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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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