In Memory of John Allen Livingston

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, BC, after suffering a massiveheart 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.


The Globe & Mail, Saturday, January 28, 2006