In the history books a thousand years from now, says filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, the atrocities of World War II will be a footnote compared to those of this generation. "We're possibly presiding over the largest loss of biological diversity since a meteor killed off the dinosaurs," he says. By most estimates, the world is going through its first mass extinction in 65 million years, only the sixth such event in the history of the planet. Species are disappearing at a rate 20 to 100 times faster than normal, and by 2100, nearly a half of all higher life-forms — polar bears, sea turtles, rhinos — could be gone forever. "To me, this is the most important story in the world," says Psihoyos, who was a photographer for National Geographic for two decades, "and most people don't know a thing about it."
In his new film, Racing Extinction — which the Discovery Channel is airing in 220 countries and territories in December — Psihoyos attempts to change that. Using the style of guerrilla filmmaking he employed in his Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove, in which he covertly captured the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, he infiltrates black markets in China, revealing shocking images of thousands of dead animals for sale — manta rays, whale sharks, and piles of shark fins. The culprit this time is not an asteroid but mankind in the form of overfishing, wildlife poaching, and a climate warmed by carbon emissions.
It sounds dire, but Psihoyos says there's reason to be hopeful. "When we started The Cove, they were killing 23,000 dolphins a year," the 58-year-old told a packed theater at Racing Extinction's New York premiere, in September. "Now they're killing less than 6,000. Change can happen, and it can happen almost overnight." We caught up with Psihoyos in Sausalito, California, where he lives.
Why are you so invested in this issue?
As a photographer, I've dug up extinct animals all over the world — I dove in rivers for megalodon and mastodon teeth, and I've photographed four stories on extinct animals. But I had never heard of the Anthropocene, this epoch in which man is creating a mass extinction, until I went to Sundance with The Cove. 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. The other was A Reef in Time, about the Great Barrier Reef, by Charlie Veron, former chief scientist for the Australian Institute of Marine Science. In it he talks about how we always lose the reefs before a mass extinction, and that's exactly what's going on now. So the biggest story in the world sort of fell in my lap.
Were there any times during filming when you felt threatened?
Every moment in the black market in China you feel threatened. They were closing down shops and shutting off lights and doors as we passed. In just a few minutes, large swaths of the market — which is the size of New York's East Village — were closed. We were surrounded by a mob and had to get out fast. And the whole place literally smelled of death. The screams of the animals there still haunt me.
How do you not get overwhelmed by how dire everything is?
Well, I take a longer view. Back in 1978 or so, I spent the good part of a summer protesting nuclear power plants, and I met Pete Seeger at a music festival. He was trying to clean up the Hudson River, and he said, "Someday you'll be able to fish in this river. People will be able to sail and swim in it." And I thought, "What a dreamer!" He died last year, but now you can swim in the Hudson. People are actually using it for the things he dreamed of.
Is the solution to change people's individual habits or to get governments to make wholesale policy shifts?
You have to change people first, then get governments to respond. So policy might change because of people, but it's not going to happen directly. For instance, the vegetarian movement is very strong in other countries and it's growing, but you're not going to have any kind of mandates that people have to stop eating meat. You need to have people saying, "Hey, listen, we can't allocate so much of our energy to feeding cattle." At my organization, I don't allow people to eat meat inside the offices.
(Psihoyos works with artist Travis Threlkel to project images of endangered species on cultural icons like the Empire State Building. "If we can grab the attention of the world for just a moment," says Psihoyos, "we can alert them to what's going on." Photograph Courtesy of Obscura)
We're in the business of trying to save the world. There's no way you can be an environmentalist and eat meat, knowing the damage it is doing, whether that's cutting down rain forests for pastures or the massive amount of methane cattle produce. People talk about taking fewer showers or banning SUVs, but by far the easiest thing to do would be to cut down on meat consumption.
When it comes to political change, how effective can a film really be?
People don't change behavior by information. People change their behavior by changing their emotions. I created this film to weaken people who think too much. When you hear the song of the last male 'o'o bird [a Hawaiian songbird] singing for a female that will never come, it starts to melt you. This should give everybody pause, because scenarios like that are happening right now.
Besides missing a songbird's mating call, what else does this loss mean?
Humans, even though we see ourselves as above nature, are intricately connected to it. Every mountaintop we plunder, every forest we burn, and every ocean we foul, we're destroying ourselves along with this web of life that took billions of years to evolve. And we're killing incredible beauty before we even get to know it. It's like we're living in the Library of Congress and setting fire to unread books, destroying whole bodies of knowledge before we have a chance to understand them.
You're hopeful that we can change?
Well, I've also witnessed firsthand how changing is an absolute upgrade. I started driving electric cars about seven years ago, and now I never pay for gasoline. Even in December I get checks from the electric company because of my solar panels. This utopian world isn't so far off. It's right here, within grasp. One day people will look at internal-combustion-engine cars, and when you hear one coming down the street, you'll be like, "Boy, I wonder if they've got a permit for that." When the alternative is so much better, why would people not adopt that change quickly?
(For the Cove Psihoyos worked with covert dive teams to document the dolphin slaughter. Photograph Courtesy Oceanic Preservation Society)