This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 5, 2007. Partner content is not updated.On the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 9, emergency crews raced to the provincial cabinet offices on the Vancouver waterfront after a receptionist's hands were left tingling from a suspicious powder in a piece of mail.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 9, emergency crews raced to the provincial cabinet offices on the Vancouver waterfront after a receptionist's hands were left tingling from a suspicious powder in a piece of mail. One of the four arriving fire trucks crunched a little red Toyota Yaris, which, in retrospect, was the more interesting part of the adventure. The powder is believed to be a mixture of harmless cooking spices. But the wounded rental vehicle belonged to ethno-botanist Wade Davis, and environmental guru David Suzuki, who had just finished meeting B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell. "Surely this is not a story," said Suzuki, as journalists on the scene recorded his predicament.
It is, actually. It would have been a better tale, mind you, had Suzuki been caught in a gas-guzzling Hummer. But the real news was that Suzuki was even meeting the right-leaning Liberal premier. "Gordon Campbell, I don't think even a year ago would have spoken to me," Suzuki concedes later in an interview. "We were conceived of as an NDP-aligned shop, and I think we've got over that." That, and the fact that the times, they are a-changing.
Campbell - who has pledged to significantly reduce greenhouse gases in B.C. by 2020 - has read which way the globally warmed wind blows, as have many of his fellow premiers. They've undergone, with varying degrees of sincerity, an enviro-conversion of Schwarzeneggeresque proportion. A national poll last week by Angus Reid Strategies is only the latest to show the environment in a tie with health care as "the most important issue facing Canada today," and the greatest concern by far among Canadians under 35. Environmentalism, says Reid, "is the new religion." If so, Suzuki is its high priest. He stars in humorous energy conservation TV ads playing in Ontario, and is a fixture at Premier Dalton McGuinty's environmental announcements - to the dismay of some hard-core greens. The Quebec and Manitoba governments have sought his advice on climate change. He's one of the luminaries in Leonardo DiCaprio's environmental documentary, The 11th Hour.
In the past six months alone, Suzuki has shared the stage four times with Al Gore, an environmental ally of some 20 years. That would be Al Gore: co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his climate change crusade. Suzuki is Canada's Gore. Or Gore is America's Suzuki - the point is moot, as far as Suzuki is concerned. He'd been laying off bets for weeks that Gore would snag at least a share of the award. "It's a great thing," says Suzuki of the credibility lent to the issue by the world's most prestigious prize. "Despite what a few dinosaurs are saying, it's the nail in the coffin of [climate change] skeptics. Now, the challenge is to get on with it." The poles are melting, species are vanishing, the world is going to hell in a handbasket; it's a great time to be David Suzuki.
Corporations like Wal-Mart are banging down the door of the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation as never before, seeking advice and the green glow of Suzuki's environmental credibility - again, to the alarm of some of Suzuki's allies. And Suzuki, as recently as last week, sought the guidance of billionaire business giant Jimmy Pattison on ways to exploit the crisis of opportunity that engulfs his own organization, and many other enviro groups. Though Suzuki didn't reveal the agenda of their meeting, Pattison says the Suzuki foundation is looking to raise $30 million, the first half of a whopping $60-million endowment. "They were in here getting my opinion of how they might get the right people to accomplish getting that done," says Pattison, who has in turn had Suzuki speak numerous times to his corporate managers. "David Suzuki was, at one time, a voice in the wilderness, but now more and more people have bought into his message," says Pattison. "Almost everybody is focused on being more green."
Climate change, doing what it does, has indeed changed the climate of debate. New tactics are called for from environmentalists, too, and that includes a corporate rapprochement, of a sort. Suzuki - whose organization, in the past, has taken pride in its lack of corporate donors - admits he'll need an attitude adjustment. "We grew up in this movement banging the hell out of business," he says. "For a lot of old-timers, we're battle-scarred. Our inclination is still to fight." The foundation has now hired a new CEO, Peter Robinson, the outgoing head of the iconic Vancouver-based outdoor chain Mountain Equipment Co-op. Robinson has both business credibility and stellar environmental credentials. (The co-op is so über-green it runs a program to recycle polyester clothes.) The foundation expects the magic Robinson worked in seven years at the co-op - adding five new stores, a million new members, and almost doubling revenues - will take foundation funding and programs to a new level. "The next evolution has to be to move rhetoric to action," says Robinson. "Rhetoric is just another form of global warming - hot air."
The foundation consults regularly with a business advisory council. It is even adding an economist to the 40 employees already on staff, though Suzuki has always taken a dim view of the dismal science. Economists operate on the assumption of an infinite world, in his view. They don't include finite limits to growth in their calculations, nor do they include the contributions of a well-functioning environment - the natural pollination of flowering plants, for instance, or the work of trees and greenery in sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and replacing it with oxygen. "And in the madness of conventional economics," Suzuki noted in The 11th Hour, "this is not in the equation."
Still, it's one thing to talk about engaging more with the business community, and another to travel to Mississauga, Ont., as Suzuki did in February, to what some greens consider the heart of the evil empire itself - Wal-Mart Canada Corp. He addressed back-to-back gatherings of some 1,500 company executives and store managers, and 2,000 representatives of Wal-Mart's suppliers, at the request of company president and CEO Mario Pilozzi - and to the shock of some in the foundation. "People at the foundation are saying, 'What the hell are you doing? Wal-Mart is inevitably destructive, you can't have a business like that sustainable.' " But look at the potential impact, Suzuki argued.
Wal-Mart had already committed itself to three long-term goals: a zero-waste business, using 100 per cent renewable energy, and offering "more environmentally preferable" products. Suzuki, a sometime critic of the retail giant, was greeted with a standing ovation, says Kevin Groh, the company's director of corporate affairs. "His message was that a retailer like Wal-Mart would be a priceless ally for environmentalists. It was a great invitation for us to say 'we can make a change.' " In the months since, Wal-Mart has expanded its recycling program, and put its suppliers on orders to substantially reduce their packaging. With a million customers daily, even a decision to sell only concentrated liquid laundry detergent saves millions by reducing packaging and fuel use. Last week, Wal-Mart announced it is replacing 1.75 million 32-watt light bulbs in its stores with 25-watt versions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 17,000 tonnes, the equivalent of taking 1,700 cars off the road. "And, as a business, it will save us $5 million a year," says Groh. "There's a very happy marriage between business change and environmental change."
Yet, the relationship leaves Suzuki ambivalent. "The terrible aspect of Wal-Mart is that it's based on consumption," he says. "That's the dilemma for us." There's a fine line between corporate collaboration and maintaining environmental credibility. Suzuki calls Patrick Moore, a former friend and activist, a sellout for working with such clients as the nuclear industry. But others fear Suzuki is straying too close to that line. Jim Fulton, who remains active in the foundation but stepped down for health reasons as its long-serving executive director, has fielded "churlish" comments from environmental groups he wouldn't name. They question Suzuki's collaboration with McGuinty, an advocate of expanding Ontario's nuclear power capacity, which Suzuki opposes. The same holds true with corporate co-operation. "As David reaches out, I'm sure [Green Party Leader] Elizabeth May, for example, would be appalled. 'Oh, God, David is meeting with Jim Pattison, this is not a good sign, he's selling out,' " says Fulton, a former New Democrat MP. "I think it's quite the opposite. David is reaching out and trying to get [industry] and senior government people to buy in, not to sell out."
There is also the reality that these days it is corporations who are doing the wooing - largely as an exercise in public relations, according to Paul Watson, the uncompromising founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. "Environmental activists need the money," he says. "And corporations need the greenwashing." Corporate co-operation "is not my approach," says Watson, who has known Suzuki for 35 years. "[But] David can do what David wants. I would never question his judgment. He continues to be the most outspoken environmental activist in Canada. He tries out various strategies as he goes. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't."
In fairness, the Suzuki foundation isn't alone in reaching out to corporations and governments. Even Greenpeace, while not accepting corporate donations, has moderated its tactics slightly. It has worked with Coca Cola and McDonald's on international environmental issues. "We work with corporations who want to change," says Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada. "When that doesn't happen, we're willing to confront them." Suzuki happily cedes the more aggressive tactics to Greenpeace. "Whenever they do their crazy antics, I think, great, because it makes me look that much more respectable." Still, he adds, "You always have to have people pushing the envelope."
There are two groups of people in Suzuki's world view: Innies and Outies. His place as an outsider was established for all time by the Canadian government's decision after the invasion of Pearl Harbor to move and incarcerate all Japanese Canadians living on Canada's West Coast. As a six-year-old, he was uprooted from his Vancouver home and shipped with his family to the B.C. Interior. "It's a pretty tough thing when you're a third-generation Canadian," says Fulton. "It's not like David had just arrived as a young boy from Japan. I mean, his parents were born here. I think that has really had a lasting impact on him." Many internee children in the camp treated him with contempt, compounding his alienation. He didn't speak Japanese. He was, in their view, as Canadian as the oppressors who locked them away. Guujaw, president of the Haida Nation of the Queen Charlotte Islands, has been a friend of Suzuki and his wife, Tara Cullis, for 25 years. "When I first met him, he was a little bit prejudiced against Japanese," he says. "I think he got over that." The harsh experience may explain the environmentalist's refusal to back down from a scrap. The diminutive, vigorous Suzuki has stood with him during some potentially violent logging standoffs, says the burly Guujaw, who goes by a single Haida name. "The difference between him and Al Gore is that when Al Gore [as U.S. vice-president] was in a position to do something about it, I didn't see anything happen," he says. "When David was in a position to do something, even though it was controversial in the position he was in working for the CBC, he never shrank away from talking about those environmental issues."
Suzuki, at 71 years old, admits he still deals with the aftermath of the wartime incarceration, "one of the most important formative events of my life." Too much of what he does, of his campaigns and causes and marathon workdays, are motivated by a need for acceptance, he says in a brutal piece of self-evaluation. "I'm still trying to prove I'm a worthwhile human being," he says. "It's fine when you're a young man. But when you're 71, it's sick." Cullis, who has heard this before, gives him an indulgent smile. "I've often thought David would have been insufferable if that hadn't happened to him when he was a little boy," she says. "He's a very talented guy and successful, but this really keeps him cut down to size." Suzuki shakes his head. "Yeah, but it's a sickness that I feel compelled to try continually to live up to being a Canadian."
On that score, it's time to cut himself a break. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant teacher, and a cutting-edge geneticist at the University of British Columbia. And almost four decades as a science broadcaster (and environmental scold) on numerous series, as the founder of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks, and especially as host of CBC TV's The Nature of Things, transformed him into the rarest of beasts, a celebrity egghead. When the CBC embarked on a nationwide consultation for "the greatest Canadian," in 2004, Suzuki ranked No. 5, and the four above him were dead. About the same time, Maclean's, in a bit of whimsy, polled women on whom they would like to be stranded with on a desert island. Suzuki walked away with the vote. He hangs with Sting, he's discussed the environment with Prince Charles and any number of the new green breed of Hollywood actors. He met the Dalai Lama, who said: "I know you! I watch you on the Discovery Channel!" He is loved - and reviled - with equal passion. Surely the Outie has become the ultimate Insider? He dismisses the idea. Being an outsider, he says, "is a state of mind."
The word "saint" is frequently appended to Suzuki's name, as in Saint Suzuki of the Environment. Often it's a swipe at a perceived holier-than-thou attitude; sometimes it's sincere. For this appellation, Maclean's shares some blame. Back in 1971, writer Alexander Ross began a delightfully subversive profile of Suzuki - then a rising star in genetics at UBC and a fledgling broadcaster - with a convoluted quotation on sainthood by Leonard Cohen. Saints are tapped into the "energy of love," goes the Cohen quote. "Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence." Whether the hippyish Suzuki ("a Haight-Ashbury version of Fu Manchu," said Ross) was imbued with this saintly energy he left to the reader's imagination. But the description stuck.
The reason for the profile in the first place was that 36 years ago, Suzuki was already rocking boats. His entree into the exploding science of genetics had been the lowly fruit fly - fast-breeding, genetically simple and easily manipulated. The Suzuki lab was pumping out generations of mutant strains. Flies that thrived at room temperature, but died when the heat was raised a few degrees. Flies that bred in cool climes but were sterile in the warmth. Flies he could paralyze or animate at will, depending on the temperature. Flies with feet growing where antennae should be. If the fruit fly had a written history, Suzuki would not be treated kindly.
It was exciting, it was terrifying. In genetics Suzuki saw the keys to the kingdom of good and evil: perhaps a cure for muscular dystrophy - or "the ultimate weapon," genetic mutations to cripple or control body or mind. Not for the last time, he fretted that disaster loomed "right around the corner." Not for the last time, he opened his mouth, with interesting results. Caught up in a rant on the perils of selective breeding, he said: "Make me a dictator with power to say who mates with whom, and in three generations I could give you a race of people that you wouldn't recognize! You want them beautiful, super-intelligent, docile? Whatever you want." Clearly, Suzuki is to trouble what the tiny, winged Drosophila melanogaster is to a bowl of rotting fruit.
He and Cullis are seated side-by-side in the foundation boardroom when I hand him a copy of the article, a blast from the past. He chuckles. "This caused me an enormous amount of grief," he recalls. His critics, already legion, pounced. "I got hammered for years after, with people saying, 'See, you bastard, you're trying to clone all these people.' That was the exact opposite of what I was trying to say." I nod sympathetically. "Yes," I tell him, "and I live in hope that you'll say something equally ridiculous this interview."
All these years later, the notion of environmental sainthood distresses Suzuki to no end. "I am so aware of my fallibility," he says, as Cullis concurs enthusiastically. "I am not going to try to live up to that. I'm a human being and we're all f--d up in some way." Saint or not, when you spend your days telling people how to live a virtuous life - lose the beer fridge; install compact fluorescent light bulbs; forsake farmed salmon; park that car; hug that tree - you'd better not throw stones in your own glass house, triple-glazed thermopanes or not. It was Cullis, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, with a major in common sense, who warned Suzuki years ago he'd better get his own house in order, starting with the garbage. "She said, 'Some enterprising reporter is going to go through our garbage and hammer you.' I said, 'Tara, I'm too busy. Are you telling me I have to separate paper in fine paper and newsprint and pull staples and all that?' And she said, 'Yeah.' " Even going shopping puts him under the microscope. He recalls a time when Tara was away and he was stocking the larder with a comfort food he's enjoyed since his university days. A fellow shopper, horrified, pointed to his basket and exclaimed: " 'David Suzuki eats Kraft Dinner!' That's when I realized, oh, my God, I can't even buy a pair of socks without someone making a comment about it."
In turn, Suzuki has a way of making you fret about small things you do. My interview with him and Cullis was set for 3 p.m. across town at the foundation headquarters in Vancouver's once funky and now high-end Kitsilano district. I knew I should walk, but I was five kilometres away, it was raining, and a previous interview, with Guujaw on the Queen Charlottes, ran long. (It was a phone interview, with a minimal carbon footprint - bonus points!) My car was parked outside and it has just four fuel-efficient cylinders. So I drove to an interview with an environmental icon, further degrading the planet. My damnation is assured. To know Suzuki is to embrace guilt.
This inclination may explain the foundation headquarters' semi-successful attempt to walk lightly upon the pavement of Kitsilano. Where to begin? Well, the bike rack is full, and the offices are humming with the pure white light of fluorescents. The computer monitors and TV screens are low-energy LCDs. The photocopier, loaded with 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper, is powered by two organically fed rats on a wheel. Okay, no rats, but the copier won an environmental award. The building, located on a major bus route, is heated and cooled by a clean geothermal heat-pump system. Foundation annual reports are printed with vegetable-based inks on recycled, chlorine-free paper produced with wind-powered electricity.
And yet, in the previous fiscal year, the foundation's work produced 150.89 tonnes of greenhouse gases. For this the foundation pays penance in the form of "gold standard" carbon offsets, credits to finance projects like wind farms that will ultimately lower greenhouse gas production. Two-thirds of all these nasty gases are produced by air travel. And the greatest offender is the guy the foundation is named after. He's already refused more than 700 speaking engagements this year and still his punishing travel agenda, not counting his cross-country bus trek last winter to raise the issue of climate change, would stagger a lesser mortal. His travels are a sore point, and not only for his critics, who cry hypocrisy. He was taken to task for them at a foundation board of directors retreat this month by his 27-year-old daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki, one of Suzuki's five children from two marriages. "Dad," said his daughter, empowered with her own credentials as a science-based environmentalist and her authority as member of the foundation board, "you've got to stop flying." Suzuki was taken aback. "I must admit I got mad. This year I've reduced my flying by half, and next year I'm going to reduce it a lot more. And she said, 'Well, what do you want, a medal?' "
Suzuki has started to accept some speaking engagements on the condition they be conducted from Vancouver via video conference. He's exploring whether some stand-ups he narrates on The Nature of Things can be shot at home rather than on location. Doesn't all this guilt wring enjoyment out of life? "It means everything you do you have to think about it, and you have to take responsibility for," he concedes. "And now this flying thing, because my daughter is on my ass ... "
The fostering of guilt by environmental groups like Suzuki's is one of many things that annoys Moore, who co-founded Greenpeace in 1971. "They're "anti-human," he says. "We are somehow a malignancy on the face of the earth. I prefer to see [humans] as a nice friendly moss, or a fungus. A nice fungus." Moore left Greenpeace as Canadian president and an international director in 1986, fed up with its "abolitionist approach to campaigning" - an approach rooted, he says, in anti-corporate ideology rather than sound science. The Suzuki foundation is equally guilty, says Moore, who earned a Ph.D. in ecology from UBC in 1971, having taken several undergraduate genetics classes from a "brilliant" professor by the name of Suzuki. For a time in the 1980s the two were friends and kindred spirits: Suzuki the great communicator, and Moore, Greenpeace's formidable tactician and debater. When their beliefs diverged, the fallout was ugly.
Moore now runs his own shop, Greenspirit Strategies, out of a converted warehouse in Vancouver's trendy Yaletown. Greenspirit is either the Suzuki foundation's evil twin, or its pragmatic alternative, depending on your point of view. Both profess to offer science-based solutions for a more sustainable world. The foundation, though, is a registered charity. Moore runs a business, managing the environmental reputation of clients in forestry, aquaculture, the nuclear and plastics industries. Moore is riding on his reputation as a founder of Greenpeace, says Suzuki. "Well, one of the 12 disciples was Judas," he says. "He's just taking their money," Suzuki says of Moore. "The irony is that Greenpeace was born out of [nuclear weapons] testing on Amchitka [Island], and guess who is being a shill for the nuclear industry? It's Patrick Moore. And if the oil industry wanted to employ Patrick Moore to say global warming isn't happening, I'm sure he would do that, too."
It takes three weeks to find a time to sit down with Moore, who was hopscotching across North America. If he indeed has anything left in common with Suzuki it is that the idea of global warming is very good for business. As for global warming itself, "I'm no true believer on climate change. I'm also not a denier," he says. "I do think it's worth buying an insurance policy against the negative impacts of rapid climate change." By investing in nuclear energy, for instance.
Moore is angered by Suzuki's condemnations of fish farming and the forest industry. The opposition of Suzuki and others to genetically modified foods, with their potential for higher yields and improved nutrition for a hungry planet, is "a crime against humanity." There is no upside in criticizing someone with Suzuki's saintly reputation, Moore admits, but he resents Suzuki saddling him with the label of eco-Judas. There is already too much theology and too little science in the movement, he feels. "God forbid it turns into just another religion. What good will that be? Religions are the basis of so much strife."
Of course, if environmentalists, governments and corporations were holding hands and singing Kumbaya around the campfire (and campfires weren't a wanton release of carbon), there wouldn't be much need for Suzuki to bust his hump seven days a week on the evangelical circuit. Politicians, he knows, aren't nearly as malleable as fruit flies, although they often share a similar attention span. He's been almost this close to the cusp of change before, notably when Brian Mulroney's government talked of a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases within 15 years, only to jettison commitments as the economy plunged into the dumpster.
He's cajoled and tongue-lashed every prime minister since, a dangerous proposition when the foundation is a registered charity, prohibited from partisan politics. The result has been three time-consuming, costly audits. "My own view," says Fulton, the former executive director, "from having spoken to the Revenue Canada people who have tied up my time on a number of occasions, is they have certainly left me with the genuine feeling we were audited for political, not for any other, reasons." Suzuki says his outspoken views are personal, not those of the foundation. "Because the foundation is lumbered with my name, it gets blamed all the time for what I'm saying in public."
Suzuki prefers to maintain a skeptical distance from the political centre. He regularly urges Gore not to take another run at the presidency. He'd get caught up in stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion, a rehash of Bill and Monica, and whatever else the campaign stirs up. "Far better if Gore continues to focus on the single issue," he says, then angles for a cabinet position if a Democrat makes it to the White House.
Politics equals compromise, not a dominant trait in Suzuki's nature of things. It's one of the reasons he's resisted many political overtures, most recently from Elizabeth May and the Green party. He's lived life as an outsider and, recent corporate coziness notwithstanding, he sees no reason to change. That's not an admission of defeat, far from it. He recounts in his autobiography his quest in 1953 to become student president of Central Collegiate Institute in London, Ont. He was one of the few Japanese Canadians in the city. Add to that his status as a "nerd" and the cause was hopeless. He ran anyway, aiming his campaign at all fellow outsiders who weren't football heroes, cheerleaders or social stars. He won with more votes than all the other candidates combined.
It taught him a valuable lesson, one that may yet make the world a cooler place, one carbon-taxed gas guzzler, one compact fluorescent light bulb at a time. "There are a lot more Outies than Innies," he concluded, "and together that means power."
Maclean's November 5, 2007