David Suzuki turns up the heat on Harper

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In his latest book, David Suzuki: The Autobiography (Greystone Books, $34.95), the renowned Canadian scientist and media figure relates his evolution from war child to environmental activist. Beginning in grade school, he sequences his life with the kind of order and logic you'd expect to find in a university lab””which is exactly where Suzuki spent his early working years.

In a recent interview at his foundation's Kitsilano office, Suzuki told the Straight about his formative experiences and showed a streak of rage over current affairs that proves he may be 70, but he's as fiery as ever.

David Suzuki recaps the territory covered in 1987's Metamorphosis: Stages in a Life, which was meant to appear alongside this book as a companion volume. In both books, he describes the long-term effects his incarceration during the Second World War had on him. (Like many Japanese-Canadians, his family was forcibly moved to a residential camp in the province's interior and, after the war, Eastern Canada.) He believes he's been a striver and an outsider ever since. “I wanted to call the book The Outsider,”  he said in mid-April. “I felt that way my whole life. But my daughter said, 'That's outrageous.' First of all, she said, everybody feels like an outsider. But second of all, that's not how the public perceives you and they would be insulted for you to be calling yourself an outsider when they think of you as an insider.” 

(Speaking of insiders, former broadcaster and MLA Rafe Mair recently apologized on thetyee.ca for his family's profiting from the seized assets of Japanese-Canadians during the war. “I was very moved by that,”  Suzuki said when asked about it. “I immediately e-mailed him and thanked him for that....At the end of my note, I said, 'Rafe, were you an NDPer or are you really a right-wing bastard?' He wrote back and he took my question seriously. I was just joking and he said, 'Well, you know. It depends on the issue.' And I said, 'Rafe, Rafe, I was just kidding.'” )

David Suzuki's second half picks up where Metamorphosis left off: his daughters from his second marriage grow up here, he meets with other environmental activists to set up the David Suzuki Foundation, and he travels the world””both for The Nature of Things and as an increasingly sought-after activist””to highlight its distressing plight. The forthright, chatty book mixes memoir and science, culminating with his thoughts, as an elder, on current affairs and his belief that personal meaning is to be found through family as much as through his accomplishments in the public sphere.

Pleased as he is with his family, though, he's less than thrilled with the state of the world. The recent ascension of the right is not providing much comfort. “The thing that just terrifies me,”  he said, “is trying to imagine George Bush or Ralph Klein or Stephen Harper, Stockwell Day, or [Nova Scotia MP] Peter MacKay trying to really understand what exactly is global warming. Or what is a stem cell. If you can't at least be literate enough to understand the basic principles, then you end up making decisions for purely political reasons. And that's what's really terrifying. These guys are still convinced by the skeptics, the people paid for by the fossil-fuel industry, that global warming is bullshit. And they don't have the ability to judge for themselves.” 

An activist concerned about palace politics might second-guess such public comments, but Suzuki doesn't think the Conservative federal government has any interest in collaboration with environmentally minded groups like the Suzuki Foundation anyway. Or any clear plan at all, for that matter. “Harper's turned me down,”  he claimed. “As soon as he got elected, I wrote him a long letter and I said, 'You know, the best environmental prime minister we ever had was a Tory. That was Brian Mulroney.' Now, I didn't say the reason was public interest was so high he had no choice””he didn't give a shit about the environment. But I was saying, 'Tories have a great record and I hope you're going to follow in his tradition. And we have this thing of Sustainability Within a Generation [www.davidsuzuki.org/WOL/Sustainability/], and I'd love to have the opportunity to meet you and explain it to you.' Well, he turned me down. He sent the word back to the foundation: no. Now, [Environment Minister Rona] Ambrose, when she was appointed, within two weeks called the office and asked if she could come and visit. I thought that was great. She did come and visit. But let's face it: they're all totally subservient to Harper. He's calling every shot.” 

And what are Harper's plans for the environment? Given his actions to date””appointing chief energy guru Gwyn Morgan as public-accountability watchdog; undoing Canada's obligations under the Kyoto Protocol; and, most bizarrely, allowing oil-patch MP Ambrose to order Environment Canada scientist Mark Tushingham to keep away from the launch of his own global-warming thriller, Hotter Than Hell””there's little cause for optimism.

“Harper claims that he's going to develop his own plan,”  Suzuki said. “The thing that's really outrageous is he has no plan. We've got this from Ambrose's assistant now. We were talking to him, 'Are you doing this? Considering a carbon tax?' 'Nothing yet, we're open to everything.' In other words, they don't have a fucking clue. I think it's outrageous that he's coming in, gutting Kyoto, and he's acting like he's going to substitute something and he doesn't have an idea.” 

Ask Suzuki himself what concerned citizens can do when he is the guest of a May 7 CBC Radio Studio One Book Club. For tickets and information, visit www.cbc .ca/bc/bookclub/davidsuzuki.html. Suzuki also presents a slide-show history of his life and work on May 13 at St. Andrew's Wesley Church (1022 Nelson Street), beginning at 7 p.m. For tickets, see www.ticketweb.ca/.