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David Suzuki doesn't want to live forever

In his early 80s, David Suzuki’s moving a little more slowly, but he’s still building tree houses for his grandkids and thinking big thoughts, like: what would the world look like if we put our seniors on elder councils instead of out to pasture? He gets into it all on More with Anna Maria Tremonti.

Forget the bucket list. Suzuki just hopes to see his grandchildren hit a few more milestones

Environmental activist David Suzuki participates in a student-led protest. ((Evan Mitsui/CBC))

You probably know David Suzuki the scientist, the broadcaster, and the guy who sounded the alarm about climate change long before the mainstream conversation about it. But there are other things he can speak to with authority — and growing older is one of them.

Now in his early 80s, Suzuki is moving a little more slowly, but he's still building tree houses for his grandchildren and thinking big thoughts, like: what would the world look like if we put our seniors on elder councils instead of out to pasture?

Suzuki gets into it all on the latest episode of More with Anna Maria Tremonti — his long career, his father's death, his fear of dementia, how to make peace with mortality, and whether he'd want to cheat death and live forever ("Hell, no!").

The following excerpt from their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity. Find the full interview here or on your favourite podcast app.


Do you feel old?

Well, it depends on where I am and what time of day. Most of the time, I don't think about age. But for example I'm doing a show right now [for The Nature of Things] on aging well and they asked me, "Well, what's your bucket list?"

I said, "Gee, I've travelled so much and put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere so I'm not going to name some exotic place on the planet. But the one thing I would like to do before I kick the bucket is build another tree house for my grandchildren." 

So I built the tree house, but what I could have whipped up in a day, it took me five days to build this thing!

Your kids don't keep you off the ladder? 

No ... but you know I'm kind of creaking around and not as nimble. And the thing that shocked me more than anything — you know I worked in construction for eight years, that's why I like hammering together stuff — and I used to carry lumber all the time. Well, gosh, the first day I looked at my arms, and my skin has grown so thin. I was just bruised all over my arms just from carrying this stuff.

So the the impact of aging is definitely there. I've always had skeletal problems with osteoarthritis. And there's a lot of discomfort. You can't hammer as hard as you used to and things like that.

But you know, it's part of the aging process, which is natural. Not a disease of getting old.

So have you ever in your life felt old? Because sometimes people feel older when they're not older, right? People can feel old when they're 24.

Well, yeah. I've never really thought much about age except I always thought of my father as "so old" and I'm approaching the age he was when he died. And I realize how remarkable he was. He was quite vigorous right up until the end.

We are so obsessed with getting old, the fear of getting old, and trying to stay young.

I always thought of my father as so old and I'm approaching the age he was when he died. - David Suzuki

I was really struck you know recently with Greta Thunberg making such an impact, and seeing young people galvanized by this young girl. I've been at a number of press conferences now, and I feel so excited about the idealism shown by these kids. They really expect adults to listen to them.

And yet the old part of me goes, "Oh my God, these poor kids. You know they're going to find the real world is very, very different as they grow up."

So it's a balance of age and reality.

I want to ask you a little bit more about Greta. Do you see her as continuing a continuum? Do you see yourselves as part of something bigger?

Suzuki, left, and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, 16, speak ahead of the climate march in Montreal in September 2019. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Well, I think Greta has had more of an impact than all of the environmentalists around the world put together. I mean it's been truly remarkable. I think it's a combination of many things.

I think you know a lot of us have been toiling away and trying to keep issues going. But we've built up a broad enough awareness that a Greta could break through the ceiling. And she's done it for two things.

One is that the situation is so much worse now. Now it's simply undeniable, the truth of what she's saying. We've got a very limited amount of time. And the simplicity of her message is: listen to what the scientists are saying. This is why I got into broadcasting in 1962: because I was appalled at how poorly Canadians understood science.

You know, if you look in the newspapers, there's always lots of stories about politics, whole business section, whole entertainment section, whole sports section. And yet by far the most powerful force affecting our lives is science when applied by industry medicine and the military. But you don't see that reflected in the media. And my message has been: you may think you're suffering under a Rob Ford or a Donald Trump or whoever. But folks, look at the impact that the iPhone has had on the way that we live events.

So when you talk about how we see science, that's changed too though, right? People questioned science once but did they deny science in the '60s?

In the '60s people were ignorant about science. They didn't really understand how it affected their lives. Now I think there's been a deliberate process of demonizing scientists. This has been a remarkable change. In the '60s, if you ask people who they respected, it was medical doctors and scientists and now I think scientists have been brought down.

Suzuki says he is alarmed by what he sees as a trend toward demonizing scientists. (James Murray/CBC Still Photo Collection)

It started along with the tobacco industry. The evidence was in but they began a process of denial and that worked for decades. They went on denying that smoking had anything to do with cancer. Well, a lot of the publicists in the tobacco industry got hired by the fossil fuel industry as pressure came on about climate change in the 1980s.

There's been a deliberate process of demonizing scientists. This has been a remarkable change.- David Suzuki

Then they started this process of saying, "No the evidence isn't in, it's a natural cycle, scientists lie, this guy Michael Mann is just trying to pad his resume." All of these direct attacks on scientists. And I think that's a sad state.

Of course the other thing that changed was the technology. 

Yes. Now with a cellphone you've got access to more information than humans have had ever in history. And what I find now though is that people will churn through the internet until they find something that corroborates what they already believe. So you don't have to change your mind.

You want to think climate science is baloney? There are dozens of websites saying this is baloney. Well, you've got to be a little more critical than that.

So the problem now is that we're overwhelmed with ads, with pornography, with sensational stuff, and with all of these lies that are coming from the corporate sector. 

And this comes right back — for me — to the idea of aging. When you talk about thinking and critical thinking ... you're still full steam ahead. You're still a critical thinker. So what is it? Is that just luck?

I interviewed a 102-year-old physician who still comes into Toronto and sees patients three days a week, and his patients love him. And I said to him, "What's your secret?" He said parents and porridge. And I think, you know, in part it's true. It's the luck of the genetic draw but also your circumstances.

The thing that becomes so clear now as we looked at the various parts of the body that are involved in aging — from the brain down to your skin and muscles — is exercise. The body evolved to move. For 95 per cent of human existence, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers. We carried everything on our backs and followed plants and animals through the seasons.

Is that your secret? Exercise?

I try to get to the gym as often as I can. I used to be an avid runner, and just pounded my knees into submission. And so I have to use machines. I do it not to look good but I call it my medicine. I know that the body needs it.

Guess what people? We used to get up off the couch, go over and change the channels on the TV, or turn it up and down.

Now you sound like an old man.

[Laughter]

Want to hear the full conversation?

Listen for free at cbc.ca/more or on your favourite podcast app — including Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts and Spotify. And if you're new to podcasts entirely, start here

Episode 4: "David Suzuki doesn't want to live forever" is available now on the More with Anna Maria Tremonti podcast. (CBC)

 

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