At 84 years old, David Suzuki shows no signs of slowing down.

The veteran environmentalist and science communicator has graced television screens for decades as the host of CBC’s The Nature of Things. Now, the program returns for its 60th year during a pandemic with origins many have connected to environmental devastation.

The season opener is a documentary called “Rebellion.” In it, Suzuki takes the viewer through a whirlwind global tour of the mass-scale environmental protests of the past few years, from the Extinction Rebellion protests in London to smaller school strikes — inspired by Greta Thunberg — in Sudbury, Ontario. 

The Varsity sat down with Suzuki and the makers of “Rebellion” to discuss the film and its value in a time when young people are becoming increasingly involved in climate action.

A pandemic reveals the scale of the climate crisis

In “Rebellion,” Suzuki speaks to a range of climate experts around the world, including the famous British environmentalist David Attenborough. There is an overall sense of a growing awareness from the public — and especially from young people — of the urgent need for substantial climate action.

“The pandemic crisis has revealed vast social divides, and that’s just a hint of what will happen if we allow the climate crisis to escalate and trigger massive poverty and climate migration,” Suzuki said in the documentary.

He echoed this point in an interview with The Varsity, describing the colossal mishandling of the pandemic in the United States as part of a larger anti-scientific attitude from governments and decision-makers. The social inequities that COVID-19 exposed demonstrate the need to treat society’s problems holistically instead of in a piecemeal fashion.

The filmmakers agree. “Now we have this huge zoonotic disease decimating the population of the Earth, especially in the Global South,” said co-director Caitlin Starowicz. “It has really brought home the message that we need to believe scientists because [the climate crisis] is here. And it’s happening now.”

In the film, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Gail Bradbook, describes COVID-19 as an “ecological crisis” arising from declining biodiversity. “It’s not a separate crisis,” she said. “It’s a lesson in the fact that nature is in charge.”

Creating a documentary during a pandemic

Filmmakers Mark and Caitlin Starowicz are a father-daughter team who are both experienced directors. Mark was the head of CBC Documentaries for 23 years; Caitlin has created and produced documentaries for PBS, CBC, and others, and contributed to The Varsity during her time at U of T.

Mark describes the process of producing “Rebellion” as one of adaptation in an interview with The Varsity. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the film was 70 per cent complete. The goal was to finish the documentary with footage from Earth Day on April 22, and Mark and Caitlin initially hoped they would be able to continue filming — they had plans to visit Africa to cover local climate activists.

“But then the murder of George Floyd happened in Minneapolis,” Mark said. “And when the massive crowds started appearing in the streets globally, they were of all races, ethnicities, and colours. Something was clearly happening. Something had changed.”

Late into the film, the focus shifts to the Black Lives Matter movement. To the filmmakers, climate action and systemic racism are deeply linked — a growing consensus among activists and academics who predict that marginalized communities suffering from social inequities are more vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis.

“Climate justice is social justice is racial justice,” Caitlin said.

“For over 30 years, we’ve been lied to by fossil fuel companies who have been knowingly destroying the planet for a profit, and the brunt of that abuse is felt by communities of colour, [particularly] people in the Global South.”

The value of a documentary

Why did the filmmakers choose to tell the story of the global climate movement through a documentary?

“When you’re in a march… you can feel isolated even if you’re in a crowd of 20,000 people,” Mark said. “Sometimes you’ve got to show the wide shot. This documentary is the wide shot.”

“It has been said that the best link between a person and the truth is a story,” Caitlin added. “And if we can provide that story and show people that they’re not alone… then I think that is the most important message you can give. To show people that we all care together, and that it’s not a futile fight, that we are all going to stand up and all rise up together.”

“Rebellion” is available to watch for free in Canada on CBC Gem.