Obituary: 01-28-2006 - Globe and Mail.


An unapologetic lover of nature who was blessed with tenacity and optimism, he took an uncompromising view of human arrogance and its role in destroying the environment, writes SANDRA MARTIN.

Saturday, January 28, 2006 Page S13

A bear of a man with a gruff, nicotine-drenched voice, John Livingston was a naturalist, a broadcaster, an author and a teacher. For years, he was the gravelly voice-over of the Hinterland Who's Who series, a zoological equivalent of Historica's Heritage Minutes that brought the sounds and descriptions of the common loon and other indigenous species to radio and television audiences in the 1960s.

Through the Nature Conservancy of Canada, The Nature of Things on television, books such as The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation and Rogue Primate (which won the Governor-General's literary award in 1994), he delivered his stern, uncompromising view of human arrogance and culpability in the destruction of the natural environment. In the process, he influenced environmentalists such as Graeme Gibson, Monte Hummel, Farley Mowat and David Suzuki, and countless numbers of viewers, readers and students.

He had two mottos. The first, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge," was a quote from Charles Darwin that he hung on the wall of his study. The other was an observation from British satirist Kingsley Amis that he recited frequently: "If a piece of writing doesn't offend somebody, there's probably something wrong with it."

"He was one of the most determined men I've met," said writer Farley Mowat, who names Mr. Livingston as a definite influence on his own thinking about the environment: "We were going to play out our roles as the great exploiters and then we were going to go down the drain." Unlike "dewy-eyed optimists," Mr. Livingston "had a bulldog quality, a clarity of vision and he was extraordinarily honest."

Geneticist David Suzuki said Mr. Livingston was crucial from a philosophical standpoint for the whole environmental movement. Back in the 1970s, Dr. Suzuki had an anthropomorphic view of nature, which meant that he believed "humans were at the centre of the action." Mr. Livingston's radically different bio-centric stance regarded humans as just another species. "It took a long time for me to understand his position and it was a very important part of me coming to understand the environmental movement in a much deeper way."

Although Mr. Livingston was greatly respected, he also had a reputation as a naysayer, and a misanthrope who was against almost any form of commercial or resource development. "We didn't always agree," admitted Monte Hummel, president emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund. They remained friends, but they argued frequently. Mr. Livingston was an idealist who felt, for example, that the Arctic should not be developed at all and Mr. Hummel was a pragmatist who was keen on building consensus and achieving what was possible, rather than insisting on only doing the right thing for the right reasons.

This attitude led to arguments with Dr. Suzuki and other colleagues when he and Mr. Livingston worked together on A Planet for The Taking in 1985. "I was involved in the anti-nuclear movement and his attitude was if humans were stupid enough to develop nuclear weapons and to drop them, well, so be it, the rest of nature would be better off for it. I had a hard time with that."

John Allen Livingston was born in Hamilton. He was the elder, by seven years, of two children of Harold Arthur Livingston, who was in the construction business, and his wife Vera (Allen) Livingston. The family moved to Toronto when John was a child and lived in North Toronto on the edge of one of the ravines that riddle the city.

It is hard to say whether it was John's easy access to nature that bred his early interest in newts, toads, frogs and birds or whether it was his own innate fascination with the natural world that attracted him to the creatures living nearby. Certainly his commitment to defending nature dates from the city's decision in the early 1930s to put a storm sewer "through my ravine," thereby "ripping the heart out of the place," as he told Farley Mowat in Rescue The Earth! Mr. Livingston remembered "weeping with rage, anger and frustration. . . . It was like a piece coming out of my stomach, and I was only 10 or 12."

After attending Brown Public School, he won a place at the University of Toronto Schools, then a boys-only elite academic high school. The Royal Ontario Museum was within easy walking distance and he often ventured there to present staff with his latest trophies, including a Cecropia Moth (a beautiful mottled lepidoptera with a six-inch wingspan). The entomologists weren't impressed, but when he took an unusual warbler to Jim Baillie in the ornithology department, he found a mentor who would stimulate and nurture his love of birds and nature.

Academically gifted, he entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto at 16, just as the Second World War broke out. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and earned and was granted a degree in English literature in 1943 "while on active service." After the war ended, he was hired by Clarkson Gordon, the chartered accountants, working there from 1946 to 1949, while pursuing his true vocation in his free time: writing and delivering essays promoting conservation in magazines, film, radio and television.

In 1948, he married art student Constance Margaret (always called Peggy) Ellis. They eventually had three children, Sally, Zeke and Least. Although some believe his youngest son was named after the Least Bittern, a small member of the heron family, the name actually came from painter Frederick Lansdowne, a family friend. Apparently Mr. Lansdowne referred to him as The Least while he was in utero and it stuck, even after the baby boy was hatched. The Livingstons divorced in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Livingston joined the Audubon Society of Canada (now Nature Canada) in 1955 as managing director and editor of its newsletter. A well-spoken advocate, his blunt comments about budworm spraying and proposals to raise and breed whooping cranes in captivity are now accepted truths.

From the CAS, he went to the Canadian Broadcasting Program as executive producer for science programs on radio and television in 1962, arriving at the corporation two years after it launched The Nature of Things, the first regular TV-science series in North America. Mr. Livingston was a writer and presenter on many of the early broadcasts on the landmark program, including Animals and Man (which won a Thomas Edison Award in 1965), Danger: Man at Work and Darwin and the Galapagos.

He had also begun publishing books based on the programs he was making for television and radio. Darwin and the Galapagos, with broadcaster Lister Sinclair appeared in 1966 under the CBC imprint. He revealed his love of birding in Birds of the Northern Forest with paintings by J. Frederick Lansdowne (McClelland & Stewart, 1966) and followed that with Birds of the Eastern Forest, Vols. 1 and 2, again using Mr. Lansdowne's paintings (M&S, 1968 and 1970).

He left the CBC in 1968 to work freelance and continued to contribute to The Nature of Things on an occasional basis. The following year, he formed a consulting company called LDL: Environmental Research Associates with lawyer Aird Lewis and ornithologist Bill Gunn, two men he knew well as founding members of The Nature Conservancy of Canada. Their first big job occurred in the mid-1970s when they worked for the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry headed by Justice Thomas Berger.

After five years, Mr. Livingston's partners bought him out, because, as Mr. Lewis explained, if you are going to be a consultant you have to give your advice to the client based on scientific evidence, not your personal moral stance.

Afterward, Mr. Livingston found the perfect perch for a man of his temperament, skills and passions: teaching in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at the fledgling York University. Although he had few of the paper credentials now deemed essential for an academic post, he had a storehouse of knowledge, a passion for his subject and the performance skills of a veteran broadcaster. The students loved him. One in particular, Ursula Moller Jolin, then a graduate student, found him fascinating. He was "interested in so many things," and "he knew so many things" and "he had a memory like a mainframe computer."

"He was a very inspiring teacher," she added, remembering one class in particular in which three professors, a trained Jesuit, an atheist (Mr. Livingston) and an economist, gave a class on cultural/historical perspectives on environmental studies. "It was absolutely riveting because there we had a platter of different opinions that were extremely well debated. It generated a lot of excitement among students."

Mr. Livingston continued to write books and essays, but his opinions were becoming more despairing and his arguments more entrenched as he retreated from the opportunistic and pragmatic world of commerce and public policy into a rarefied and idealized philosophical atmosphere.

Mr. Livingston and Ms. Jolin married in 1985. He retired in 1993 and was appointed an emeritus professor and given an honorary degree. They moved to Ottawa in the late 1990s and, after surviving the 1998 ice storm, they made plans to move to Saltspring Island, where they settled in 2000. An unrepentant smoker, he suffered from lung and heart disease in his final years.


John Allen Livingston was born in Hamilton on Nov.10, 1923. He died on Jan. 17, 2006, on Saltspring Island, B.C., after suffering a massive heart attack. He was 82.

He is survived by his second wife, Ursula, his three children, Sally, Zeke and Least. He also leaves his sister Judith and two grandchildren.



Commentary: 04-08-2007 - Toronto Star

The greatest environmentalist you've never heard of


By LOUISE FABIANI - Special to the Star

"I am not a biologist, an ecologist, nor indeed an `ologist' of any kind. I am merely a naturalist, for whom logic and `the word' have come to count for little. Nature, praise be, neither talks nor is rational, and therein is comfort."


This partially inaccurate self-avowal begins John Livingston's The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation (1981). Contrary to that characterization, he did value words and used them brilliantly, even as he scorned them for boldfacing the separation from the animals he loved so much.

Furthermore, John Allen Livingston who died last year at 82 was not merely anything. One of Canada's greatest thinkers, he gave his all to everything he touched. He lived widely and deeply, exulting in his beloved dogs, food, wine, even the music of a young k.d. lang. He was the most honest, passionate man I have met in any field. And I would be a very different person if I hadn't known him.

My earliest memory of John was his voice. I was a child, nodding off late one evening in the '60s, when I heard his deep, sea-captain rumble issuing from the TV. The program was The Nature of Things, and he was one of the earliest producers. Later, I came to associate that voice with "Hinterland's Who's Who," the wildlife vignettes the CBC used to squeeze in between programs.

I didn't meet him until 1989, when I became a graduate student at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES), which he co-founded in 1971. I took several courses with him, and found my inner activist to say the least. What I learned about thinking and doing paled in comparison with what I discovered about being: not only was it permissible to be occasionally emotional, it was actually necessary to push the envelope if the cause merited it.

There can be no shame in fighting for what you love, and showing that love, along with the facts or, sometimes, instead of them.

And Livingston loved nature with every cell. Everywhere he looked, nature suffered at our hands. The human species had lost its way somewhere back in prehistory, causing us to erode our own wildness, and with that, our stake in preserving the wild in and for itself.

If you want to locate the root of "the environmental crisis," look no further.

Since the media now scream "green" daily, there is no better time to revisit Livingston's thinking on humanity's relationship to the natural world. The John A. Livingston Reader, consisting of his three classic works on environmental thought The Fallacy, One Cosmic Instant: A Natural History of Human Arrogance (1973), and his last book, Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication (1994) has just been published by McClelland & Stewart, with an introduction by long-time friend, Graeme Gibson.

"Alone among the beings who have arisen upon the Earth, we have evolved into virtually total dependence upon not our nature but our nurture," Livingston writes in Rogue Primate.

Technology, the logical outcome of ideation and rationalization, can be as basic as fire, or as complex as a mechanical pacemaker.

Tools and techniques compensate for our deficiencies, and have allowed us to survive such things as winter (without a thick layer of fur) or tough diets (with neither fangs and claws nor complex digestion). Livingston believed that the price we paid for extended lives and reduced suffering was our own domestication.

It is easy to see why, for example, we deliberately domesticated the wild aurochs: we got a gentler, meatier animal the cow that matures faster and yields much more milk than its (now extinct) ancestor. The very idea that we have turned around and done a similar thing to ourselves as well as to animals and plants seems preposterous. Domesticating ourselves must have been an accident. Or was it?

In our struggle to survive, we sought to distance ourselves from hunger, disease, weather, parasites and predation. In a way, we threw the baby out with the bathwater: we ended up destroying almost everything natural about ourselves, good and bad. Building fires, fashioning tools, even developing laws and customs contribute to this artificiality. "In human societies," Livingston writes, "ways of doing have supplanted ways of being."

While Livingston was no Luddite he benefited from hi-tech medicine and central heating as much as the next person he hated the human sense of entitlement that enables us to perform the most unspeakable acts of cruelty and waste. Sport hunting, vivisection and habitat destruction filled him with a despair that dogged him for most of his life.

But despair is not nearly as sustainable (or, sad to say, acceptable) as rage not for the average male, anyway. Initially, I joined many fellow students in tiptoeing around John's temper. His oratory style alternated between measured and combative. He snapped at unsupportable statements. He interrupted himself in mid-lecture to sputter indignation at some memory that assaulted him out of nowhere. He did not suffer fools gladly though, to listen to him, fools got whatever they deserved.

The last time I saw my former teacher and mentor was on the November night at the National Library of Canada when the 1994 Governor General's Award winners read from their work. He was pleased, of course, that his book, Rogue Primate, had won for non-fiction if only because prizes attract readers. But he was tired. Even then, in his early 70s, he knew it had been one hell of a long fight, through decades of human folly, "green" movements that came and went, and political see-sawing that weakened the case for nature at every turn.

That lifetime of frustration led to a kind of internal exile, as I saw it: To all intents and purposes, John Livingston disappeared to everyone but his closest associates. This constant simmer of rage arose from psychic pain something I realized only after several months in his class.

Because it took me that long to approach him on his own terms. Then he was quite a different man. John listened intently and recognized a likeminded soul when he saw one. With sadness, I recall how rare he knew those souls to be.

Perhaps now his powerful writing will draw new friends from their silence, as it drew me from mine. It is not too late. Read it and prepare to find your voice.


Louise Fabiani is a Montreal science writer, naturalist, artist and poet. Most of the poetry in her first collection, The Green Alembic (Signal Editions, 1999) was written while she was a student at York University. Fabiani is at work on a second collection, and two other books.



John Livingston: Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Nature

MP3 Recordings of Course Lectures. January-April, 1988.


John Allen Livingston 1923-2006