Review of A Force of Nature

In 1.5 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that there are three types of life thought to be happy: the life of enjoyment, the political life, and the life of contemplation.  The life of enjoyment is a hedonistic life focused on conventional pleasures. The political life is the life of a states- person. It may aim at despotic power, or be lived for the sake of winning public honors, but in its most proper form its aim is the exercise of moral virtue and political and practical wisdom in the governing of the state. The contemplative life, speaking generally, is the life of the philosopher or student of nature.

- Christine Korsgaard, Aristotle and Kant on the Source of Moral Value in Ethics, 96.3, 1986, p.489, emphasis mine.

I have just watched one of the most impressive movies of my life. A Force of Nature, the David Suzuki Movie, is deeply moving, brilliant, human, and urgent. Suzuki looks back on a life that tells so many stories and connects with every corner of the world.  This 90 minute film skilfully compresses 75 years of a magnificent life and does more than simply tell a story or convey sound-bytes. It takes us along on a journey, and, like the mythical “Heroes Quest” it is a journey that cannot help but leave us changed forever.

We see David Takayoshi Suzuki’s Canadian youth shattered by the events at Pearl Harbor and his experiencing discrimination for the first time at the hands of Japanese kids during his family’s internment. He speaks of turning to nature for refuge and solace, finding a home in science and in an American institution which had helped develop the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He starts a family, returning to Canada as an ambitious academic and being divorced by his wife. And in his young adulthood he lives through the 60s and 70s, becoming ever more aware of the destruction wrought by humanity all around him. At one point he admits that he was nearly paralyzed by the realization that his work in genetics, his science, could be used by militaries to wipe out whole races of people.

But he pressed on, transforming his understanding into activism through education. He started a TV show, “The Nature of Things,” to explain and relate the complexities of nature and science with passion to the common person. Through the show he met others who cared deeply for the environment, the most striking of whom were the Haida aboriginal people of British Columbia, who were fighting to save a large section of sacred land from impinging lumber companies.

They won that battle. But the war goes on.

Speaking about the engine driving this war, the economy, Suzuki states that in our rush for progress, “We fail to ask the important question. Like, ‘how much is enough? Are there no limits? Are we happier with all this stuff? What is an economy for? We never ask those questions.’”

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It’s funny that virtually none of this film is explicitly Buddhist, and yet the message and the man ever so clearly embody the virtues of wisdom and compassion. We do see shots of Buddhist monks chanting during a Hiroshima memorial service, but this is not the religion Suzuiki was raised with, nor is Buddhism something he took up later in life. His father, he tells us, “found great strength in the Japanese tradition of nature worship. Shortly before he died, he said, ‘I will return to nature where I came from. I will be part of the fish, the trees, the birds; that’s my reincarnation.’”

Instead, Suzuki is a man of science, in the best possible way, a true student of nature. An educator, he speaks plainly about those who have hurt him and those he sees as the greatest threats to humanity’s future. And in speaking of his work, he comes alive with a vibrancy that can make almost anyone love science. A humble man, he doesn’t take potshots at his opponents. Despite seeing so clearly the suffering caused by so much foolishness in the world, he is moved more by a sense of possibility and genuine hope for the future than by anger or despair. He has lived and continues to live a life not only deserving our attention, but also worthy of our emulation.

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The film is showing in selected theatres at the moment and will be available February 14, 2012 on DVD (you can preorder at Amazon).


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