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David Suzuki: The Autobiography

by David Suzuki

Autobiography is inherently humanizing, breeding a familiarity between reader and author like no other kind of book. The genre gives writers and celebrities the opportunity to reflect on their careers and, for many, to write at length about their favourite subject. Autobiography also offers a splendid opportunity to take one final kick at enemies and settle old scores. David Suzuki: The Autobiography is a second installment, building on Suzuki’s earlier Metamorphosis: Stages in a Life, released in 1987. But the book works fine on its own, revisiting old territory and still roughly covering Suzuki’s entire life.

Suzuki starts by re-examining his childhood, focusing on the racism he experienced as a youth and the mistreatment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Despite the theme, this is one of the warmest sections of the book. Suzuki’s voice feels at its most honest and most human while sharing these childhood reflections, speaking about a self unfettered by the success and fame that drove his later life. Far more than any of his other non-fiction, or even the rest of this book, the section shows the man who has become such a part of our national conscience: shy, passionate, a bit earnest, a bit goofy, eyes open to the world.

The book moves, roughly chronologically, through his early careers as a scientist, radio and television host, foundation director, and finally the celebrity-scientist brand that is what we think of when we hear the name David Suzuki.

The artifacts, photos, and bits of primary source text are few, which may disappoint some. Particular pieces stand out: a poem from Suzuki’s high-school yearbook; a letter from Prince Charles (in which he writes, “I have also felt strongly that conventional economic theory and practice is in desperate need of a complete re-evaluation”); and the moving “Declaration of Interdependence” from the Rio environmental summit in 1992. The book ends with several meditations on the science and fame that have played such a huge role in Suzuki’s life.

Suzuki writes about some of the backstory on the issues closest to him, such as the Haida in Haida Gwaii, the Kaiapo in the Amazon, and climate change. But the book never feels as if it digs very deeply into contentious territory, and no controversies emerge. Suzuki, it seems, is too polite to dish on his enemies, as numerous and deserving as they must be. Gossips will have to take solace in the handful of celebrities who make appearances (green-list celebrities, you might say), like the Dalai Lama, John Denver, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, who comes off as a bratty rock star.

Still, for each moment when it feels as if Suzuki is censoring himself, there is another equally tangible moment of candour. He is incredibly ambivalent about television. It’s interesting – comforting, even – to hear about the anxiety that The Nature of Things’ “stand ups” (the speeches interspersed throughout the show) inspire in Suzuki. Off-camera, Suzuki has serious reservations, verging on distaste, for the medium. Television, he writes, doesn’t allow us time to think. “[It] demands instant response, which means there’s no profundity.” Television leads to “the general dumbing down of issues and thought processes.”

More telling, the fame of being a television personality isn’t exactly as Suzuki had hoped: “By watching my programs, I thought, the audience would acquire the information they needed to make informed decisions about how science and technology would be managed. I wanted to empower the public, but the opposite happened because of the nature of the medium…. Those viewers have empowered me, putting an enormous weight of responsibility on me.”

Suzuki, now a self-proclaimed “elder,” has not written an indulgent autobiography. “Our collective memory is so short,” he writes, “that we soon forget how things are.” He’s writing, of course, about our memory of the natural world. When a stream is buried or farmland paved over, it is too easy for us all to forget the way things were. As the fish in our lakes and rivers get fewer and smaller, we forget how big and plentiful they once were.

David Suzuki’s life’s work, if one can make such a generalization, has been to help build our collective memory. Above all, he is against forgetting, and this gentle, thoughtful book, though not his finest by far, will deserve its popularity. In writing about himself, Suzuki writes about the world.