October 7, 2009
The only thing we have is hope, according to David Suzuki.
Hope and the fact that "nature, if given a chance, often proves unbelievably forgiving."
Suzuki has noticed many changes during the evolution of The Nature of Things, the CBC science program he has hosted for 30 seasons now, but the most profound change came near the beginning.
When Suzuki started hosting Nature of Things in 1979, the program was noted for its gorgeous nature photography, a weekly glimpse inside the Garden of Eden. The imprint of humankind was not often seen -- until the end, when the narrator would warn about how everything was disappearing.
That was depressing, Suzuki believed. And predictable.
Suzuki -- a trained biologist and geneticist, and then-host of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks -- saw the need to introduce a human face and a human element to the program.
Suzuki was, and still is, as alarmed as anyone by environmental degradation, climate change and overpopulation. He was mindful, though, that deep down, people want to see stories about other people. Hopeful stories. Suzuki and his producer at the time, James (Jim) Murray, pushed for more programs about nature's effects -- good and bad -- on humankind and, more importantly, humankind's effects -- bad and good -- on nature.
The Nature of Things became a program about science, and scientists living and working in the field, outdoors. And while nature still plays a vital role in The Nature of Things -- Sunday's season opener, "A Murder of Crows," provides a telling and often startling glimpse inside the lives of these much maligned birds -- it's the human face that stands out now.
That's never more important than today, Suzuki explained in an interview. The Nature of Things is unique in North American television. Aside from PBS' Nova, it is the only weekly prime-time TV program about science on a mainstream broadcast network. Future episodes this season will touch on everything from the Arctic ice meltdown and its effects on the natural and human communities, to a profile of the insects of the Amazon rainforest, how they interact in one of the richest and most mysterious ecosystems on the planet, and their implications for science.
Suzuki, now 73, still embraces the outdoors whenever he can, but he considers his years hosting The Nature of Things -- often trapped inside atmosphere-controlled TV studios with artificial lighting and recycled air -- a gift from above. He has been exposed to some of the best science and wildlife documentaries the world has to offer, and there have been occasions when he has felt a little like David Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a lone figure surrounded by TV screens, taking it all in and absorbing information. Where Suzuki has lent the show credibility and a certain star power, the show has taught him much about the world.
"I loved radio," Suzuki said. "I loved Quirks & Quarks. And I still do. With radio, everybody's brains are working for you. The problem with television is the images go by and you don't have to think very much. But it is a much bigger audience. I was drawn to television because, if I had any talent, it was an ability to translate the necessary details of science in a way that people could understand, and I would do it so people could become more informed."
In a strange way, hosting The Nature of Things had "the exact opposite" effect of what Suzuki intended. He wanted to empower people into thinking they could affect and possibly change the world. Instead, it empowered Suzuki, by making him a media star and a high-profile figure with an influence and power he hadn't intended, or wanted.
Suzuki, the media star, knows that if he picks up the phone and calls a politician, chances are his call will be returned within the hour.
"Not because I'm so important, but because they know so many people watch my show. I think that can be dangerous. I have never really wanted to be a celebrity. I find it very difficult, because the people watching feel they've developed an instant relationship with you. It's a very heavy responsibility. I find it a hard role. I want people to be empowered and to think and act based on what they believe is the right thing to do. But I don't want to be regarded as the expert about everything."
Television, for all its critics, can have a profound and lasting effect on a thinking society, Suzuki believes. In a career of accolades and plaudits -- the Order of Canada, UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for Science, a United Nations Environment Programme medal and some 22 honorary degrees from universities throughout the world -- Suzuki considers hosting The Nature of Things one of his most accomplished and rewarding achievements.
And challenging. Suzuki has often likened TV in the 21st century to a Darwinian struggle of life and death, where only the fittest survive. Adapt or die.
"The biggest change for me, in the 30 years I've been hosting, is that when I first started The Nature of Things, if we got an audience of less than a million and a half, we were jumping around, trying to think of ways to get it back up. We liked to keep it up around 1.7 million or so.
"We haven't had a million people for 10 years. The fragmentation of the audience is such that we celebrate if we get 500,000 or 600,000 watching the show."
That said, Suzuki added, there are many more ways to see programs like The Nature of Things than there were in the past.
"If you were to add up all the reruns, from Newsworld and the other channels, God knows what the cumulative number would be. God knows what's going on out there with YouTube and iPods, and people looking at clips here and there. I have no idea what it means in the long run. The important thing is staying on the air."
Looking forward, it's important that The Nature of Things not fall back into its old patterns of predictability, Suzuki believes.
"The vast majority of our viewers, I think, understand we have problems. The fear now is, 'Is it too late, are the problems overwhelming?' We really have to show that there are options.
"If you look at what we're doing to the air and the water and the soil, we're going right over the edge. But I don't believe we're past the point of no return."
Suzuki is still capable of feeling surprise and a sense of wonder at the natural world. The scientific discoveries of the past few years -- from mapping the human genome to the discovery in Ethiopia earlier this month of the skeletal remains of Ardi, at 4.4 million years the oldest known member of the human family tree discovered so far -- have left Suzuki feeling like a young child again.
"There are some amazing things going on. So you have to have hope."