Citation of Lifetime Achievement, 2005
David Suzuki Foundation
, $5,000 award
"If we take the position that humans are part of a much greater whole, then we recognize that whatever we do to our surroundings, we do to ourselves, because there is no separation from it."
A highlight of the academic year at Leamington's secondary
school in the 1940s was the annual oratorical contest. In
1949, one contestant was a relatively new kid to town named
David Suzuki. The Japanese-Canadian Suzuki family — David,
his three sisters and parents — had arrived four years
earlier after being released at the end of the Second World
War from an internment facility in Slocan City, B.C. Stripped
of their possessions, rights and privileges and exiled east
of the Rocky Mountains, the Suzukis had chosen the southwestern
Ontario farming community as their new home.
For the off-the-cuff requirement of the competition, Suzuki
drew the topic "If I Were Three Inches Tall." The
subject might have paralyzed a lesser speaker, but the
grade-nine student was bright, imaginative and articulate.
As a child, he had spent hours in the B.C. wilderness camping,
hiking and fishing and had a highly developed general knowledge
of the world, the result of a childhood habit of hounding
his father with questions about the content of the family's
set of The Book of Knowledge encyclopedia.
Suzuki embarked on an imaginary three-inch-tall romp,
in which he tumbles out of a fishing boat and is immediately
devoured by a bass. After a slippery ride down the predator's
digestive tract, the boy frees his penknife and slices
into the fish's air bladder. There, he safely hides until
his father hooks the fish and frees his captive son in
the course of cleaning it for dinner. "My father was
always a great believer that I should be able to speak
extemporaneously," Suzuki says today. "He thought
it was a disadvantage when Japanese Canadians could not
express themselves well, and he felt it was important that
I should be able to do that." Needless to say, the
tiny tale was a crowd-pleaser, and Suzuki won first prize.
More than 50 years later, David Takayoshi Suzuki continues
to wow audiences in homes and auditoriums across the country
on issues that matter — from the environment and civil rights
to the future of science and technology. A progressive thinker
and a persuasive grassroots activist, Suzuki is Canada's
leading spokesperson for sustainable development. He possesses
a staggering list of credentials and accolades: awardwinning
scientist, author of more than 30 books, celebrated (and
decorated) broadcaster and host of the country's longest-running
science and nature television series and its specialty-themed
spinoffs, radio personality, recipient of 16 honorary doctorates
and several First Nations honours, Officer of the Order of
Canada and founder and current chair of the board at the
David Suzuki Foundation.
The common threads that connect the prizewinning speaker
of 1949 with the environmental champion today are an uncompromising
pursuit of excellence and the ability to tell a story that
people want to hear. "My father expected that I would
always do my best," he says. "When some high
school friends wanted me to run for school president, he
was furious when I said I wouldn't because I knew I'd lose.
He told me there would always be someone better than me,
but that is no reason not to try." Suzuki ultimately
ran — and won.
After graduating from high school in London, Ont., in
1954, Suzuki left for Amherst College in Massachusetts
on a scholarship. By 1961, he had completed a Ph.D. in
zoology at the University of Chicago. A research geneticist
who spent his early career searching for a genetic mutation
in Drosophila fruit flies, Suzuki served as a research
associate for one year at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
in Tennessee before landing a faculty position at the University
of Alberta (U of A), in Edmonton, in 1962. One year later,
he was on his way home to his birthplace, Vancouver, and
the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he remained
a faculty member for 38 years, a tenure punctuated by a
handful of visiting professorships across the United States
and Canada and by his emerging broadcast career.
Suzuki's obvious gift for connecting with an audience
had made him a familiar name on U of A community television
and campus radio at UBC. He was already a hot quote for
impromptu reports and interviews when he launched "Suzuki
on Science" in 1971 from CBC Television in Vancouver.
His collaboration with television producer Jim Murray,
however, catapulted him onto the national stage when Suzuki
moved from the guest to host chair with "Science Magazine" in
1974. Five years later, Suzuki's half-hour program of science-in-brief
was reborn as "The Nature of Things with David Suzuki."
From the beginning, Suzuki distinguished himself as the
thinking person's television host. Through skilled storytelling,
he made information accessible without dumbing it down,
entertaining and challenging his audience by appealing
to their highest ideals. "I've always thought of myself
as a simplifier," he says. "When I was young,
my father used to make me practise my lessons and speeches.
He would always tell me, 'If you can't make me understand
it, how will you explain it to others?'"
His encounter with John Livingston, a former executive producer
of "The Nature of Things," signalled a turning
point in Suzuki's take on science. Livingston, a professor
of environmental studies at York University, opened the broadcaster's
eyes to the imbalance of human impacts on Earth, and it resulted
in the eight-part "A Planet for the Taking" in
1985. "Till then, I had always taken the position that
humans were at the centre of everything and that we had to
constrain our interaction with the environment," he
explains. "'A Planet for the Taking' made me realize
that we are deeply embedded in a far more complex world than
we understand. If we take the position that humans are part
of a much greater whole, then we recognize that whatever
we do to our surroundings, we do to ourselves, because there
is no separation from it."
The almost two million loyal viewers of "A Planet
for the Taking" embraced Suzuki's message. Under his
watch, CBC's science and nature programming on television
and radio since the late 1970s has been phenomenally successful. "The
Nature of Things" has a devoted weekly following and
is broadcast in more than 50 countries. "When 'It's
a Matter of Survival' aired in 1989," he says of his
five-part radio special, "the CBC received 17,000
letters from viewers. They've never had anything like that."
Suzuki had always imagined that popularizing science would
empower individual Canadians. But he discovered early on
that it offered him a platform, and that ignited his activism.
Beyond the walls of the studio, Suzuki was a relentless
advocate for oldgrowth forests and First Nations land claims
and a fearless critic of a host of environmental threats,
including James Bay hydroelectric projects, offshore oil
drilling, unsustainable forestry, B.C. aquaculture, genetically
modified foods and the country's official policy on climate
change. "As a young man, I was taught that I had no
choice but to stand up for what I thought was right," says
Suzuki, who's been run off the road on South Moresby and
had his living room window shattered by gunshots.
Suzuki's determination to mobilize Canadians eventually
led to the establishment of the David Suzuki Foundation. "My
wife Tara helped me understand that people are frightened.
You can't just give them half the story and not offer help
or an option for something they can do," Suzuki says. "TV
is ephemeral and also a passive medium for the viewer.
The foundation grew out of a need to give people a sense
of power." Launched in 1990 as a science-based, actionoriented
centre, the Vancouver not-for-profit focuses on four key
areas: oceans and sustainable fishing; forests and wild
lands; climate change and clean energy; and sustainable
living. The foundation's staff and consultants are among
the best in their fields and work tirelessly to collaborate
with academics, government and business to develop solutions
for the future.
While the foundation offers practical advice for the Canadian
public, it has also provided Suzuki with a vehicle for
social change. Last year, he and his team created a dynamic
blueprint for the future. "We got together and asked
ourselves, Where do we want to be in 25 years?" Suzuki
explains. "There was a long list of things about which
we all agreed. We want clean air, clean water, wildlife,
wilderness; we want to be able to eat the fish that come
out of our lakes and rivers." The result, Sustainability
within a Generation: A New Vision for Canada (SWAG),
is a how-to guide for a thriving and competitive country
that functions well within its natural limits. "It
was a matter of lifting our sights ahead," he says. "When
we identified our goals, we then had to ask, How do we
get there and what do we need to do?"
SWAG concentrates on nine critical challenges — among
them, generating genuine wealth, improving efficiency,
shifting to clean energy, protecting and conserving water
and reducing waste. It maps out goals and solutions for
protecting Canada's natural heritage for future generations
while ending reckless consumption, pollution and ecosystem
"We sent the document to all senior officials in
Ottawa, and they were blown away," Suzuki says. Today, SWAG's
author, environmental lawyer David R. Boyd, is midway through
a oneyear appointment with the Privy Council of Canada
to assist Ottawa in achieving the goal.
SWAG has undoubtedly accelerated the sustainability
agenda. It is mature, comprehensive and, as such, the culmination
of Suzuki's lifelong commitment to rigorous thinking and
critical analysis fuelled by his belief that it is always
possible to do better. Its wisdom reflects the evolution
of the environmental movement itself — resolved,
creative, solution-oriented and collaborative. Possibly
for the first time, it gives grassroots activists, government
and industry a common goal.
As always, it is classic David Suzuki — raising
the bar for all.