Letters to My Grandchildren and A World for My Daughter
A World for My Daughter: An Ecologist’s Search for Optimism
March 7, 2016
Review By Clayton Whitt
How do scientists and advocates who work in the thick of issues like global warming and biodiversity loss keep up their spirits and pass on more than a sense of doom and gloom to the next generation of environmental leaders? A pair of books published in 2015 by British Columbian public scientists and advocates, David Suzuki and Alejandro Frid, provide thoughtful and deeply moving answers to this question. Both books are addressed as missives to a new generation facing an uncertain future; both are also deeply personal, reflecting on family history as well as the authors’ lifetimes of research, advocacy, and public science communication. Through their stories, Suzuki and Frid find reason for hope and optimism even in a time when the future of the planet looks bleak.
In Letters to My Grandchildren, Vancouver-born UBC professor emeritus and internationally recognized environmental advocate and science broadcaster David Suzuki channels a lifetime of experience and accomplishment into life lessons for his six grandchildren. Writing at an age that he refers in the prologue as “the most important period in my life” (ix), and adopting the mantle of an elder sharing wisdom, he provides thematic chapters consisting of personal stories and reflections that build up to the lessons that he hopes his grandchildren (and a broader readership) will take to heart. One such lesson is the need to speak out against racism in all its forms, an impulse that originated in Suzuki’s experiences as a child in World War Two at an internment camp at Slocan Lake for people of Japanese ancestry. Another is what he considers the vital importance of coming to know and love nature through first-hand experience. Another concerns basic career values: ruminating on the fleeting nature of fame and reflecting on his own role as a broadcaster, Suzuki urges his grandchildren to worry less about fortune and glory and more about living out their passions and values. Throughout Letters to My Grandchildren, Suzuki communicates in informal, personal, language; you can almost picture him sitting across the dining table as he earnestly asks you to consider the provenance of the products you use and then throw away, and as he outlines his Blue Dot Tour, a project to build a movement to enshrine environmental protection in the Canadian Constitution.
Still in his fifties, Alejandro Frid is not an elder; he is in the middle of a highly productive career as an ecologist, most recently of the University of Victoria and the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance. Having done his graduate studies at UBC and Simon Fraser University, with a PhD in biological sciences from the latter in 2006, Frid’s ecological research has taken him from studying the endangered South Andean Deer in the far reaches of Chilean Patagonia to investigating the behaviour of predatory fish in the waters of Howe Sound. In A World for My Daughter, Frid assembles letters he has written to his daughter over the course of her twelve years. In them, Frid reviews his role as a scientist and concerned environmentalist and reflects on his daughter’s role in shaping his outlook on life and on the future of the planet. He interweaves stories of his research, accessible explanations of ecological principles, and examples of direct environmental confrontation, including his experience of getting arrested for his participation in coal train blockades at White Rock in 2012, which he calls “a peaceful act of science communication” (158).
In characterizing the event as such, Frid demonstrates his belief that the portfolio of the concerned scientist at present necessarily includes politics. But his letters are not only lessons for his daughter. They also show the interplay of mutual learning that makes parenthood an experience of growth and education for parent and child alike, such as his seven-year-old daughter’s observation during a hike that “whoever invented walking was a genius” (93), a statement that spurs Frid to reflect on whether or not we can hold out higher hopes for humankind than the environmental degradation that we are experiencing now.
On the one hand, then, Suzuki and Frid are both engaged in the time-honoured tradition of parents and grandparents around the world in sharing with new generations the benefits of wisdom gained over time and through trial and struggle. But together the two books also provide two key messages that all researchers, educators, and advocates should take to heart. The first is that despite the fact that both authors are scientists, they also recognize that the dry recitation of scientific facts, no matter how important, is not enough to move a public that feels as well as thinks. Suzuki and Frid know that they need to engage the hearts of their audience and not just the minds. As Frid puts it, addressing his daughter, “science is only a compass. That’s it. On its own, it cannot be the kick in the butt that propels us in any given direction. That is why we need stories that might help us make sense of where we are and where we might go” (184). For Suzuki, such stories can best be told through documentary films and TV programs that “convey a sense of wonder, amazement, and love that we desperately need if we are to appreciate the role nature plays in our lives” (67). Through the affecting, engaging, and personal stories contained in their respective books, both Suzuki and Frid put this lesson about affective and effective communication directly into practice for their readers.
The second major lesson is the need to convey reasons for hope when asking people to contribute to efforts to make the world a better place. Neither author considers despair and defeat as acceptable responses to the challenges at hand. They are both dismayed at the state of the world and do not hold back in their blistering critiques of the fossil fuel-driven political economy that has pushed our planet into distress. Suzuki even endorses Naomi Klein’s critique, in This Changes Everything (2014), of capitalism as the driver of climate change. But despite the palpable frustration, or perhaps because of it, Suzuki and Frid both find hope for the future. If problems like global warming and environmental degradation are caused by humans, then it is within human capacity to find solutions. Suzuki writes, “We can’t do anything to avoid events that are caused by natural forces, but if we have become the major causal factor, we can change our behaviour and activity to reduce the risks and consequences of what we do” (218, emphasis in original). Frid foresees a potential better future if we focus, rather than on conservation, on “steering [ecosystem] changes towards the path of greatest resilience” (190), which he likens to a controlled landing with a parachute. While they do not ignore the challenges ahead, Suzuki and Frid contend that our day-to-day actions are meaningful and make a big difference. As Suzuki insists, while we may all feel like drops of water in a bucket, “If we recruit a lot of drops…we can fill any bucket there is” (154).
Letters to My Grandchildren
Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2015. 248 pp. $27.95 cloth
A World for My Daughter: An Ecologist’s Search for Optimism
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2015. 224 pp. $24.95 paper