David Suzuki at a viewpoint above the deep canyons and castellated ridges of the Hart River - one of the Yukon rivers recommended for protection by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. Marten Berkman. Credit: Marten Berkman / Peel Watershed Planning Commission

While we need to be careful about lionizing any individual and our central focus should always be on building collective strength, this writer’s favourite high-profile environmentalist is David Suzuki. He seems committed, brave, cognizant of the big picture linking environmental, social, political and economic struggles as well as willing to speak truth to power.

Suzuki’s support for Palestinians illustrates his understanding and commitment. It reflects a broader internationalist and anti-capitalist outlook every serious environmentalist should embrace. His direct rebuke of the infamous former Green Party senior advisor Noah Zatzman also offers a lesson in how progressives should respond to smears.

In an informative (if anti-Palestinian) Jewish Insider story on the Green Party, Suzuki stands up to the Israel lobby. He told the outlet that Palestinian rights are not anti-Jewish and that he’s not interested in Zatzman’s anti-Palestinian climate politics. After Zatzman reached out regarding Suzuki criticizing him, the famed CBC broadcaster responded (to an email in which Zatzman leveraged “speaking opportunities… for a number of NGOs and a number of provincial governments”) by writing:

“I said Annamie [Paul] should have fired you immediately and repudiated your vow to work against party members. She declared Greens aren’t what they claim and that’s when she lost me. Don’t bother contacting me any further.”

Suzuki’s refusal to throw Palestinians under the bus to Zatzman or a subsequent Jewish Insider inquiry is part of his broader internationalist and anti-imperialist outlook. Two years ago the prominent environmentalist signed a letter “calling on Canadian government to stop backing corrupt, repressive, illegitimate Haitian president.” Earlier this year he endorsed another critical Haiti letter and came out against the Trudeau government’s plan to spend tens of billions of dollars on new fighter jets. While many prominent Canadian leftists shied away from the campaign to oppose Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, Suzuki endorsed it. He was prescient as the world decisively rejected the Trudeau government’s Security Council bid.

Three years ago, Suzuki responded to a Globe and Mail question asking “If you had $1-million to give to charity, what cause would you select?” by saying he’d give the money to “people working to find an alternative to capitalism.” In 2011 he told The Globe and Mail, “don’t tell me that capitalism comes before very real biological realities.” In another statement, the geneticist explained:

The fact of the matter is that today, stuff-selling mega-corporations have a huge influence on our daily lives. And because of the competitive nature of our global economy, these corporations are generally only concerned with one thing — the bottom line. That is, maximizing profit, regardless of the social or environmental costs.”

Suzuki isn’t simply an armchair critic. He’s active. On Saturday, Suzuki attended an Extinction Rebellion protest in Victoria. “I saw the power of civil disobedience,” he told the crowd. “People in Extinction Rebellion are saying we’re headed in a direction of extinction and we’re rebelling against it.” Suzuki later told CHEK News, “there are going to be pipelines blowing up if our leaders don’t pay attention to what’s going on.”

It’s rare for someone with Suzuki’s profile to take anti-capitalist and internationalist positions. Wide swaths of the environmental movement are explicitly pro-capitalist and green groups usually rely on donations from the wealthy. Few challenge militarism, let alone imperial policies.

Suzuki understands that confronting the climate and other ecological crises requires building movements willing to challenge corporate, imperial and militarist power structures. As someone who has faced the wrath of fossil fuel and other capitalist interests, Suzuki understands the importance of not cowering in the face of their attacks. His reply to Zatzman suggests he understands that smears are part and parcel of challenging power. While the modalities vary slightly, harebrained attacks from the Israel or fossil fuel lobby are not fundamentally different.

David Suzuki is a rare and important voice in the Canadian political landscape.

Yves Engler

Yves Engler is the author of the recently released The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and other books. The book is available at blackbook.foreignpolicy.ca.