TORONTO — The impending arrival of a milestone birthday has put David Suzuki in a reflective mood.
And for The Nature of Things host, who made his name as a geneticist before heading into broadcasting, there’s no point in sugar-coating it.
“I’m in the death zone,” Suzuki said late last year when discussing his 75th birthday, which arrives Thursday.
“I’m in the last part of my life and I think as an elder now it’s an important responsibility to reflect back on a life and say, ‘What the hell have I learned in 74 years? Are there things I’d like to leave as a legacy for other coming generations to think about?’ That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot.”
One thing is certain — age has done nothing to ease the resolve of Canada’s green conscience.
If anything, Suzuki says he has a greater responsibility to speak out on his environmental convictions, noting he now feels “free” to be as outspoken as he pleases.
“During the big battles we had with the forestry industry, for example, people said, ‘Aren’t you worried that someone might beat you up?’ And I wasn’t worried about that so much as worried about my children,” says Suzuki, who recalls a bullet being shot through his window in the ’80s, and being run off the road in a logging town when a truck driver recognized who he was.
But now someone can, what? If they shoot me, what the hell? I’m at the end of my life anyway and I feel that that’s a very powerful position to be in.”
“Nobody can accuse me of wanting celebrity or money or power. I’m at the end of my life and I can speak the truth and it comes from my heart.”
The pledge comes as Suzuki’s longtime series, The Nature of Things, marks its own milestone with a 50th anniversary special, also on Thursday.
Suzuki has helmed the science magazine for 31 years, infusing the program with an impassioned yet breezy approach that has made the Vancouver-born educator one of the country’s most popular TV personalities.
Meanwhile, the show itself came of age as the emerging public broadcaster found its own footing on the dial, evolving from a black-and-white, half-hour series to an hour-long current affairs show that brought Canadians images from remote places around the globe.
Its willingness to tackle a broad array of medical, social, political and environmental issues brought numerous awards and audiences in 80 countries. Suzuki boasts that it was among the first mainstream programs to discuss climate change, AIDS, and nuclear power.
“We’ve covered so many issues. I’m very proud of the fact that we were the first major show to take global warming seriously,” says Suzuki, who joined the show in 1979 when it was expanded to an hour and renamed The Nature of Things with David Suzuki.
“We’ve covered, over the years, issues of water, issues of energy, issues of forestry, chemical pollution in the environment. I’m very proud that the series itself has brought these issues and discussed them in a way that has been very informative for the public.”
Despite its often weighty subject matter, a surprisingly kooky sensibility can be found in the origin of the series.
The Nature of Things debuted in 1960 with University of Toronto physics professor Donald Ivey as host, assisted by comically rudimentary props.
Looking directly at the camera with a pitch black background behind him, Ivey kicked off the first episode with a Rod Serling-esque declaration to convey “something of the essential unity of science.”
He proceeded to illustrate the teeming organisms that exist in human blood with a life-size cut-out of a man’s shape, a vine draped around it, a caged rodent affixed to the torso and a fish bowl positioned below that.
“In man’s blood, plants and animals live,” Ivey explained. “Not these plants and animals, of course. Ours are much smaller and much more numerous.”
Ivey stopped hosting soon afterwards to concentrate on his academic career and the series cycled through a series of guest hosts until it settled on Suzuki in 1979.
Earlier this month, CBC paid tribute to the scientist-turned activist by airing the documentary, Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie. It will be rebroadcast April 3 on CBC News Network.
For the 50th season of The Nature of Things, topics have included a look at Grizzly bears, raccoons in the city, and geologic forces affecting the planet. Suzuki says there are many things yet to explore.
“I can’t imagine a Canada without The Nature of Things,” Suzuki says.
“In those 50 years, you think of the enormous things that have gone on — the space program and the nuclear arms race and birth control pill and electronics revolution. In the United States, they’ve never had a serious science program in prime time on the major networks but Canada has had The Nature of Things all those years.”
“Certainly when I go to the United States and talk to the average person, the difference between Canada and the United States is quite striking. Canadians are much better informed and I’d like to think The Nature of Things can take some of the credit for that.”
The Nature of Things with David Suzuki celebrates 50 years with a special broadcast Thursday on CBC-TV.