MAY 2008


The Interview

Meet the "greatest living Canadian"

He's our leading environmentalist, a renowned geneticist, host of CBC's popular The Nature of Things — and a surprisingly outspoken critic of pretty much everything under the sun. Recently, he's set his sights on preventing environmental illness. David Suzuki spoke to us from his Vancouver office about stupid celebrities, betting on the Nobel Peace Prize, his taste in women and much, much more.

Photo credit: courtesy of the David Suzuki Foundation

You've been campaigning for the environment for years and years and then Al Gore comes along, makes one little documentary about climate change and wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Just between us, were you jealous? I was ecstatic. I bet money on it.

Really? Just a few bucks with a friend.

Many blame the push for supposedly enviro-friendly biofuel made from corn for the current international food crisis. What's your take? It's interesting to me that Fidel Castro, who has been vilified in the West, immediately castigated the use of biofuels to relieve the energy crisis as folly for using potential food for humans to feed our cars. The Bush Administration's advocacy of biofuels instead of focusing on efficiency and renewable energy indicates the emptiness of his promises to deal with both America's energy crisis and climate change.

You're best known as an eco-warrior, but you've got pretty impressive healthcare credentials, including penning a 152-page policy document on preventing environmental illnesses called "Prescription for a Healthy Canada" last year. Where do your healthcare and environmentalism concerns intersect? It's all interrelated. I'm looking at how we live in the biosphere, so health is intimately connected to issues I have been working on for 40 years — whether that's getting adequate food out of the soil or water or clean air.

I understand you wanted to be a doctor when you were younger. Do you ever think about going back and getting your MD? At my age, shoving my finger up men's asses to check their prostates is not an appealing thought. But in many ways I feel the issues I've been involved in are health issues — you can't have a healthy population if you don't have a healthy planet.

What's the biggest environmental health story of the next decade? There's no question that the medical community is waiting for a pandemic to come. We're all waiting for one. All eyes are on China and Asia. There's just too much yummy human protoplasm around for us not to be a target.

Are medical stories popular with The Nature of Things viewers? You can't lose with medical stories. You can do something on a swollen big toe and people love it.

What's one of the most controversial health topics you've tackled? Years before the HRT scandal broke, Heather Cook did a show that made it clear it was a sham by the pharma industry to earn money and it turned out it was completely vindicated. My wife was furious when I said "Don't go on HRT." She didn't like me telling her. She hasn't even grudgingly acknowledged I was right.

Should doctors buy carbon credits to offset their travel when they go to medical conferences, or is that just a way for rich people to assuage their guilt? Doctors are no different from other people. Anybody who can afford it should be offsetting. The immediate thing is to reduce our carbon footprint, to cut down on flying and driving. We should stop demanding people are in the same room at conferences — we should do video conferencing.

You lived in the US for a time. Which is better: Canadian or American healthcare? If you have seen SiCKO, it was interesting that when Michael Moore interviewed Cubans, French, British and Canadians, and asked how much they had to pay, they were shocked he would even ask the question. To think some Canadians want to go towards the American system is baffling to me.

You've ruffled a few feathers by saying that Canada should worry a bit less about its own healthcare problems and put a portion of our money towards helping third-world countries' healthcare systems. First of all, I think it's a question of morality. To have a country like Canada where we are wealthy beyond imagination and we are not willing to help people who are so poor they live on less than $2 a day is an absolute obscenity. If four-fifths of the world is impoverished and they see us every day having banquets, living in big houses with big cars, do we not think they will be pissed off at us? The failure to recognize poverty in the developing world has repercussions for us.

Is this really feasible, given the fact that five million Canadians don't have a family doctor and wait times are longer than ever? The Cubans set an example that ought to fill us with shame. I find it humiliating that we control the number of doctors that come out of our schools. And because our doctors are too important to staff hospitals and work in rural areas, we rip off Pakistan and South Africa. That is humiliating — what kind of country would do that? And there is Cuba, training 1,500 doctors for free every year to service poor communities and poor countries. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

What do you think of all these celebrities who are suddenly getting into climate change advocacy, like Leonardo DiCaprio and others? Even Paris Hilton is getting in on climate change. I think it's a detriment. I wish she'd butt out. She's just a celebrity based on being a celebrity. There's nothing there in terms of neurons in her brain. She doesn't help. But DiCaprio and Robert Redford — some people have a track record of caring.

You and your family were sent to an internment camp in BC during the Second World War. Now, with the Maher Arar case and Quebec's "reasonable accommodation" hearings on immigration, how far have we really come in terms of multicultural tolerance? I believe that racism is always there. I always say, show me the most downtrodden person on Hastings and Main — they are my brothers. Bigotry may show up against Catholics or Jews or blacks — it is there. We all have prejudices. I happen to prefer women with dark hair, not blonde. I prefer voluptuous women to skinny women.

You came in a very respectable fifth in the CBC's list of Greatest Canadians a few years back. How do you feel about being greater than the Great One? I always said I would be honoured to be one of the top thousand. I had no idea I was even in the running to be in the top 10. What it showed me was the impact of television. And when you say "great," the fact that Don Cherry was in the top 10 — you have to take it with grain of salt. I was thrilled Tommy Douglas was the top. In the US do you think a socialist could be first?

You were in fact the greatest living Canadian on the list. Does that make you proud? If you take another poll five years from now, it could be Avril Lavigne. Who knows what it means?

Interview conducted by Sam Solomon

5 things you didn't know about... David Suzuki

Why he won't be cheering the Vancouver Olympics I was not supportive of having it here. I think we should try to make it the greenest possible Olympics we can have. I think it was a mistake to widen the roads — we should have expanded the train system.

His favourite environmental protest song(s) "Beds Are Burning," by Midnight Oil — friends of mine. And that Bruce Cockburn song, "If a Tree Falls." I played it to an Amazonian Indian, and he just loved it — there are lots of images from the rainforest. Bruce's manager Bernie asked me to come to his office before the song was released. I cried, it was so powerful.

His international fanbase We were filming near Markham, in a great farming area, and there were these men working on a giant machine to harvest either carrots or celery and suddenly all these guys come running over. They're all from Trinidad. It turns out The Nature of Things is huge in Trinidad.

The ideal breakfast Go out, catch a trout, clean it and leave it overnight, and then eat it for breakfast with butter.

His disdain for his own MySpace webpage I don't really go for it. People can put all kinds of things up there — they could be perverts. You could think you are going to pick up some babe, but how do you know it's not a guy?



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