Filmmakers and the environment: David Suzuki

He's the embodiment of environmental conscience. Critical, outspoken, and a consistent target for those who disagree with his message, Dr. David Suzuki offers every suggestion that he'll remain undeterred by any obstacle set in his path.
August 1, 2006

He’s the embodiment of environmental conscience. Critical, outspoken, and a consistent target for those who disagree with his message, Dr. David Suzuki offers every suggestion that he’ll remain undeterred by any obstacle set in his path.

Now 70, Suzuki is an award-winning geneticist and environmentalist, and is chair of the eco foundation that bears his name. Author of 43 books, he has also had a television career – almost as an aside, given his other accomplishments – which many would envy.

In 1962, Suzuki appeared in eight programs in the University of Alberta series Your University Speaks. That led to his first nationally broadcast series on Canadian pubcaster CBC called Suzuki on Science in 1970. Four years later, he became host of the half-hour Science Magazine. That lasted until 1979, when the CBC merged Science with The Nature of Things. Then a 30-minute series that had run since 1960, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki was fleshed out to a full hour, and has remained one of the pubcaster’s landmarks ever since.

Realscreen caught up with Suzuki just before he headed to Australia for a two-month tour in support of his new book, David Suzuki, The Autobiography.

Viewers tend to greet environmental messages with denial or despair. How can you package messages to avoid this?
I know the rationale that’s been used, especially by the BBC with its natural history unit, is that you try to get people to enjoy nature – to revel in nature – and if you appreciate it, then you’ll protect it. I think that’s total bullshit. When I look at the Attenborough films, which are incredible films, you know damn well that a lot of those animals and plants are in danger of going extinct, and yet you don’t see any speaking out about it, and that’s really shocking to me.

But it’s easy to go too far the other way.
Our messages [at The Nature of Things] got so depressing, I kept saying, ‘What’s the point of putting this on if you end up with people feeling such despair they’re not going to watch us anymore?’ You have to throw a lifeline at the end. There is no point doing a program if the sense is that there is nothing that can be done about it. One has to have a very, very strong message at the end: ‘Look, it’s urgent. This cannot be ignored. But, look at what the options are. Let’s get on with it.’

There’s an assumption of neutrality when it comes to doc-makers. Are they, therefore, the best suited to take up the role of eco-warriors?
They talk about balance in journalism – that’s such bullshit. If journalists were all balanced, then there would be no need to have Canadian journalists reporting. We could just rely on the Americans or the BBC.

We all carry our own baggage and our biases with us. What we want to do is have as broad a spectrum as possible. I think that, as journalists, we have a responsibility to bring it as honestly as we can. But the notion that there is some kind of objective truth out there is absurd.

Take, for example, climate change. The evidence is overwhelming, and every year the evidence gets stronger and stronger. Yet you still see programs that will trot out one person saying it’s really serious, and another person saying the evidence isn’t there. So, to the public, it is still a debate. I think that journalists have really perpetuated that [myth] in this attempt to be balanced. It is absolutely unbalanced reporting if you have 99% of climatologists saying one thing, and one percent saying the other, and yet journalists present it as a 50/50 proposition.

It’s hard to lay aside that journalistic legacy.
I guess so. I have never considered myself a television journalist. In fact, there have been a number of calls within the CBC for me to be muzzled. Fortunately, the CBC in its wisdom has said: ‘Look, he was brought in because he had a career as a scientist. He was known as an outspoken geneticist. That was part of the reason he was hired in this position. There has to be balance in the overall offering of the cbc, not within the specific series.’

Is the success environmental films have recently enjoyed indicative of a more receptive audience, or just the continued waxing and waning of eco consciousness?
There is no question that environmentalism is coming back. My wife is very discouraged because environmentalism hit its very peak in 1988. It started with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, but in 1988, George Bush Senior said ‘If you vote for me, I’ll be an environmental president.’ That showed the extent to which it had become the number one issue.

In 1992, we had the Earth Summit in Rio, the largest gathering of heads of state, and everybody said, ‘This is it. There is going to be a significant shift.’ But, the Rio conference was in June and by the end of the year, rich countries were saying they couldn’t afford it. Then, for the next 10 years, you see the economy take over. In 1990, the Dow Jones Average was 2,000. By 1999 it was over 11,000… The environment was simply subsumed.

The other thing was that the private sector got very, very smart and began to pour huge amounts of money into spinning global warming… And they have scored a lot of points.

You observed recently that a lot of pr spin comes from US conservative organizations and fossil fuel giants. What can counteract that weight on American public opinion?
I don’t know what’s going on there, but when you have 40% of Americans still believing in the biblical version of creation, you have a real problem. What I did detect was that after hurricane Katrina, for the first time, I began to meet Americans who were saying, ‘Gee, maybe we’ve got to look at climate seriously.’ I think Katrina was a big shock.

Can filmmakers make a difference?
I don’t think there’s any question filmmakers can have a huge impact. In a very modest way, The Nature of Things can claim tremendous impact on Canadians. I only look at something like our shows on Windy Bay, which was a confrontation over clear cut logging in the Charlotte Islands in Haida Gwaii. I don’t think there is any question that the program that Nancy Archibald did was huge in finally triggering the park to be set aside. I can go through film after film that we have done.

That was a time, though, when The Nature of Things could rely on a very large audience. When I first started in ’79, if we got less than a million-and-a-half viewers, we got really worried, because we liked to be up around 1.8. We haven’t had a million viewers in over 10 years. And the problem is not only fragmentation of the viewing audience, but [also the] tremendous increase in sensationalism, which means we are competing against shows where people are eating scorpions and that kind of garbage… But there is still an audience out there that is watching serious documentaries.

Beyond television and your foundation, have you planned other side projects?
I’m 70, and I’m trying to retire. So, really, trying to raise an endowment for the foundation is my priority, and the rest of it is trying to stop traveling and talking so much. Nobody seems willing to let me do that.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.