David Suzuki: The Autobiography

by David Suzuki
378 pages,
ISBN: 067697810X

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Tireless Activist
by Paul Keen

David Suzuki's decision to run for high school president (he won, of course) offers a suggestive reflection on the two very different perspectives which have defined his life. For the endlessly successful academic, TV presenter, and environmental activist, triumph in a school council race at London Central Collegiate Institute seems natural if not inevitable. How could he possibly have lost? That would have been newsworthy. But the teenager who campaigned could not, of course, gather support from future accomplishments. And as he tells the story, the contest reflects a very different perspective which is nonetheless central to his later achievements. One of very few Japanese-Canadians in a homogenous student body whose quiet but entrenched racism was fueled by war-time acrimony, alienated still further by his family's poverty and (worst of all!) by his own excellent grades and science-nerd instincts, Suzuki won by rallying "the Outies" (everyone but the "football players, cheerleaders, basketball players"), convincing them of their collective strength as a silent majority.
Suzuki's autobiography pulls no punches in his account of the racism faced by his family and other Japanese immigrants in terms of "laws [which] were passed to bar them from voting, purchasing land, and enrolling in university," and then even more oppressively during World War II (Suzuki's family was interred in the Slocan City camp). But the "psychic burden" of his growing alienation from "Canadian white society" was complicated by the impact of internal racism in the camps between the Nisei majority (second generation immigrants still fluent in Japanese) and third-generation Sansei (including Suzuki) who, speaking only English, were not Japanese enough.
Rather than lapsing into self-pity, Suzuki emphasises the ways these memories helped to nurture a sense of compassion for other victims of prejudice, and most of all, a spirit of activist determination. The teenager who became school president by rallying the Outies remains alive and well, galvanising popular support in struggles against a range of entrenched power structures and unreflecting bigotry. The section on his childhood memories closes with an apt metaphor from his years working as a framer for his uncles' construction business: in the end, the frame has been rendered invisible, "covered with shingles, siding, plaster, trim, and paint," but it remains the structure which holds the house together, in the same ways that Suzuki's early experiences of alienation "remained a fundamental part of who I am, all my life, despite the acquired veneer of adult maturity."
The bulk of the memoir deals with the central aspects of Suzuki's adult years: his evolving family life, his success as a young geneticist at UBC and as an odd kind of media star (suspicious of TV as a medium and of the pernicious effects of our celebrity culture, though his fans include Prince Charles and the Dali Lama), and his work as a tireless and much-loved activist¨the top-ranked living individual in the recent Great Canadian contest.
No one can accuse Suzuki of false modesty, but he is far happier sharing the praise, lauding the achievements of the dedicated individuals with whom he has worked in various causes (including his wife Tara and their two daughters), and emphasising the profound lessons that he has learned from others. It makes for a compelling read. Suzuki offers plenty of the requisite anecdotes from his television career¨the director's cuts, bloopers, and high risk stunts¨but his narrative gains momentum during his recollection of the issues that have obviously mattered to him most: the struggle in the mid-1970s to protect Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) and then the Stein Valley from clear-cut logging. Both fights helped to develop Suzuki as a politically sophisticated and media-savvy activist, but what makes these memories particularly worthwhile is Suzuki's insistence on his role, not as a charismatic leader but as a student: as someone who had an enormous amount to learn from the traditional values and ecologically rooted identity of Aboriginal communities, about which, he admits, he knew far too little. Suzuki's environmental priorities have been profoundly shaped by his appreciation of the Haida's sense of continuity with the environment of which they are a part, not as something out there and worth saving, but literally, as an extension of ourselves.
A long section at the core of the book charts the expansion of this activist commitment and philosophical awareness from a Canadian to a global context. Filming an episode of The Nature of Things on the Amazon rain forests of Brazil, Suzuki was befriended by Paiakan, a Kaiapo native who had fought against the corruption of his community's traditional way of life. Suzuki, Paiakan, and their families became friends and allies in struggles against the clear cutting of the rain forests, destructive mining operations, and then the Brazilian government's and World Bank's decision to embark on mega-dams that would flood huge tracts of tribal lands. Their work together reads as part travel fantasy, part cloak-and-dagger adventure story, but most of all, a stirring account of the triumph of the will in a campaign that became part of our age's global consciousness.
The final section of the book charts the emergence of the David Suzuki Foundation (he resisted the name but others insisted on it as a strategic necessity), which strives to offer positive solutions instead of being "anti-everything" as one businessman complained; his growing focus on climate change (which he graciously recounts in the now familiar terms of lessons he has learned from other more far-sighted people) as the greatest current threat; and his decision to abandon his own research because of the scientific community's reckless disregard for the ethical consequences of recent developments in genetics. So many achievements, causes, and adventures inevitably give the book a very "public" focus, but this is balanced at almost every point by Suzuki's loving attention to the efforts of his wife and daughters as determined activists and scholars in their own right, and as the community within which these issues gain their ultimate significance for him.
The autobiography is written from the self-conscious perspective of an "elder" who is edging into retirement, contemplating his own mortality as he revels in the company of his grandchildren. But it would be missing the point to read this as a book about the past. Suzuki's memoir is a retrospective by someone who is still profoundly engaged with some of the most fundamental issues of our day. News of the B.C. government's recent decision to resume logging in Clayoquot Sound underscores just how high the stakes in these struggles are. It will also bear witness to Suzuki's ongoing activist energy as Gordon Campbell will no doubt be hearing from the David Suzuki Foundation and its leader, who will be eager to bind the province to its commitment to pursuing new logging in the sustainable ways for which environmental groups associated with Suzuki had advocated. Few books could be more timely. ˛

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