ZIYA TONG is a rare mix of entertainer, educator and fierce activist. She’s best known as the co-host of Discovery Canada’s flagship series, Daily Planet, but Tong has hosted various educational programs for more than a decade. Tong credits her love of nature to the work of David Attenborough and a meeting with Jane Goodall when she was 21 (she keeps a picture of Goodall on her desk for inspiration).
Energy Exchange sat down with Ziya Tong to learn about science, science education, youth engagement and how we can fight climate change at home and on the road.
How did you become an environmentalist?
A deep passion of mine is protecting life. I try not to use “the environment” because people doze off when you say it, but I love different life forms. Hypothetically, if we were to find a tiny bug or bacteria on Mars, the world would be fascinated. Here on Earth, we have so many life forms that we know so little about. The minute you really turn your attention to them, you see they are beautiful and just as fascinating as anything we could find elsewhere. Protecting life on Earth is the most important thing all of us need to do right now because we’re at a critical stage in human history.
Why is science important, particularly for young people?
If you delve deeper into science and what scientists do, you come to realize that, in essence, they are reality testers. You start to realize that the chair you’re sitting on is the fuzz of molecules, or that trees are silently communicating with one another; in fact, trees even kind of “sleep” at night, and they slouch when they do it! Scientists are discovering all these fantastical things. It’s quite a magical field to learn from. So, it’s a good time for young people to go into science or wherever their talents lie. I tell them, “you’ll always do well if you follow your passion and stay curious.”
How do we get kids, particularly girls, interested in science?
It’s very much a perception game. You see it in the toys that people buy for their kids. Are they gendered toys? Are they dolls or are they science toys? It’s just the way in which we treat younger people, in particular women and girls. I grew up playing with cars and science kits when I was a kid. I hated dolls. I think we can actually improve and change things within one generation.
Is that part of your job?
I’m so lucky to have families — from kids to adults — watch our show. It serves to open a door into science for them. And for girls interested in science, they see that there is somebody in a place that they think they can be in one day, like Jane Goodall was for me.
What role does science communication play?
I get to learn at least 20 new things a day for the show. And my job is to share those 20 new things with our audiences and have a lot of fun while doing it. I get to go on adventures and meet fascinating people and create crazy explosions in the studio. I’ve been in educational TV my entire career. Maybe I would’ve wanted to be a teacher in another life, but I get to do it on TV.
How does Daily Planet address climate change?
At Daily Planet, we’re blessed because we’re able to find bizarre ways to talk about climate change. Last year we had a story about how they had to truck snow to the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska because there wasn’t enough of it. It sounds absurd, but we get a sense of what we’ve done to the climate when we have to go to great lengths simply to have the basics — what we had naturally 10 or 20 years ago.
So, what can people do to fight climate change at home…
At home, one of the first things people must to do is to stop eating meat. It’s responsible for the bulk of the emissions that are changing our climate, and in a double whammy it destroys the lungs of our planet — the forests, too. People don’t expect to hear it, but I actually used to be a total carnivore. But I realized that I can’t get up there and talk about climate change and not walk the talk, especially knowing that one of the greatest contributors to the issue is what I eat.
…and on the road?
As for “on the road,” we’re seeing a lot of EVs hitting the market right now, which is fantastic. We feature them almost every day on the show. There are places such as Japan where you’re seeing more electric charging stations than regular gas stations, which is wonderful. They’re absolutely the future. I’m going to stick with my second-hand Prius for now because I know what goes into the process of creating a car, which is where a lot of CO2 emissions happen in the first place. But what’s cool is you can change virtually any car into electric. I know it’s sinful, but my dream is to convert a ’68 Camaro into an electric vehicle. Not exactly a muscle machine, but at least it’ll be a lean, mean and green one.