as a hotshot geneticist. That’s what I wanted to make my reputation in. And in 1962 a book came out by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring, all about the unexpected effects of pesticides, and it just blew me away. When DDT was found to kill insects, we thought this was the greatest thing going and gave a Nobel Prize to the inventor in 1948.
Rachel Carson’s book said, you invent these powerful chemicals that kill insects but you don’t see the big picture. It ends up in the water and on land and it affects fish and birds and human beings. And when I was given a chance that same year to start doing programs in television, I thought, I have to explain science more seriously to people so we can see the bigger picture and how science is affecting the world around us.
Q: What’s been the biggest challenge?
A: We don’t really talk to each other and we don’t work it out. I thought with better information we’d make better decisions, and that’s why I got into television in the first place — to try to provide information. We did a film on logging practices and we argued with these four loggers, and finally I said, “I don’t know any environmentalist that’s against logging. I’ve worked in construction for seven years. I love working with wood. But we want to make sure that your children and grandchildren will be able to log forests as rich as the ones you’re logging now.”
And one of the loggers said, “There’s no way my children are going to get into logging — there won’t be any trees left.” And I thought, there is a problem. I’m talking about forests forever, and he’s talking about making money to put food on the table and paying for his car and mortgage. That’s been one of the most frustrating problems.
Q: What’s one of the best things people can do to help?
A: People have to be much more critical about the information they get — The Nature of Things is a very different source of information than Fox News, or QAnon or any of the other sources out there. People have to ask, where the money is coming from that’s making this source of information possible? What’s at the bottom of it? You can find all kinds of sources that confirm whatever you want.
But my main message is what I’ve been taught by Indigenous people: The Earth is our mother. We are created by the four sacred elements — the air, the water, the soil that gives us our food, and the energy that comes from the sun. Those are the underpinnings of our very lives. And we have become so powerful as a species that we are impacting those things. What we do to the Earth, we do directly to ourselves.
Q: Have you thought about retirement?
A: I gave that idea up a long time ago. Because I have grandchildren, I have no choice but to do the best I can. I’m one person: I’m not going to save the world. But I have no choice but to be one person trying to protect something for future generations.
Watching the death toll of COVID, most of the deaths have been old people in long-term care units and they died alone, isolated. Elders deserve better than that. You’ve lived an entire life. You’ve learned a lot from your life experiences. Sift through that life, for heaven’s sake, for those lessons to pass on to future generations. And we have a responsibility to bring elders into society — not consigning them to wait out the last years of their lives alone. That’s not how we should treat this important group of people.