BORN: Vancouver, British Columbia • 24 March 1936
HE HATES THE COMPARISON, BUT WHEN PRESSED, David Suzuki will admit that he is a boy crying wolf. The rainforest is disappearing faster every day, and humans will soon be gasping for breath. Many Canadian rivers and lakes are poisoned beyond hope. The planet is so overcrowded that the biosphere is on the verge of complete collapse.
Today, these claims are outlandish at worst, debatable at best. But Suzuki remains defiant: “The whole point of the parable,” he says, “is that in the end, the wolf did come.” One sure thing is that if (when?) the wolf does come, and humankind’s contamination of the natural environ¬ ment begins to choke off life on Earth, the world will not have David Suzuki to blame.
He is not the first to make saving the world from itself a career, but, worldwide, few have done it better.It is tempting to find the well-spring of Suzuki’s drive in an ugly chapter in Canadian history during his childhood. In 1942 the federal government responded to wartime hysteria by forcibly removing Japanese nationals and Canadians of Japanese ancentry from the British Columbia coast.
Suzuki’s father was assigned to a road crew in the province, and the rest of the family was moved to an inland camp. At war’s end, this Canadian family was relo¬ cated to Ontario. For a child who already felt like an alien in the country of his birth, the war experience left Suzuki with memories of fear and self-loathing that would not soon fade.
In a hostile world, he grew up needing to prove himself. A brilliant student, Suzuki breezed though university in the United States. His passion was genetics, and he was a professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia when he was barely out of his twenties. Pathbreaking research on fruit flies gained him an international reputation,but his real gift was teaching: his lectures were captivating, and he earned a cult following among students as the professor who was in love with his subject.
There were more than a few scientists and students who were disappointed when Suzuki gradually gave up research and teaching in the 1970s. First radio, and then television, offered opportunities to bring his passion for science to the masses. And in Suzuki, Canadians came to know a most unusual scientist: down to earth but sophisticated, credible yet accessible.
In a series ofCBC programs, he became the best-known Canadian scientist ever.Shows like Quires and Quarts, Earthwatch, and Discovery also made Suzuki’s name outside Canada when the programs were aired around the world. By the early 1980s, however, Suzuki began to lose his faith in science as an unqualified source of good.
The television special A Planetfor the Taking in 1985 confirmed his belief that the biggest threat facing the human species was its own desecra¬ tion of the environment, much of that brought about by technological advances.
Apparently, many people agreed. His shows were some of the most watched in Canadian history and were rebroadcast worldwide in dozens of languages. In the spotlight as never before, Suzuki had discovered his life’s work.His most recent television series, The Nature of Things, is concerned almost exclusively with environmental themes.
In 1995 it was watched in more than fifty countries. That makes Suzuki a world figure, and he has seldom hesitated to lend his fame to save rivers, forests, and the ozone layer. He is now something of his own industry: his books, children’s programs, and foundation are all many people know of envi¬ ronmentalism. At the end of the twentieth century, he is perhaps the most recognized living Canadian on the planet.