Dan Falk
No Comments

The Earth According to Suzuki

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Testing the methods of a scientist turned journalist turned environmental activist

“This used to be a forest,” says David Suzuki, standing in a wasteland of tangled roots and jagged stumps near Tofino Creek on Vancouver Island. Walking towards the camera, he continues: “It’s a typical example of clear-cut logging, that accounts for well over 90 percent of all trees cut in British Columbia. It’s crude and fast, and it maximizes profit.” Suzuki, who is filming a two-hour television special called “Voices in the Forest,” will bring this bleak, heart-wrenching scene into living rooms across the country and around the world. His voice projects authority, yet his face seems disarmingly casual and sincere.

Those are the qualities that have won Suzuki a loyal audience for more than two decades. The former professor became a household name in the seventies as the man who could make sense out of science for a prime-time audience. He was the original host of the CBC Radio science show Quirks and Quarks, before he was asked to join CBC TV’s The Nature of Things in 1979. He’s wtitten hundreds of newspaper columns and written or coauthored 21 books, including 12 for children, as well as a university genetics textbook. In his shows and columns he has tackled a wide spectrum of topics, from microbiology and silicon chips to black holes. In the past few years, however, the focus of Suzuki’s work has narrowed. More and more, his work deals with a single issue; the destruction of our natural environment.

Without doubt, no one in this country has done more than David Suzuki to bring environmental issues to the forefront of our collective conscience. But his repeated doom-and-gloom environmental predictions are now threatening the very authority that has given him access to larger and larger audiences. His slide from journalism to advocacy is costing him.
The Globe and Mail dropped him in 1989, saying that his column had become monotonous and depressing. And last year, The Vancouver Sun, too, gave his green column the red light. The Sun’s Saturday section editor, John Skinner, called Suzuki a “one-note, predictable columnist” who seldom offered fresh insights.

But Suzuki is charged with more than just being boring. Increasingly, the scientist turned journalist has come under attack from both camps. As a journalist, he’s criticized for being one-sided, a radical, an overzealous environmental preacher. As a scientist, he’s said to have overstepped the bounds of his area of expertise (Suzuki earned his Ph.D. in zoology). His critics say he has no authority to condemn, say, the practices of the logging industry in British Columbia, and that his attacks are founded on sloppy science and prejudice instead of facts.

My first attempt to contact Suzuki for an interview was by mail. His response, a brief hand:-written note on a CBC scratch pad, was that he spends little time in Toronto, and, of that, most is devoted to The Nature of Things. A few weeks later, after I spotted him walking in College Park mall across from The Nature of Things’ Bay Street offices-I heard the real reason. Suzuki said that recent critical articles in Harrowsmith and Vancouver magazines were full of inaccuracies and have damaged his career. Slowing his pace just slightly, but clearly with no intention of stopping, he told me he feels no need to defend himself again.

“Voices in the Forest,” Suzuki’s most critical attack on the practice of clear-cut logging, aired in February 1991. Eagles soar; wildlife from moose to salamanders is seen close up. The theme is explicit: the splendour of our natural wilderness is in danger; only by accepting “nature’s agenda”preservation for preservation’s sake-can we avert disaster.
While the stance that “Voices in the Forest” took on clear-cut logging was unambiguous, the credibility of the supporting script was less clear. According to the B.C. Ministry of Forests, the show contained factual errors. It was described as a “blatantly biased” and “reprehensible” piece of journalism by The Council of Forest Industries and drew numerous complaints to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The show’s producers had to answer dozens of letters from angry academics and forestry officials.

Paul Pashnik, Port Alberni district manager for the Ministry of Forests, told Western Report he was “incensed that Suzuki did not interview known ecologists, academics and professional foresters on the government side who are promoting and practising new forestry concepts-people who know what is actually happening in the forest as far as replanting and survival are concerned.” Bernie Waatainen, a regional forester with MacMillan Bloedel, said that the company spent about four days with Suzuki’s TV crew and that only two clips from one forester were used on the two-hour show.

Suzuki neither writes nor produces The Nature of Things, but the public identifies him with the show, and he must ultimately take responsibility for it. For most viewers, The Nature of Things is Suzuki. His response, in Western Report, was that “Voices in the Forest” was balanced, containing comments from Adam Zimmerman, president of Noranda Forest Inc. (a major MacBlo shareholder) and John Cuthbert, B.C.’s chief forester.

However, the length of each clip varied according to how strongly the speaker supported Suzuki’s anti-clear-cutting stance. For example, the first clip from Janna Kumi, a forester with MacBlo, was 50 seconds long, but she was sandwiched between a forest ecologist and an anti-clear-cutting forester, who each got twice that time to condemn the B.C. forestry industry. One of them, Herb Hammond, was allowed to speak directly to the camera. The result was compelling, emotionally charged television. Unfortunately, in many places it was little more.

Rod Carrow, dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of Toronto, called “Voices” a “two-hour show with about 15 minutes of content.” A former student of Suzuki’s while at the University of British Columbia in the sixties, Carrow says Suzuki was an inspiring professor and a great scientist. But he has watched Suzuki’s move toward advocacy with uneasiness. “I think he’s reached the point now where he’s totally abandoned scientific principles,” says Carrow. “He’s essentially become an environmental activist. That’s his raison d’etre.”

Despite the accusations of one-sidedness, Jim Murray, The Nature of Things’ executive producer, says he stands by the facts presented in the program. He says that having a point of view-an environmental one in this case-is nothing to be ashamed of. If “Voices in the Forest” wasn’t what journalists like to call “objective,” says Murray, we should take a closer look at other examples of public broadcasting. Shows like the CBC’s Venture, he says, and to a lesser extent The National and The Journal, promote an economic perspective in which growth and development are paramount. “[Those shows] have a very particular bias and perspective. The Nature of Things has its own bias and perspective, an ecological one, which says that money is not the bottom line, economic growth is not the bottom line-the sustainability of nature is the bottom line.” Anita Gordon, who produced and cowrote the 1989 CBC Radio series, It’s a Matter of Survival, with Suzuki, says, “I think the most important thing is not to nitpick people like David Suzuki. If people focus on the small errors he might make from time to time, and miss the larger statement, I think it’s very, very dangerous. You ask, ‘is it fair,’ ‘is it balanced’ butjournalistic balance does not mean dividing something 50-50.”

True enough. Journalists have come to realize that the quest for balance is a tougher game than the playground see saw, where opposing viewpoints sit at the two ends, and the journalist straddles the middle. The very act of positioning the fulcrum is subjective, and the journalist has to carefully weigh numerous arguments before reaching conclusions. But Suzuki’s platform either dismisses or downplays arguments from the other side. His critics have called it “Suzukiscience,” a neatly religious devotion to an inescapable higher truth.

The CRTC eventually ruled that “Voices in the Forest” violated none of the requirements for fairness and balance outlined in Canada’s federal Broadcast Act. But controversy proved a repeat visitor. Seven weeks after “Voices in the Forest,” another Nature of Things special-this one on the environmental impact of the James Bay hydroelectric project-would once again put Suzuki and his show on the defensive.

The drama was familiar: The native people want to protect their land; the big corporation, in this case Hydro Quebec, is evil; and governments, at best, are ignorant. Most of what Suzuki says is true, but the tactics he uses are again suspect. At one point in the show, an Inuit schoolteacher breaks down in tears as she tells of her fear of “new technology.”

This sort of manipulation, when used for political ends, makes Suzuki’s critics wonder if he should be on a public television network. The Globe’s science reporter, Stephen Strauss, described the political Suzuki in a column in 1990: “There is something profoundly appalling about the way Mr. Suzuki manipulates us,” Strauss writes. “He is a media wise politician who uses science to buttress positions in which he implicitly believes,… He has been captured by the media that have made him. His logic is television’s logic: the image is everything, qualifiers are boring, other realities should not get in the way of good drama.”
In “Voices in the Forest,” as in many of his shows and columns, Suzuki mourns that our society has ignored nature’s agenda and imposed its own. Ultimately, Suzuki must convince us that it is truly nature’s agenda, not his own, that he speaks for. The first step would be a renewed effort to document his facts, as every scientist-and every journalist-is expected to. Only then will his audience be rewarded, and his critics muted. Otherwise his message-and it is surely one of the most powerful of our time-will be lost in a forest of doubt and suspicion. For all its sound and fury, it is in danger of falling on deaf ears.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

fifteen + five =