The reluctant saviour

by David Larsen / 26 August, 2006
How David Suzuki became a fully fledged environmentalist.

In 1988, David Suzuki woke up and smelt the napalm. He was Canada's best-known environmentalist, but it was a position he had achieved more or less by accident. A successful career in genetics led to science presenter work on TV; this gave him a high enough profile to make him of use to good causes seeking publicity, and he found it was the environmental ones that most mattered to him.

Invited to host a radio series on the future of the global environment, he spent four months travelling the world, interviewing 150 scientists from a range of disciplines. He asked them the same question: where will we be in 50 years' time if we keep on with business as usual?

It was the first serious attempt Suzuki had made to obey the first part of the environmentalist dictum "think globally, act locally", and the results horrified him. He was used to dealing with looming extinctions and habitat destruction in his northwest Canadian backyard, but now, "I could suddenly see with crystal clarity that the very life-support systems of the planet were being destroyed at a horrifying rate and on a grand scale."

Suzuki's autobiography is an odd book, an awkward fusion of by-the-numbers personal narrative and passionate, insightful commentary on the state of the world. Though he's lived an admir-able and at times adventurous life - the chapters where he travels to the Amazon to help fight a dam project are particularly memorable - he does a poor job of narrating it. He's also burdened by an inability to rise above banality when dealing with deeply personal moments.

These limitations put Suzuki in danger of committing the characteristic sin of the Green movement: preaching to the converted. But readers who don't know his work and who aren't sure whether the climate-change situation is that urgent - or what they can do about it - are precisely those who should be reading this book. Suzuki has a sophisticated understanding of the importance of PR in moving environmental problems up the political agenda, but as a writer, he has the charm of a high-school geek desperately trying to get a date. His lack of polish is frustrating, but ultimately it's what allows his story to convince. Step by step, you see him thinking his way into full-fledged environmentalism: not because he's a natural zealot, but because he's an intellectually honest man brought face to face with evidence that our current economic and energy policies are digging our grandchildren's graves.

This comes across most plainly in the aftermath of his 1988 radio series when thousands of listeners write in asking him what they can do to help improve the situation. "Until then, my standard response to such a query had been, 'I'm just the messenger ... I'm afraid I don't have all the solutions.'" But his wife argues that this is no longer good enough: you can't tell so many people there's such a big problem and not give them a next move.

You can, of course. Pointing the finger and sounding the alarm are precisely how many respected social and environmental commentators make their living; "I'm just the guy who sees the smoke, not the guy from the fire department" is something we hear all the time. But Suzuki decides that his wife is right. The two of them spend years setting up and running the David Suzuki Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose goals are to find and implement practical responses to environmental problems. Consider its list of the 10 most effective things an individual can do to reduce their ecological impact on the planet:

- Reduce home energy use by 10 percent.

- Choose energy-efficient home and appliances.

- Don't use pesticides.

- Eat meat-free meals one day a week.

- Buy locally grown and produced food.

- Choose a fuel-efficient vehicle.

- Walk, bike, carpool or take public transport one day a week.

- Choose a home close to work or school.

- Support alternative transportation.

- Learn more and share information with others.

Too easy? Too limited? Nothing of the kind: if you want to change the world, start by showing people how to take small steps in the right direction. This kind of practical initiative - and the political nous that has seen the foundation going around Canada signing people up to implement any three items on the list within a year, and then using the sign-up lists to convince local politicians there are votes in the environment - are what make Suzuki more than just a voice in the international worry choir.

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