Suzuki urges us to embrace the nature of things

When David Suzuki was a horny teenager, he went to a local swamp. His father told him he wasn't supposed to ask out Caucasian girls and, at that time, in the small, southern Ontario town of Lemington, there were no Japanese girls in sight.

When David Suzuki was a horny teenager, he went to a local swamp.

His father told him he wasn’t supposed to ask out Caucasian girls and, at that time, in the small, southern Ontario town of Lemington, there were no Japanese girls in sight.

The Suzuki family was the first non-white family to stay longer than a day in the town.

They moved there after being held in a post-Pearl Harbour internment camp in the West Coast.

Nature had always been an escape for the young environmentalist. He was an outcast to the white kids because he looked Japanese and derided by Japanese kids in the internment camp because he could only speak English.

That specific swamp in Lemington saved his life, the 75-year-old Suzuki remembered.

Now, it’s a parking lot.

It may have been because it provided a sanctuary, but nature’s wonders have always held a special place in Suzuki’s heart.

Years later, as a bellbottom-clad, headband-wearing professor at the University of British Columbia, he would still laugh at the thought that few other people could see the beauty in flies like he could.

These, and many more memories from Suzuki’s younger years shone in grainy footage throughout the recent Sturla Gunnarsson film Force of Nature, The David Suzuki Movie. The documentary, which introduces the scientist as the godfather of Canadian environmentalism, flips between these shots and passages from his “legacy” lecture, delivered in Vancouver on the eve of his 75th birthday.

Standing before the projection screen at the Beringia Centre on Friday, Suzuki’s stained, cracked toenails nestle under the beaten leather straps of his sandals. He has a pen in his chest pocket, like any self-respecting nerd, and he switches between holding the microphone, rested against his chest with both hands, to nearly flailing it around as he uses his all of his arms to express himself.

Many in the audience recognize him as the most trusted voice of conservation in Canada.

His show, The Nature of Things, has aired for more than five decades.

He laughs at the ease he’s had at “selling” the environment to Canadians.

“You show a film on the sex life of a worm and you’ll get a great audience,” he said, the laugh-lines behind his frameless glasses prominent.

“People love nature. It’s one of the ironies. Over 90 per cent of Canadians say, ‘Nature is an important part of who I am as a Canadian.’ Over 80 per cent will say, ‘Yes, I am willing to support an increase in taxes to protect nature.’ And yet we’re spending less and less time outdoors. Even our national parks are seeing dwindling audiences. It’s the damndest thing.”

The environmental movement has enjoyed 20 years of failure, he said.

It’s failed to work from the ground up and instill ownership in the work it accomplishes and it has failed to view its work with the proper perception, he said.

It is time to reshape our relationship with nature, he said.

The human race must start listening to indigenous groups across the world who describe their connection to the Earth as a literal part of them, as their mother or giver of life.

It is beyond time we have a Bretton Woods II, said Suzuki, referring to the international conference that, generally, sorted out the financial world and set up the globalized economy after the Second World War.

It transformed Germany and Japan, turning the most devastated countries in the world into a pair of its strongest economies.

“But they left out nature,” he said. “The economy has become disconnected from the natural world. Nature performs dozens of services that keep the planet healthy and habitable for an animal like us, economist ignore those as ‘externalities.’ We need a global conference to introduce nature services as a huge part of this economy.

“We’re looking at the world through the wrong lenses. We draw boundaries around property, around our municipalities, around our provinces, around our countries. These are human creations and, boy, do we take them seriously. Well guess what, nature doesn’t give a shit about human borders. Do you think a grizzly bear comes to the border with the United States and says, ‘Oh, I can’t go any further, I’m a Canadian bear’?

“And then we do things like we create economies. The whole reason why things like Kyoto and the Copenhagen meetings failed is because at Copenhagen we had 192 countries, each with their own national boundaries, each with their own economic priorities, trying to deal with the atmosphere that doesn’t care about our economies or our boundaries. And we want to shoehorn nature into our agenda.

“If you have a government that’s elected, that’s political basis is dependant on economics – a kind of economics which essentially regards nature as an opportunity to feed the economy, but doesn’t see that nature is the very source of our survival and that protecting nature should be our highest priority, then we’re doomed.

“We are past the 59th minute, but we are creating the illusion that everything is fine by using up the rightful legacy of our children and grandchildren.”

Suzuki stops and his body is still.

You couldn’t tell that he just delivered a highly energetic five-minute rant.

He puts his hands back together around the microphone and rests it back on his chest.

He has said this before.

But he is neither an optimist nor a pessimist, he said.

He is a scientist. And as such, he sees the trail we, as a human race, are on.

“We’re heading down a very dangerous path,” he said. “And all I cling to is hope.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at