Dr. DAVID SUZUKI
He's the environmentalist
everybody really loves
By RON MILLER
Right-wing Republicans, developers and builders have conspired to demonize the word "environmentalist" over the past few years. Now it's common for the ignorant to believe an "environmentalist" is, by definition, an obstructionist, a troublemaker and possibly even an eco-terrorist who might burn your new housing project down.
This continues to mystify me. I grew up thinking environmentalists were the saviors of the Earth. When America began to celebrate Earth Day in the 1970s, I was proud to be an environmentalist, one who respected nature and contributed to those organizations that wanted to keep "progress" from wiping out forests and the species that lived within them. I donated money to save whales and didn't think it was silly for citizens to unite in order to stop lumberjacks from cutting down the last remaining habitats of the spotted owls. My heart was with a slim young woman who lived in a thousand-year-old tree, gambling her life on her ability to discourage the men who wanted to saw it down.
But the tide began to turn over the past decade. When my wife and I first turned up as new residents of Washington state in the summer of 2001, we often heard ourselves described as "tree-huggers from California" when we questioned the wisdom of cutting down all alder trees on grounds they were "junk" trees that would fall on your house and litter your lawn with leaves.
Now we're in a time when our government wants to drill for oil in the Alaska wilderness parks and is now opening up our precious national forests to loggers on the ridiculous, specious grounds that cutting down trees helps prevent forest fires. We environmentalists need a hero who can rally the masses against this new national trend toward despoiling our environment.
Now I know that the hero we've been waiting for has been here all along. Well, maybe not really here, but very, very nearby. His name is David Suzuki.
Suzuki is a geneticist, but he's widely known for his television show "The Nature of Things" and his brilliant books--more than 30 of them--about nature and the environment and the threats mankind poses for them.
I'd seen him now and then on our public television and the Canadian networks where his nature programs play frequently. But I'd never really settled down and watched one of his shows all the way through. I'd seen his books here and there, but had never even picked one up.
Then last year they announced that Dr. Suzuki was coming to nearby Bellingham, WA, to talk about his new book and to autograph some copies. My wife, Darla, and I and our neighbor, Bill Perry, decided to go hear him talk because his theme sounded like just the thing we needed to hear: The "good news" about the ongoing efforts to save our environment. We'd been listening to chainsaws fell trees all along the coast of Puget Sound. We eagerly awaited his talk.
Suzuki was sponsored by Village Books, the same great independent bookstore that had booked me for a book-signing and lecture in 2002. Last year they also had booked our old friend Gerald Nachman, another writer for TheColumnists.com, to talk about his latest book. Jerry and I both had drawn crowds of 50-75 people and had felt very good about it. Now I know there are crowds and then are crowds.
To accomodate the people who wanted to hear David Suzuki, Village Books had to move his talk to the auditorium of a nearby junior high school. To get in, you either had to buy a book or buy a ticket for $15. Most book-signings are free, but I quickly understood why the bookstore needed to have some way of holding the crowd to a reasonable size.: The place was literally jammed, every seat taken. Many were turned away, even with books in hand. (All proceeds were donated to a charity.)
Suzuki's new book, written with
science writer Wayne Grady and
illustrated by Robert Bateman,
is "Tree: A Life Story."
Earlier this month, Suzuki made a second appearance in Bellingham with his new book, "Tree--A Life Story" (Greystone, $20). Again, he sold out a large auditorium--this time at Bellingham High School--and sold out the store's complete inventory of books. And I'm talking many big boxes of books.
Take my word for it: David Suzuki is a genuine Superstar. Last month a Canadian survey named him one of the 10 greatest Canadians. Of all time. He came in higher than Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.
And, don't forget, he's an environmentalist.
Right now I can't imagine any such survey in America ever having an environmentalist among the all-time 10 greatest Americans. John Muir? Forget it. The America of the 21st century would put Pee Wee Herman on that list before John Muir.
But the Americans in my part of the country love David Suzuki. Their enthusiasm has the sort of fervor you find religious fundamentalists giving a charismatic faith-healer or famous televangelist.
Once he starts talking, the small, goatee-wearing Canadian of Japanese ancestry is absolutely mesmerizing. Gifted with a deep, expressive voice and the ability to get every ounce of meaning out of every word, he's a riveting persona. When he walks into the room, you'd think Madonna or Bruce Springsteen was standing beside him from the cheering that goes on. The place rumbles with the exuberance of hundreds of ardent admirers. It's what you feel like doing. I know because I'm one of them now.
What secret power does this man possess? Nothing secret about it at all. He talks plainly, if often eloquently, making complex issues completely clear. Sometimes he even startles you with his candor. When a member of the audience asked him this month how concerned we should be about global warming, Suzuki couldn't have been more succinct.
"You should be shitting your pants," he said.
He made it clear that the unwillingness of governments to stop the industrial practices that are creating a global "greenhouse effect" is one of the great scandals of our time. We don't need to speculate about whether there is such a thing or not, he says.
It's here already in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, he said. You can go and look at it yourself, he added. Inuit villages are having to be moved because the ice is melting under them. The polar bears already are losing their sources of food. And it's not cyclical. These ice shelves have never melted before. In Antarctica, ice that's been solid for a million years is now melting.
Though Suzuki made no criticisms of Pres. George Bush and his anti-environmental administration in his prepared remarks, the heavily anti-Bush audience kept firing him questions until he finally rose to the bait. He was asked what he thought of a president who didn't seem to believe in science.
"He believes in science enough to build a missile defense system, even though it will never work," said Suzuki.
When one vocal audience member said he felt like mailing large print copies of all Suzuki's books to Bush, Suzuki quipped, "You mean, you think he can read?" The exchange drew huge applause.
He said he was proud of Canada for signing the Kyoto accords on greenhouse gas reduction, despite "tremendous pressure from Pres. Bush."
Though born and raised in Canada, Suzuki and his family were interned during World War II, just as Japanese-Americans were interned here during the war. Despite that, he grew up fiercely loyal to Canada--and remains friendly to America, where he received his initial college education--on scholarship--and studied genetics at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He also has his doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago. He spent most of his academic career as a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Now in his late 60s, Suzuki mostly works with his David Suzuki Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to finding "innovative solutions to help conserve the natural world."
Suzuki says the global warming crisis is now so far advanced that it will take centuries to repair the damage caused by fluorocarbons in our atmosphere--and we'll have to live with the devastating outcome of our shortsightedness.
"We should be terrified," he said.
But Suzuki wouldn't have become the Superstar of Environmentalism that he is today if his approach was to criticize governments. His real appeal is rooted in his basic approach--the notion that, "We human beings have lost our sense of place in the world."
At the core of his ecological philosophy is that we are all inter-dependent upon each other and upon the trees, plants and creatures of our planet. In "Tree," which he co-authored with Wayne Grady, he tells the story of a single Douglas Fir tree from seed through its ultimate demise, hundreds of years later. It's the story of an actual tree on his own property near Vancouver, B.C.
The book shows how trees depend upon each other and the microorganisms that grow like shrouds around their root systems. The molds and bacteria all play a part in the sustenance of the tree, as do the creatures who feed upon it. There also is a basic form of communication between trees. When pests begin to work on one tree, its forest neighbors all begin to produce the necessary defense mechanisms--such as toxins that discourage or kill the same pests--before they're attacked.
When I read "Tree," I also discovered my instincts were right in defending the wholesale chopping down of alders in the Pacific Northwest. Alders help provide food for evergreens like the Douglas Fir through their interlocked root systems while the taller fir trees provide protection from storms and, in the spaces between them, room for the alders to grow.
So, I asked Suzuki why there is this widespread view that alders are "useless" trees that should be chopped down before they fall down on your property. He replied that it's a typical human response: We define everything by its value to us, not for its value to other living things in its own environment. If we take away the alders, the fir trees will suffer.
In "Tree," Suzuki very succinctly explains why the spotted owl is valuable--it rids the healthy forest of many pests--and how it depends upon the old growth trees where it caches its food and builds its nests. Such things are considered laughable by many people who just can't see how the forest needs virtually all the plants and animals that would be pushed to extinction if the forests were culled by lumbermen.
His book also shows how important forest fires are to the longevity of the forests. For example, the intense heat causes some extremely hard-cased seed pods to open up and the ash provides a fertile ground for those seeds to grow in. Some of those pods only open during fires. Clearly, we don't need forest-clearing to avoid the fires that forests need on a regular basis.
If pro-business, anti-science government is the worst threat to our finding solutions to our environmental problems, Suzuki thinks the recent behavior of the media is nearly as bad. He pointed out the coming together of half the Nobel prizewinning scientists in the world to warn us about the catastrophic effects of global warming--and the refusal of the media to treat it as real news.
"You see what they consider news," he remarked, pointing to the trivial issues that now wind up on newspaper front pages and hog the little time devoted to news on what are called newscasts these days.
But rather than despair, Suzuki suggests the time has come for those of us who care to link up with each other and to begin pushing for reforms at a grass roots level.
"The great leap of our species," he said, "was the human brain. We alone have the ability to conceive a future. We alone among species can make a choice about what we want that future to be."
Suzuki is showing us the way to make that choice now before others make it for us.
©2004 by Ron Miller. The photo of David Suzuki is courtesy of the David Suzuki Foundation website. The book cover photo is courtesy of Greystone Books. This column first posted Dec. 13, 2004
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