Climate Talk: David and Severn Cullis-Suzuki on Storytelling, Environmental Activism, and Hope for the Future

From left to right: David Suzuki, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, Tara Cullis © Note Photography

By Raye Mocioiu

For many Canadians, award-winning geneticist David Suzuki was their first introduction to environmental science. For many more, he was the first scientist who made environmental issues understandable. Over the last 50 years, Suzuki has become a household name—familiar on-screen as the host of CBC’s The Nature of Things and widely recognized as a world leader in sustainable ecology. 

With 30+ honourary degrees from universities across the globe, numerous awards for his work, including a UNESCO prize for science and a United Nations Environment Program medal, and a long list of book, movie, and TV awards, Suzuki has built a legacy of education and action. It’s no surprise that such a legacy would be passed on to the next generation—his and his wife Tara Cullis’ daughters, Severn and Sarika. Suzuki says, “Children acquire their beliefs and values through their upbringing,” which is clearly the case with the Cullis-Suzuki family, as Sarika is now co-host of CBC’s The Nature of Things, while Severn assumed leadership of the David Suzuki Foundation as Executive Director. 

An environment and culture activist and author, Severn Cullis-Suzuki took up the mantle at a young age, founding the Environmental Children’s Organization with her friends and speaking to the United Nations at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when she was only 12. No stranger to activism, Severn has spoken widely about intergenerational justice, the need for ethics in our economics, and the urgency to shift our human path toward sustainability and survival. 

And urgent it is. Amid climate change and other environmental crises, it seems that even with boundless information in the palm of our hands, the future looks unclear. Global Heroes sat down with the Suzukis to talk about climate activism, social justice, and what brings them hope for the future.

Photo © Note Photography

Global Heroes: As a world leader in sustainable ecology, what pivotal moment or experience shaped your commitment to environmental activism?

David Suzuki: I was just beginning my career as a scientist in 1962 as an assistant professor of genetics at the University of Alberta. After spending eight years in the US getting my education, I returned to Canada determined to make my name as a geneticist when I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is all about the unexpected effects of pesticides. Remember when Paul Mueller showed that DDT kills arthropods but not mammals? He won a Nobel Prize in 1948. Reading Carson’s book, I realized that as powerful as science is, in doing such focused work, we can lose sight of the context within which the object of focus exists. In other words, we may gain power to influence something, but we have no idea what the ramifications will be.

Furthermore, our ignorance is vast, and our technology is so powerful we can’t anticipate all consequences. Thus, biomagnification was discovered as a biological phenomenon when bird populations began to plummet, and scientists found that DDT is concentrated up the food chain in the shell glands of birds. I knew I had to help people see the bigger picture.

Humans have caused significant environmental harm all over the world – fossil fuel reliance destabilization the climate, destruction of nature leading to mass species extinction, pollution affecting human health, particularly Indigenous and racialized communities. What role should science play in advocating for environmental justice and policy change?

David: Science is based on a shattered view of nature because it is focused on its parts. For example, we know all about the physical properties of atomic oxygen and atomic hydrogen. But when we ask what are the properties of two atoms of hydrogen combined with one of oxygen to make a water molecule, we have no idea because the atoms interact synergistically, and “emergent properties” appear from the combination that cannot be predicted from the properties of the individual parts. What science can do is describe the world from the bits and pieces that emerge, so we are very good at measuring the atmospheric carbon levels from thousands of years ago, the biodiversity and abundance from fossil records, and so on. However, while our descriptions warn about change, they cannot prescribe specific solutions to solve the problems; they only make best guesses. So we must be cautious. 

That said, science is needed to give warnings or point in the direction of solutions. The terrible consequence of the conspiracy theory movement is the denigration of expertise. How the eminent climatologist was attacked or how Anthony Fauci—a top epidemiologist—was demonized diminished their warnings and recommendations. Look how Robert Kennedy attacks vaccines as if somehow he is an authority, which he is not.

You’ve written/co-written more than 50 books and more than 1,000 columns. What inspires you to continue writing, particularly for children? How important is it that we can convey complex concepts to broad audiences, including children?

David: For a time, being a scientist was the greatest privilege of my life. But more and more, I felt the implications of research in many areas of science were too great to be ignored by the public, that the repercussions of applying new ideas and discoveries should be discussed by the public and politicians, military leaders and corporate executives. Look at AI, genetic engineering, and nuclear weapons—surely, the public should be knowledgeable and have opinions. Many scientists are way smarter than I am, but not many scientists are willing to “popularize” science by making it accessible to the public. Margaret Mead, Carl Sagan, and Paul Ehrlich come to mind, all as top scientists who were also top communicators. They were also strongly criticized by their peers. However, the public must be informed because they will feel the repercussions most.

When my wife Tara Cullis and I started the David Suzuki Foundation in 1990, I was driven by the Worldwatch Institute that designated the 1990s the Turnaround Decade—a time when we had to change directions. I felt that educating children was too slow, and we couldn’t wait for them to grow up and change things. What a mistake. When people go through university, get a job, get married, and buy a house, then environmentalists come along telling them they have to change their lives to protect the environment, they don’t say “thanks” and change—they get mad. They’ve invested their entire lives getting to where they are, so it’s natural they don’t want to change. Their children, meanwhile, are their Achilles heel. With their vulnerability, if their children come home and say, “Mom, Dad, scientists tell us the world is suffering from how we live; we have to change,” how can adults not respond? That’s partially why Greta Thunberg has had such a huge impact. But look at how resistant the world is to her message. If we can’t act to protect our own children, what kind of a species are we?

Environmental activism often involves collaboration across sectors and disciplines. Can you share an example of a successful collaboration that has inspired your work?

David: We are all trapped within systems created to guide and constrain human behaviour, namely religious, legal, political and economic. The problem is that these systems are all about us and our supremacy while nature – the very source of our lives and wellbeing – is left out or subordinated to our systems. A classic illustration is former prime minister Stephen Harper, a climate change denier who snorted when asked about reducing the threat by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “That’s crazy economics,” he said. In other words, the economy was more important than the atmosphere, which gives us air to breathe, weather, climate, and the seasons. We are all trapped within the constraints of the legal, economic, and political constructs that do not put nature above all else. So sure, we’ve worked with companies, the government and lots of people on ways to reduce ecological footprints, become more efficient, create parks, etc., but these are all incremental changes that must be made but do not address the crisis on the scale or speed that is needed. We must change the way we see ourselves from thinking we are the top dog and everything revolves around us to recognize we are one small strand in a web of relationships with all other species of animals, plants, air, water, soil, and sunlight—that is an ecocentric perspective in contrast to our current anthropocentric perspective.

I recently attended a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Meares Island tribal park when the Nuh Chah Nulth people got an injunction to prevent logging on a sacred island. At the same time, the province of B.C. acknowledged Haida’s sovereignty over the lands of Haida Gwaii. It has been Indigenous people who have taught me to see the world through an ecocentric lens, and I see all the Indigenous people around the world who are fighting for their territory as maintaining that perspective and value system that we need. The David Suzuki Foundation and I work with Indigenous people toward the full recognition and adoption of their rights, title and sovereignty, which is an ongoing challenge.

Your daughters are now leading your life’s work—the David Suzuki Foundation and CBC’s The Nature of Things. What is it like to see your family carry on your legacy?

David: It gives me great joy, but I wish they didn’t have to work under emergency conditions.

Since starting as a young activist (particularly your speech at the UN Earth Summit in 1992), you've been involved in various initiatives focused on intergenerational justice. What are future generations' most pressing issues, and how can we address them effectively?

Severn Cullis-Suzuki: Human-made climate change and the sixth mass extinction event are symptoms of a current culture that has colonized the majority of human economies and cultures. For most of our 200,000-year human history, we’ve had to always think about the future. But our current paradigm completely ignores it. We are motivated by quarterly profits or four-year election periods in growth-at-all-costs capitalist, colonial modern societies. Without considering the longer-term impacts of our actions, we are failing future generations.

However, this culture is not the only option for humanity. There are many examples of other ways of being – other practices and cultural traditions that think seven generations out and understand profoundly that we are part of nature. Indigenous peoples are regaining strength, and as the world awakens to the costs of this paradigm, they offer us hope for a different kind of relationship. 

How do you navigate the intersectionality of social, environmental, and intergenerational justice issues in your work leading the David Suzuki Foundation?

Severn: The more we look at the root causes of the environmental crises we face—the climate crisis, mass species extinction, extreme toxic pollution—and their impacts, the clearer that there can be no environmental justice without social justice. Consider this:

  • The poorest half of the global population—about four billion people—are responsible for only 12 per cent of global emissions;
  • Meanwhile, millionaires alone are set to burn 72 per cent of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget;
  • Within two generations, nearly a third of the world’s project population will live with average temperatures above 25C, unless they become climate migrants first;
  • Our dependence on fossil fuels—and an entire era of fossil fuel supremacy that big oil and gas companies are perpetuating—has been the primary driver of the global climate crisis, impacting people who have contributed least to the problem: the global south, Indigenous peoples, children, and future generations

Our dependence on fossil fuels—and an entire era of fossil fuel supremacy that big oil and gas companies are perpetuating—has been the primary driver of the global climate crisis, impacting people who have contributed least to the problem: the global south, Indigenous peoples, and children and future generations.  

At the David Suzuki Foundation, we are sharpening our focus on the systems driving devastating effects on this planet—colonialism and growth-at-all-costs capitalism. We are advocates for the full recognition and adoption of Indigenous rights, titles, and sovereignty. We are calling on Canada’s federal government to develop and implement its strategy to address environmental racism and bring environmental justice to communities nationwide. 

Internally, we are doing our own work to examine where elements of systemic prejudice and racism exist and how they influence us. We seek to embody best ally practices and ensure an inclusive and equitable work culture. It’s challenging work, but it’s vital to truly being who we say we are in the world and standing with integrity behind the values and solutions we promote. 

GH: Living on Haida Gwaii, what lessons have you learned from Indigenous elders about sustainability and our connection to the natural world?

Severn: I have been so lucky to live for many years on Haida Gwaii in my husband Judson Brown’s community of Skidegate, and I learned so much from Xaaydas gii naah, Haida ways of beingYahgudang, respect, is a foundational principle—respect for all living things, respect for the food that gives us life, respect for each other and respect for oneself. Another central principle is gina ‘waadluxan gud ad kwaagid: everything depends on everything else, isda ad gii isda: reciprocity and tll yah dah: make it right when there’s been a wrong. These principles are important for cultural practice and have now been reintroduced within the Nation as pillars of governance and resource management.

Living on Haida Gwaii, I learned how to live in a relationship in a small, tight community. People take care of each other, and the community as a whole shows up when there is a tragedy or tough time for a family. It’s been a bit of a shock moving to the city of Vancouver post-pandemic; I’ve missed the sense of belonging and being part of the social fabric of Haida Gwaii. Especially with the housing crisis and cost of living in Vancouver, the neighbourhood where I grew up has been hollowed out of a lot of community. This is relevant for the climate crisis: we need a strong community fabric as part of the resilience to weather disasters or scarcity of water or resources. We need to know our neighbours and have relationships so that when times are tough, we don’t turn our backs on each other as strangers but work together to find solutions. A strong community is essential to navigating the ecological challenges we are facing.  

You're currently completing a PhD in linguistic anthropology, focusing on revitalizing Indigenous language. How does language preservation intersect with environmental advocacy?

Severn: I think of language as our minds’ operating systems. We don’t realize how much language affects our thinking and shapes our relationship with the world. For example, Haida has no word for “nature.” I believe this indicates just how integrated nature is in Haida life; it’s not something external or outside of humans. Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall-Kimmerer brings our attention to how many Indigenous languages use pronouns for life forms and natural things like rivers and rocks, which gives the speaker an intrinsic relationship with that entity. It makes a difference in how we perceive a tree by calling it an “it” rather than “she.” In Indigenous languages, referring to a mountain as a beloved being rather than a pile of rocks to be mined has huge psychological impacts on how we engage with the world around it. Languages imbue the sacred, the relational, and the orientation to the world around us.  

Languages also give us identity. For most of our history as humans, we lived in small groups of humans, and each group had its language. We spoke many languages as we intersected with other communities, but we had our own, reflecting the land we came from and who we were. Today, in our globalized world, we speak mega languages—English, Mandarin, and Spanish—and are often unilingual. We have lost the hyper-local linguistic connection to place and localized communities. We don’t have the same anchor in place or identity that humans have always had. Normalizing this makes us less connected to places and identity and more vulnerable to capitalist interests that fill the void of our relationship with consumerism.  

Today, in Canada, we’re on a challenging journey of recognizing our horrific colonial history with Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples worldwide are recovering from the immediate traumas of colonization and genocide and are regaining strength and standing in the world. The rest of us are just waking up to our collective ecological crisis, but Indigenous peoples have known it’s been happening since Columbus arrived in Guanahani 500 years ago. They have survived and still hold their languages and connection to place. Indigenous people are crucial to humanity’s survival of the 6th mass extinction event—comprising less than 5 per cent of the world’s population. Indigenous peoples preside over 80 per cent of our planet’s biodiversity. If we can be humble, listen, and uphold and honour Indigenous leadership, we might recognize other ways of being that could show us a better path forward with our ecosystems. 

From the tragic, ongoing mercury poisoning of 90 per cent of the Grassy Narrows First Nation population to the militarized removal of Wet’suwet’en land defenders from their territory to advance a fossil fuel pipeline, it is clear that Indigenous communities are both on the frontlines and experiencing the worst of environmental injustices. How can we ensure that environmental policies prioritize the health and well-being of marginalized groups?

Severn: Modern, extractive industries in Canada and around the world have had disastrous impacts on Indigenous Nations and communities—and it continues today. By harming, condemning or violently removing Indigenous land defenders from their traditional territories, we are antagonizing and brutalizing the very people who ought to be the greatest allies in our efforts to rediscover a harmonious way of life on this planet.

Indigenous peoples represent just five per cent of the world’s population, but they’re stewards of 80 per cent of the world’s nature. Indigenous knowledge, worldviews and leadership will be vital to humankind’s ability to reconcile our relationship with nature. Instead of recognizing that truth, colonial governments and industries are currently ignoring it by trying to silence the very voices that are calling us to rethink our destructive ways.

And it’s all in the name of growth, money making, a “healthy” economy, and maintaining our status quo extractive systems that science is showing we cannot continue.

We must stop allowing our industrial activity to cause massive harm to Indigenous peoples and their lands and waters. We must listen to the Indigenous leaders and land defenders calling for us to stop increasing fossil fuels, cutting down old-growth trees, and polluting the air, land and vital waterways. We must build a new economic model that respects planetary boundaries and ensures no person or community is left behind. 

David: We should make it illegal for people or companies to be worth millions or even billions while accepting poverty as a primary impact of our economic system.

Both of you have deep connections to Indigenous communities. How do you see Indigenous knowledge contributing to contemporary environmental solutions?

Severn: All of us were once Indigenous to unique places on the earth. Indigenous peoples who persist today have maintained worldviews connected to place and how to live correctly and in balance in that place. These worldviews recognize the interconnectedness and interdependence of humans with their ecosystems. They also acknowledge and consider the long-term impacts and responsibilities of their actions on future generations.

Modern society has rejected these age-old human worldviews of interconnectedness and long-term thinking. But we must readopt them to survive this story of evolution. To make it as humans, we must reintegrate pillars of these longstanding worldviews into how we manage ourselves. We must come with respect, humility and support for Indigenous nations today to help us find our way through. 

David: Traditional knowledge represents insights and understandings from thousands of years of observation and trial and error. Science will never duplicate that knowledge, which has been crucial for Indigenous survival, but it’s not the knowledge that will provide the solutions for today. The world has changed enormously since Indigenous traditions and cultures evolved. What they offer is a perspective within which we deal with the emergency. The initiatives to deal with the climate crisis by manipulating the biosphere are crazy; that’s the type of thinking and behaviour that got us into this mess. The problem is the scale of the problem and the timeframe for action. Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall says we need “two-eyed seeing,” a blend of Indigenous and scientific knowledge.

As advocates for environmental justice, what role do you believe storytelling and media play in raising awareness and mobilizing action?

Severn: Facts, statistics, scientific knowledge and evidence are all essential to the accuracy and credibility of the information we use to make decisions. But we need to expand our imaginations to see what is possible. We only know what we have seen, and in a fossil-fuel-dependent world, what society needs to transform into can be hard to conceive. We need media and storytellers to tell stories about the solutions and vision of the world that we want to grow!  

We hear a lot about the bad things happening in the world because our media is oriented toward crisis. Indeed, there’s a lot of bad. But there are so many amazing things happening right now, too. We are now in the period where we finally have all the solutions before us: the technology, knowledge and market conditions for alternative energies have arrived. For instance, David Suzuki Foundation research shows Canada can have a 100 per cent renewably powered electricity grid by 2035! Throughout Canada and the world, people, communities and nations are stepping up to build community-owned energy projects, climate-proof their communities with food gardens, reintroduce native species and more. That’s the inspiring stuff. That’s the stuff we need to tell stories about. In that way, our storytellers will help people visualize and believe in a future that is exciting and worth committing to. 

David: How else can we communicate and move people to action? It seems political (carbon taxes), economic or legal, and they haven’t worked.

How do you work together? What can others learn from your family’s commitment to environmental and social justice work?

Severn: My parents started the David Suzuki Foundation 33 years ago. Tara and David are an amazing combination that produced the DSF: Dad (David) was always ringing the alarm bell, trying to get everyone to wake up to the problems, and Mum (Tara) was focused on solutions, forging strong relationships along the way. They were and are a great complement to each other. They raised my sister Sarikme and me to believe we were influential in the world and to use the privileges we were born into to be agents of positive change.  

Contributing to my parents’ legacy at the David Suzuki Foundation is a huge honour. Like Dad, I am committed to speaking the truth, even when it’s hard and uncomfortable. Like Mum, I am committed to building practical, healthy, respectful relationships while doing all I can to lead the environmental and social justice movement toward meaningful, fair and just solutions that will last. 

David: I never anticipated Severn taking over the DSF. I wasn’t on the board that made that choice, but when I learned she was being considered, it made total sense.

What we need now are not more environmentalists but everyone who sees the world through an ecocentric lens. We will always need carpenters, plumbers, artists, poets, etc., but our culture will shape their actions in those jobs.

Given the urgency of climate change and other environmental crises, what gives you hope for the future?

Severn: My hope for the future comes from the knowledge that human beings have proven throughout history that we are survivors. We have changed and adapted to massive changes in the past due to climate change, natural disasters and general change. Survival is in our nature.  

I am also hopeful for the future because I am inspired by what I am fighting for. The world we need will be better for everyone. It will be less centralized and more fair. It will be less polluted and toxic and much healthier. It will be less individualistic and lonely and more communal. It will be less insecure and selfish and more compassionate and interconnected. It sounds far-fetched to us indoctrinated in a capitalist, consumer society, but these aspects of human living appeal to all of our longstanding human identity.  

David: My hope is action. The action indicates that we believe a better future is possible—otherwise, why do anything? We don’t know enough to say “it’s too late,” but we know we are already past six of the nine “planetary boundaries” within which we can survive as a species. We’re already over the cliff, but how far will we fall? We have no choice but to act to ensure the shortest fall possible—it’s the only way we can be good ancestors.

A better world begins with climate action—and climate action starts with us. Whether you use your voice, talents, or time, collective action lays the foundation for social change. Find more ways to get involved at davidsuzuki.org

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