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Scientist, activist or TV star? In his second attempt at charting his own life, Suzuki remains frustratingly out of reach.

David Suzuki: The Autobiography Greystone Books 405 pages, hardcover ISBN 1553651561

The title is something of a misnomer. David Suzuki's autobiography was actually published two decades ago. It was called Metamorphosis: Stages in a Life and it was a best-seller, according to the aging cover of its paperback edition. Now Suzuki is 70 and apparently feels the need to revise this earlier work and add a lengthy postscript.

Like most Canadians, I am a great admirer of Suzuki. He has been compared to the late Carl Sagan in the United States but there is really no one like him. Starting out as a scientist, he became a brilliant interpreter of science on radio and television and then our most popular and persuasive environmentalist. All this was related in Metamorphosis, which was an engaging personal account of his first 50 years.

What he has done in this second version is to condense the story of his earlier years, the best part of the first book, and attach to it a chronicle of the past 20 years, which is largely and perhaps inevitably a somewhat bureaucratic history of the Suzuki Foundation, a travelogue of Suzuki's many trips to gather material for his television programs and an account of his final career as an environmental activist. Valuable as it is to have this record, it lacks the personal charm of the first book and at times tends to become a bit repetitious.

What I kept looking for in this new work was a more mature reflection on the themes broached in his first attempt at autobiography. In this respect, The Autobiography disappoints, probably because Suzuki at the age of 70 is still more fighter than philosopher. That spirit was always what made him so effective, so in this respect he is simply being consistent, but it does not produce a particularly satisfying final word.

Take, for example, the new version of his childhood and adolescence. In Metamorphosis, these early years take up three chapters and more than a third of the book. The chapter headings give a flavour of the writing: "Ancestors: The Genetic Source," "A New Generation: Childhood to War's End" and "Out East: Beyond the Mountains." In the new work, all this is compressed into a single chapter entitled, "My Happy Childhood in Racist British Columbia."

Compare the first paragraphs of each book. Here is the opening of Metamorphosis:
 My genes can be traced in a direct line to Japan.
 I am a pure-blooded member of the Japanese
 race. And whenever I go there, I am always
 astonished to see the power of that biological
 connection. In subways in Tokyo, I catch familiar
 glimpses of the eyes, hairline or smile of my
 Japanese relatives. Yet when these same people
 open their mouths to communicate, the vast cultural
 gulf that separates them from me becomes
 obvious: English is my language, Shakespeare is
 my literature, British history is what I learned
 and Beethoven is my music.

Doesn't that make you want to read more? Now here is the first paragraph of "My Happy Childhood in Racist British Columbia":
 Japanese immigrants began arriving in Canada
 in great numbers at the end of the nineteenth century,
 lured by the tremendous abundance of land,
 fish, and forests that promised money. Small, diligent,
 smelling of strange foods, speaking heavily
 accented English, these Asian newcomers seemed
 to be another kind of human being, willing to live
 in cramped quarters and squirreling away their
 hard-earned money. Laws were passed to bar
 them from voting, purchasing land, and enrolling
 in universities.

Now we are in familiar, predictable territory--Canada as a racist society. When the Second World War broke out, 22,000 Japanese Canadians were uprooted from coastal British Columbia and incarcerated inland, the Suzuki family among them. For young David, it was a first experience of alienation and isolation and it left behind "a lifelong sense of being an outsider."

But it was also--and Suzuki ignores this--the first experience of wartime panic for many Canadians living on the West Coast. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, it did not require much imagination to envisage similar attacks on Canadian soil as Japanese fire balloons wafted across the Pacific in attempts to ignite B.C. forests. Even in this second try at autobiography, Suzuki is unable to place this shameful episode in Canadian history in the context of behaviour by other peoples, including the Japanese, toward their alien residents, although he does temper his anger with memories of the abandoned mining settlement of Slocan City in the B.C. interior, where the Suzukis were incarcerated, as "a paradise ... where the rivers and lakes were filled with fish and the forests with wolves, bears, and deer."

But it is not only this wartime experience that fills Suzuki with resentment. He is a passionate man on many fronts. Over the years this has been at the heart of his success as an environmental crusader but it also has produced, at times, a one-sided approach to issues that has impeded progress and created misunderstanding. One new story in this book that illustrates this is Suzuki's decision to abandon his genetic research.

Throughout the first book one of the consistent themes was his difficulty in deciding whether he was a scientist or television celebrity. Science was his first passion, of course, and his professional expertise one of the things that made him unique on television. But even as television began to occupy most of his time, he struggled to maintain his work in the laboratory as a researcher and teacher. This was not only to retain his credibility in the media; it had something to do with the obvious difference between winning an Oscar as a performer or a Nobel Prize as a distinguished scientist. Suzuki would have given anything for the latter, or at least that is my impression, but he was also in love with the camera. This struggle was unresolved by the end of Metamorphosis.

But since then, as he relates in the new book, "I have abandoned the doing of genetics, which had consumed me for a quarter of a century."

Now this was not an unusual decision for an academic in his fifties, particularly in the sciences. It is common knowledge that the most productive years of scientists, in terms of new discoveries, are the first few decades. After that, many academics start to spend less time in the lab and more time in the office doing necessary but far less exciting administrative work. In Suzuki's case, he was able to portray his abandonment of genetics as a move toward a popular and urgent environmental crusade rather than a running out of scientific ideas. Then, in the new book, he goes further.

While admitting that this was "perhaps one of the most exciting moments in the history of genetics," Suzuki cautions that "the rush to exploit this new area of biotechnology has me deeply disturbed." He pronounces that "geneticists who set up companies, serve on boards, receive grants, or carry out experiments using the new techniques have a commitment to the technology that biases their pronouncements." He perceived, he says, "a dearth of scientists trained in genetics who don't have a stake in the technology"--in other words, scientists like Suzuki.

Subsequently Suzuki "deliberately stopped research but did not immediately lose all of the knowledge that made me a geneticist ... yet the minute I ceased doing research and began to speak out about the unseemly haste with which scientists were rushing to exploit their work, people in biotechnology lashed out."

Hardly surprising. No matter how genuine were his concerns about some of the directions that genetic research was taking, it certainly looked as if, having left the lab for the television studio, he wanted to lock the door to everybody else.

While Suzuki's blanket accusation enraged many of his fellow scientists, there was no doubt that genetics' loss was journalism's gain. By that time, Suzuki's reputation in the media was solidly established. In a field where TV series and hosts constantly emerge and disappear, Suzuki's durability is a rare phenomenon. His first national television series, Suzuki on Science, started in 1969. In 1974, he took leave from his faculty position at the University of British Columbia to host Science Magazine for the CBC. The following year he was the first host of Quirks and Quarks, which is still produced by CBC Radio. The Nature of Things with David Suzuki was launched in 1979 and continues to this day.

In the preface to this book, Suzuki warns readers not to expect any startling revelations, and that he intends to disappoint those people who "like to delve into the hidden parts of the lives of people who have acquired some notoriety, hoping to find juicy bits of gossip, signs of weakness, or faults that bring the subjects down off pedestals."

"It's not my intention to satisfy that curiosity," he declares in a statement that some might interpret as confirming the existence of a hidden trove of People magazine memorabilia. And it would not surprise this observer if such were the case, being almost Suzuki's exact age myself and also an exponent of a new morality (or immorality) during my younger years and a pioneer of the divorce court.

But having pledged to abjure gossip in this book, Suzuki then seems to encourage it in the final pages by suddenly confessing without any preamble at all, that "sex has been a driving force in my life."

"Puberty hit me like a concrete wall," he declares, "testosterone hammering through my body and wreaking havoc on my brain when I was about twelve. Only as age has brought relief from the high titer of sex hormones have I been freed of thinking of sex once a minute. Now it's about once every five minutes."

And on that intriguing note, Canada's most famous scientist, ranked fifth in the CBC's 2004 "The Greatest Canadian" contest and, as he also informs us, the first choice of Canadian women as their partner if they were stranded on a desert island, according to a Maclean's poll, prepares to take his leave.

"As an atheist," he writes, "I have no illusions about my life and death; they are insignificant in cosmic terms." Instead, he now focuses on his grandchildren as "my stake in the near future" and his fervent hope is that they might one day say, "Grandpa was part of a great movement that helped turn things around for us."

Whether or not that turns out to be true, and we all hope that it does, David Suzuki's role in trying to save humanity from itself has been undeniably significant and his influence enduring, despite the fact that, like many famous people, he is his own worst and most frustrating biographer.

Peter Desbarats is the former dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario. He retired from UWO in 1996, and now freelances, consults and writes plays.
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Title Annotation:David Suzuki: The Autobiography
Author:Desbarats, Peter
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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