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Interview: Maranda Pleasant

Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day—in one hundred years, we may lose as many as 50 percent of the current species. They believe we have entered the sixth major extinction in Earth’s history. RACING EXTINCTION, a new documentary from Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos and the team behind The Cove, will incorporate a larger action campaign to empower audiences to join the fight to save these animals from extinction.

Louie Psihoyos sat down with Maranda Pleasant to talk about the inspiration behind the film and solutions that can inspire hope for a more sustainable future. It premieres December 2 on The Discovery Channel.

Maranda Pleasant: How is this film different from The Cove?

Louie Psihoyos: Racing Extinction, like The Cove, is also an eco-thriller – but with less violence. We learned from The Cove that people have a low threshold for violence—if it’s real. While The Cove covers a lot of big environmental issues within the context of this one little geographic area, RE has a much more epic scope—it’s the biggest story in the world. A friend in paleontology told me that at the end of the century, humans will look back at our impact on the planet and World War II will be a footnote compared to us presiding over the largest loss of biodiversity since a meteor hit the planet sixty-five million years ago. For RE, we started out on a fact-finding mission and we ended up making a film that probably feels more like The Avengers than a doc. Who wants to see a film about the end of life on the planet if you can’t do anything about it? I lived through the Cold War as a child, and we always thought a nuclear bomb could end life everywhere at any time. On one hand, it created an atmosphere where you lived for the moment—because it could end at any second—but on the other, it warped a generation into thinking there was no reasonable expectation of building a future that could be vaporized at any moment by a few morons. For RE, I want people to feel like we can avert an impending planetary disaster and create a future with collective action. I want to do the most subversive thing I couldn’t do as a child: I want to take back the planet’s future.

MP: What drove you to make this film?

LP: Our planet is currently losing species at an alarming rate. When I fully realized the gravity of the situation—that we are facing a mass extinction, but that we also have the power to reverse it—I decided to make this film, but more importantly, to help start a movement. I’ve dug up extinct animals all over the world: I dove in rivers for megalodon and mastodon teeth, I photographed four stories on extinct animals for National Geographic and wrote a book about the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs—many of my friends run museums of paleontology, but I had never heard of the Anthropocene, the epoch where man is creating a mass extinction event, until I went to Sundance with my first movie. I took two books, one called Terra by a friend of mine, Michael Novacek, who is the provost of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. I dug up dinosaurs and early mammals with him in the Gobi Desert. In it, he talks about losing biodiversity before scientists even get a chance to study the species we are closing. It was a bit depressing, so I set that book down and picked up another book, A Reef in Time, about the Great Barrier Reef, by Charles Veron, former chief marine scientist for Australia. In it, he talks about how we always lose the reefs before a mass extinction event and that’s what’s going on now. It was then that [I] understood that the loss of biodiversity I was seeing on every subsequent dive to the same place was related to this bigger story of the Anthropocene. I realized that in picking up those two books, the biggest story in the world had fallen in my lap.

MP: What are you hoping audiences take away from this film?

LP: First of all, I wanted to show audiences the astonishing beauty that still exists on this planet. So much of this planet’s diversity lies beyond what most people ever see or hear, so I wanted to use film to allow people to see what they have never seen and hear what they have
never heard. Perhaps if people realize what’s at stake, they will rally to protect it. Secondly, I wanted people to leave the theater feeling a sense of hope: urgency and hope. Yes, we need to change, but simple changes can have profound impacts.
dolphin racing extinction
MP: Can you explain the #StartWithThing campaign?

LP: #StartWithThing campaign is our effort to remind people that change doesn’t need to be overwhelming; it is not impossible. The simplicity of these changes should inspire confidence and hope:

1. Adopt a plant-based diet
2. Use more solar
3. Divest [from] fossil fuels, etc…. As I mentioned before, we’re not just in the business of making films—we’re in the business of starting movements, so years before we completed the film we teamed up with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions to create an impact campaign. They’re doing an amazing job—already they’ve managed to help ban the shipping of endangered species through some states. It’s easier and more effective to get laws enacted on a state level now, so we’re going state by state to create change.

MP: Where can people watch the film?

LP: The Discovery Channel will be showing Racing Extinction beginning December 2 in New Zealand. They’re doing something unprecedented in television history: they’re releasing Racing Extinction on the same day in 220 countries and territories simultaneously across multiple channels with the hopes of reaching a billion people. They’re the largest network in the world, with access to 2.4 billion people. If you can reach just 10 percent of the population, you can begin to reach a tipping point; that’s where true social movements take place—it’s a numbers game. And when you reach that number, the truth becomes obvious and empires of injustice crumble and fall. They realize that what is at stake is all of nature; it’s the future of the world. The action we take in the next few years will impact the Earth hundreds of millions of years from now. With Discovery as a partner committed to this cause, I really do believe we can we win this race—we have to win. This is the one race we cannot afford to lose.

Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos is the executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) and is widely regarded as one of the world’s most prominent still photographers. He has circled the globe dozens of times for National Geographic and has shot hundreds of covers for other magazines, including Fortune, Smithsonian, Discover, GEO, Time, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Rock and Ice. Psihoyos’s first documentary film, The Cove, has won more than 70 awards globally from festivals and critics, including the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. The Cove touches many with its unflinching examination of a dark subject and its ability to reveal the humanity and compassion in each of us. Its underlying themes transcend the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji to address the larger picture of the threat our entire world faces due to human impacts.

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Photos: ops

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