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20 Questions with David Suzuki

Written by

Emma Dora Silverstone-Segal
September 15th, 2016

For almost all Canadians, David Suzuki is a household name synonymous with the environment and conservation. Suzuki has been a pioneer, a leader and an activist for the environment his whole life.

My first encounter with Suzuki was about 20 years ago; he came to my all girls’ school to give a talk on conservation. One point from his presentation that always stuck with me was that his household only produced one small garbage bag of waste every month. I was in shock, unable to understand how a whole family could produce so little waste. The same amount that I produce in my kitchen almost everyday! Since than I have always been more aware of the daily waste I produce and how I am constantly trying to downsize it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but only time will tell.

David Suzuki has dedicated his life to making everyone more aware of the carbon footprint they leave behind and the critical state that our earth is in. Talking about these hard topics with dire consequences is hard for people to relate to. The only thing we can do is keep trying. The following 20 questions were curated to show a different side of Suzuki and his very public persona.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with my grandchildren and my children. One of the happiest trips I’ve ever made in my life was with my two daughters and their husbands and their children, and we went to Moorea, which is next to Tahiti for 3 weeks. There was no disagreement or squabbling, everybody got along, and we were in the ocean every day. That to me was absolute joy.

What is your biggest regret?

I often think, I have had a number of offers, positions in government, of political opportunities, and I always turned them down. Now I look back and I think ‘gee, maybe 20 years ago I could of actually had an impact’. Well, it is a regret I have had, I didn’t take politics more seriously.

Well now with Trudeau in power, I have been reading your latest articles, and you seem to have a lot of faith in him, maybe you could still get involved?

Well, he called me right after he was elected and said “we’re friends right?”

That’s intense [laugh].

Well because I had a little tiff with him earlier because I said he was all over the map. He didn’t really have a strong sense of where he was going on the environment. He’s been fantastic, and now, you know, the hard decisions are going to have to be made. But, he’s made a number of good appointments and I’m very optimistic, especially compared to the last 10 years, with Harper, I mean those were very dark dark days.

However, you have been a bit critical of Trudeau not being tough enough.

He has done a lot of the right things, and he has to tip toe through a mine field of provincial politics. But, the reality is, he made a promise at Paris in December, and a commitment to 1.5 degree rise, and that means we’ve got to get off fossil fuels very very fast. And so, it doesn’t make sense that we are still arguing about pipelines, when there shouldn’t be pipelines at all! You know pipelines, railway expansion, coal ports, all of that should be off the table now. We’ve got to get working on renewable energy and if you build a pipeline for billions and billions of dollars, it means you’ve got to use those pipelines for years later. We’ve got to get off oil. Period. And so, there shouldn’t be any discussion of this kind.

Exactly. Its so frustrating that big business is still trying to push their own agendas for oil through pipelines and tar sands, when in reality they should be pushing to switch over to new forms of energy instead of exhausting already depleted resources.

I keep telling the fossil fuel companies, look, you’re energy companies, not oil companies, you’re energy companies, and surely you can embrace the energy of the 21st century, which has got to be renewable energy. Wind, solar, geothermal; these are the opportunities. Stop acting as if you’re just oil companies and that’s all you produce. You’re producing energy. Period.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

My children. Without a doubt. I am very very proud of my children, they are all good citizens, well educated, and I believe that they are the future and they care about the country and their community, and I am very proud of them.

Who or what inspires you?

Again, it’s my grandchildren. I look at them and there is so much innocence. They never asked to be born but having been born they give such great joy. And when I look at them and see the world that they are going to grow up in, because my generation, and the boomers that followed my generation, we partied as if there was no tomorrow, we though ‘oh wow this is all great, you know, grow, grow grow’ and we used up what are grandchildren had a right to enjoy. Clean air, clean water, forests and oceans filled with fish. All that is gone now. And that inspires me in the sense that I have huge obligation to do everything I can to improve the prospects for their future. So they are the source of my drive and my inspiration.

What fictional hero do you most admire?

Don Quixote. He tilted at windmills and everybody laughed at him, but he was a man who just kept on trying. He thought he was battling monsters and thought he was doing good, and I feel like Don Quixote, so I look to him I guess.

So, where’s your horse?

[Laughs].

Wondering if you get around Vancouver by horse and carriage? You wouldn’t have to burn any fossil fuels!

[Laughs]. Yeah, that’s what I could use!

What characteristics do you most value in a person?

Commitment. I admire people who are committed to something and devote their lives to that.

What is your state of mind at this very moment?

It vacillates. It flips between great despair and hope. I fluctuate because despair doesn’t get you anywhere, its very debilitating, but when I look at what politicians and business leaders could do and there unwillingness to do it, I feel despair. You know I look back in 1988 and all parties standing committee in parliament on the environment and economy, said global warming represents the greatest threat to human survival, second only to nuclear war, and said that we have to do something. That was in 1988. Think what we could of accomplished if we had taken that seriously and acted on it. The oil companies began to spend millions of dollars saying ‘no, no this is baloney, this is junk science, this is a natural warming phase’. Even though we know now, that they have known for over 20 years, their own scientist told them that burning fossil fuels was causing global warming. So the oil industry has done exactly what the tobacco industry did for decades: deny, deny, deny. Smoking doesn’t cause cancer, even though they knew it did. That gives me despair. But what gives me hope is when I see all of the groups around the world that are working like mad, grassroots groups, trying to move towards a sustainable future, and that’s my hope. That a lot of people are working and it will add up I’m sure.

What’s really interesting about your point regarding the government recognizing this issue in 1988, is that the world didn’t even try to slow down since that warning, but has only sped up since then, exacerbating the problem.

And that’s the tragedy. We haven’t brought our emissions down, even though that was what Kyoto was supposed to be in 1997. Kyoto was supposed to agree that the rich countries would bring their emissions down by 2012, and we haven’t done it.

Very sad considering we are 2016 and those goals have not been met in the slightest.

Exactly. But you know there are shining examples of what can be done, in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Bhutan, there are countries that have really made great strides, it’s just that the rest of the world needs to follow their example.

Everyone knows you as an environmentalist. What’s your favorite thing to do that’s unrelated to conservation?

Oh well! Until very recently I loved down hill skiing, but maybe I guess I like hiking, and camping and fishing. I’m not a sports fisherman, but I fish to eat. I enjoy being out, I enjoy the act of catching the fish, but I don’t catch and release, I catch to eat, and if I’m not going to eat, then I don’t fish.

If you could live anywhere, where would that be?

I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years, so you can imagine I must love that place. I’ve really made it my home and I’m on the water in Vancouver and I love that place. I also have a cabin, we’ve had for over 20 years now, on an island in the Pacific that I had hoped to live in when I retired…. but it’s too late to move, I think. But I love Vancouver, I love this area, so why would I move anywhere else.

Who is your favorite artist?

My favorite would have had to be my sister, who was an impoverished artist all her life, but who really introduced me to art and said ‘stop being so uptight, if you like it, than that’s all art is, what you like. Stop trying to interpret everything, it’s just there. The artist does his thing and its up to you to decide what you get out of that art’. She was a very committed artist who struggled to survive all her life, but she remained true to her life’s choice.

In your opinion, what is the single biggest threat to the Canadian environment and why?

I keep being asked this. Is it global warming, is it deforestation, is it ocean acidification, and I say you know all these issues are important and I don’t know which one is going to do us in, but underlying all of our problems is the human mind. It is what we see and believe about the world around us. So, for example, I went to a Peruvian village where the people live on the side of the Andes mountain, and the kids are taught this mountain is an Apu. Apu means god, and as long as that Apu casted it shadow on our village, it will determine our destiny. Now you think of how a kid growing up in that village will treat that mountain compared to a kid in Revelstoke, British Colombia in the Rockies, who’s taught all his life, ‘I’ll bet those mountains are filled with gold and silver’. The way we look at the world is what shapes the way we behave towards it. So is a forest a sacred grove, or is it just a chance for timber and pulp? Is a river the circulatory system of the land or is it just an opportunity for irrigation and energy? Is the soil a community of living organisms or dirt? Is another species, our biological relative, related to us, or is it a resource? Is our house our home or is it just real estate? We now look at the world in a way that makes us very very destructive, and this is why I’ve spent so much time working with First Nations, throughout the world indigenous people will talk about there surroundings as their home, they live because of Mother Earth, and they live because of the generosity of Mother Earth, giving us clean air, clean water, clean food and soil and clean energy. This is the way we have to look at the world, otherwise we are driven by an economic agenda, which is ‘we got to grow, got to have more, got to keep using up all the things that we see’, and that’s what’s destroying the planet. So the challenge is the human mind, and our belief and value system, and that’s very hard to change.

This is what gets me, what we were talking about before, about hope and despair, how do we tackle changing the minds of all these people, all these consumers, when ads are popping up everywhere and subliminal messaging to buy more is only growing, everything is still growing. And it just surprises me when I hear of studies being conducted in Japan, these scientist are actually quantifying the positive effects that nature has not only on diseases such as stress, anxiety, ADD and depression, but on a person’s overall mental happiness. Actual numbers and results people can relate to proving that if a person spends a significant amount of time in nature that they will be happier and healthier. We don’t take a second to stop and think that it’s not only there to give us food and water and oil but if we take a moment to appreciate it, we can actually positively benefit from it, beyond just our basic needs, it can make us better people.

Exactly. We don’t understand. We need nature for our physical and our mental well being. There are books and books now that quantify exactly what that actual impact is. I’ll tell you Emma, the thing that really bothers me is that most kids in Canada and the United States now live in big cities. And the average Canadian kid spends less than 8 minuets a day outside and more than 6 hours a day in front of a screen. A TV, computer, or iPhone screen. So we are getting less and less connected to nature.

I one hundred percent agree with you, I was born in 1986, so I was on the cusp of the technology boom. I was lucky enough to have a childhood devoid of screens, it was introduced to me as a teen and has become a constant part of my life since, but I find it hard to relate to let’s say a 19 year old, who has never been without a screen in front of their face.

[Laughs]. Well you know our national parks have got a real crisis right now because people aren’t going into our national parks anymore because they want to have Wi-Fi where everywhere they go.

If we are so dependent on our planet why are we so reluctant to save it?

We’ve lost contact with the real world. As I say most of us now, including in the developing world, live in big cities. And in a big city you think that your most important priority is your job. Because you work at a job to get the money to buy the things that you want, and so, we come to elevate the economy above the very things that keep us alive. So when Harper was Prime Minister he kept saying ‘we can’t afford to do anything about climate change because it will destroy the economy’. So, he elevated the economy above the very things that keep us alive. And I think that’s the major problem, again it comes down to our belief and value system, we just can’t see that we are still dependent on nature for our well being.

What is one thing a Canadian could change in their daily lives that would have the most positive impact on our environment?

Well there are a number of things that we can do, but a suggestion years ago, by a women who wrote to me and said ‘why don’t we do what they do in Switzerland, which is, just ask people everyday in your life, pick up one piece of garbage, as your going about your day. One piece! If we have 35 million Canadians, every day, picking up one piece of garbage a day, that’s a big impact. And I think that’s a great thing, its easy, its simple, and a lot of us end up doing it more than once, and the other thing is get the hell out of the car. If you can take a bus, if you can walk or bike or rollerblade, get the hell out of the car, because our bodies evolved to move, our bodies evolved to be active, why on earth do we do everything against what our bodies need? We have all these labor saving devices but it doesn’t make us healthy, so I say get out and move.

What’s your most prized possession?

I often wonder about that, if we had a fire and our house was burning down, what would I run after to save. And I’ll tell you, quite frankly, it’s the albums we have of our family’s experiences. It’s memories are by far the most valuable thing, there my life, is in my brain, it’s memories.

What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you at a party?

[Laughs]. Gosh I never think about things like… the craziest thing was when I told my wife, I think she was going to be 50 than or maybe 60, I was taking her out for dinner, but we had arranged a surprise party, and the surprise party was at my mom and dad’s place, so we walked in the door, and I said ‘we have to drop in and see mom and dad to pick up a key’, and suddenly all these people jumped out. Tara could not put it all together, she was looking forward to having dinner with me, and she kept going ‘What are all these people doing? Whaaa? Why are they yelling?’ and it took her minuets before her brain could put together the surprise and somehow fit it into the fact that I had fooled her into thinking we were going out for dinner. That was really funny.

What is your greatest fear?

Well I guess, I don’t know, I guess it’s feeling a tremendous amount of, no. No I guess I would say losing my mind. Dementia. Both my mother and her siblings all died of dementia. And so, my mother died at 74 so I long passed her in age, and my father had his faculties right up to the time he died, but, because your brain, to me, my brain is everything and when my brain goes I’m dead.

Who, what or where makes you feel the most spiritual and why?

Well I guess it’s when I go to my cabin, and as I say it’s on an island and we have 10 acres right on the ocean, and when I go out to the point, there is a point out in the water, and realize, I look down and there is a lokiway, don’t ask me how to spell it, I spell it l-o-k-i-w-a-y, lokiway is what’s called a clam garden, over hundreds of years First Nations that lived around there would put stones out in the water and over time the tides would wash shells and sand and stuff and they built literally, they built places that are ideal for growing clams. And it was only in the last 20 years that we’ve recognized that these were created by human beings. We always thought of these First Nations of not having much culture because they didn’t have agriculture, the fact is they were farming the oceans, we now know that that they were growing deliberate plants that they ate in the oceans, they were growing clams and they were nurturing salmon populations. They were farmers in a very profound way. When I look out and realize that generations and generations of First Nations that occupied this area, and on what I call my property, created these gardens that we now harvest clams in, that gives me shivers up my back because I realize, you know, how rooted in place these people were, and the long term planning they did and actions for their future generations, that fills me with humility and admiration… I’m an atheist so…

What’s the last book you read?

I’m almost finished now, it’s a book called ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ and it’s by a women named Robin Kimmerrer, she is a Potawatomi First Nations in the United States but grew up as a white person, got her PhD in botany, and then she went to a talk by a traditional First Nations women, who had no education but talking about the relationship with plants, and it blew this woman’s mind because she realized here was a radically different way of looking at plants, for what she had been trained as a botanist. And so, she had gone back and learned the traditional language, she’s learned all these traditional ways of dealing with plants, and ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ is about an indigenous way of looking at our relationship with plants. It’s really mind boggling.

What’s one thing about you people would be surprised to know?

Well probably that I don’t watch much television. I grew up before there was any television, when I went away to college in the United States in 1954, no body in my family in London, Ontario owned a television set; because there was no TV station in London in 1954. So I had never watched television all through college, all through graduate school. I bought my first TV set in 1962 when I got a job at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. People are always shocked by that.

It has been such an honor speaking with you today, so my last question to you is, if you wanted to get one message across to our readers, what would it be?

I think it is to be much more thoughtful about the way we are living and I have to say, since your parents are in the clothing business, one of the things that makes me absolutely crazy is seeing people walking around in blue jeans that they paid 150 or 200 dollars that’s got all kinds of rips in them, and I think ‘what the hell kind of animal is this’. So when I say be more thoughtful, I don’t mean that in a simple way, I mean, for example, when you go buy an article of clothing, and say ‘I’d like a cotton shirt’, do people ever ask ‘is it organic’? Cotton is the most chemically intensive crop we grow and than a question would be ‘where was it grown’? You know the biggest cotton growing area is in Eurasia between Russia and China and the area is an ecological disaster because so much chemicals has been used, but we never think of that. It ‘s just ‘I want to buy a tee shirt’ and if we buy a car or a TV set or a computer do we ask, you know mining is a very destructive activity where were all the metals in this, where did they come from. What was the impact of mining on the people? We have really got to be much thoughtful of the way that we are living; we are living in a way that is so disconnected from the world that gives us all these products. So that would be my last piece of advice.

Photos courtesy of David Suzuki Foundation

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  1. Epic interview!

  2. Martin silverstone

    Wonderful interview, great job Emma!

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