In his 2009 film, The Cove, filmaker and environmentalist Louie Psihoyos brought to the world`s attention the shocking plight of dolphins in the small town of Taiji in Japan. His latest documentary Racing Extinction is a call to arms to help save our dying planet. We caught up with Louie as he prepared for the film`s screening at London Zoo.
Tell us about Racing Extinction
I`ll feel better once it`s out on Discovery doing its work! It`s showing in 220 different countries on the same day so that`s going to be a massive showing for any documentary! We`re really looking forward to it though, it`s been six years in the making so this is going to be the biggest day in its life! It`s all very exciting! It`s a whole gamut of emotions; to me it`s the biggest story in the world and it`s the most important story in the world. It`s the most important story of our epoch, so it has an impact on not just this generation, but thousands if not millions that follow.
Do you think that one film has the power to change the world?
(laughs) Well maybe not my films! A film is just a film, you need a campaign on the back of any production like this. When we started thinking about it, we teamed up with Vulcan Productions and Discovery to craft a campaign that would keep it going so that it`s not just a movie, it`s a movement. But based on the impact of The Cove, we want to use this film to really scale it up. The idea is to get the audience engaged with the campaign and to try and figure out what we can all do to try and save these species.
Species are going extinct at an alarming rate nowadays, but mostly we don`t notice because it`s the smaller ones, the bugs and the plants. Your films tend to concentrate on the larger, more well-known creatures. Do you think more can be done to help the lesser known species on the verge of extinction?
More should be done, because, for example, we`re down to about three percent of Monarch butterflies. They have a migration that takes three generations to complete, going from Canada down to this six hectare space in Mexico which is now being decimated by insecticides. And that’s just butterflies. Right now there are parts of China that don’t have any bees because the air is so toxic. People have to go and paint pollen onto plants with paint brushes because the bees aren’t there to pollinate them. That`s what it`s coming down to. Forty percent of our crops are pollinated by insects. We lose insects, we lose a major source of our food supply. I don’t know the propensity of people who would watch a film about bees, but there are a few out there that are really pretty good! People in my focus group were like “Louie do we really need to talk about plankton?” Plankton is the base of the food chain, of everything that lives. We rely on them to generate two out of every three breaths we take. We`re losing plankton at a rate of one percent every year. They`re beautiful to look at, but they`re not cute and cuddly. I heard someone once say “I don’t care about plankton”, and well, I didn`t know what to say! Plankton is probably far more important than any other lifeform, but you`re not gonna see a plush toy made out of one. Unless it`s SpongeBob I guess!
What impact has The Cove had on the plight of dolphins in Taiji?
It continues to have a ripple effect. We just bought back the Japanese rights to The Cove and we`re releasing it for free over there so more people in Japan will be aware. They may still be serving whale meat in some schools, but they`re not serving dolphin meat any more. That stopped almost immediately when the movie was released. We were working with a couple of councilmen there who helped us to get the information out. We sent a copy of The Cove to every single person who lives in Taiji. That`s three thousand four hundred and forty four people. The idea was that back then a lot of people were eating dolphin meat because they thought it was healthy, but once they got the information, that changed. They were killing 23000 dolphins and porpoises a year when we started making the film. Last year it was less than six thousand.
You mention in The Cove that environmentalists have been killed in the name of their work. Do you ever worry about your own safety when you`re making these films?
I worry more about the safety of the crew. I figure that I`ve got it coming if something happens, but I don`t want the crew to get into trouble. We had several death threats after The Cove. We get less now! Someone asked me last week if I expect death threats with the new film, and I said that I hope so because it means that you`re starting the change.
What do you hope to do after Racing Extinction?
Well, the thing with documentaries is that when you`re done with it, you`re only halfway there. You still need to breathe life into it. With Discovery releasing it in 220 different countries and territories on the same day, it`s going to breathe life into this film like no other documentary ever has had. So it should start to create that tipping point that we`re all hoping for. You don`t need fifty one percent of the population to create change, you just need people to become aware so that you can create the ripple effect. It`s hard to believe that it`s only seven years ago that the first smart phones were used. We were punching the one key three times to get a C. Change happens very, very rapidly, and what we`ll try to do with Discovery is scale this up massively with social media. Change is already happening. The UK announced just last week that they`re going to stop getting their electricity from coal, and that`s huge, but we need to scale that up worldwide and get off fossil fuels as soon as possible because we`re destroying the planet for future generations.
What can we do on a personal level to help the campaign?
There`s a lot of things. I could say reduce your meat consumption; the raising of meat for human consumption creates more emissions than the entire transportation sector. Meatless Mondays are getting popular now. In our office, we generate all our electricity from solar energy. The irony is that homo sapien means “wise one”, and I believe that we can be wise. A scientist once told me not to worry about the Earth, it`ll take care of itself. And of course, The Earth will be fine without us, but the sad thing is that one species is taking down half the other species. The Earth doesn`t have a choice. We do. If you go to the website racingextinction.com you can make that choice. Find your one thing. That`s the idea of the campaign, just find one thing you can do to help.
Racing Extinction premieres on Discovery on 2nd December.