James Cameron: “We Have Seen the Iceberg, and We’re Headed Straight For It”

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“I grew up in the generation who respected and admired Jacques Cousteau,” says James Cameron. “His images had an effect on me.” It was that admiration that drove Cameron to make 12 submersible dives to the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean after his 1997 movie about the ship won 11 Oscars. Since then he has mounted eight expeditions, including taking the Deepsea Challenger submersible to the depths of the Mariana Trench, making him the first person to accomplish the trip solo.

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So it comes as no surprise that when his friend Simcha Jacobovici asked for help coordinating an expedition to search for the lost city of Atlantis, Cameron was on board. “I have been fascinated with Atlantis since I was a child, reading about it in Greek Mythology,” he says. Though not able to make the journey himself, he corresponded with Jacobovici and a team of archaeologists frequently, weighing in on their findings. The voyage resulted in a few eye-opening discoveries, which they share in their new documentary Atlantis Rising, airing on National Geographic this weekend.

During production Cameron couldn’t help but find a connection between the hubris of Plato’s island of lore and our present day. Men’s Journal spoke with Cameron about marine exploration, his work in climate awareness, and what lessons Atlantis holds for our present day.

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It must have been hard for you not to lead this expedition yourself.

I have been on quite a few already. I love to go out to sea and I love to dive in myself whenever possible. Those trips allow me to grab on to something out there and put them into my films. This documentary allowed me to at least do that vicariously. In this process I got to play the skeptic. I was the one applying the discipline and dedication to the facts, which may seem crazy because I’m a storyteller, but that is how I have always operated. I can spin my own fantasies when I want, but this is all about the science. What is out there that we can prove?

It seems like this documentary, like Ghosts of the Abyss, is serving a duel purpose for you.

This was really an amazing opportunity, and it gave us a way to take filmmaking money and use it for Bronze Age archeology. I have learned that oceanography is fairly underfunded, as is archaeology. This show was a way for us to raise money to get divers out there on the grounds we were discussing.

Why do you think driving this kind of research is important?

I have a great respect for the scientific process. I believe, as an activist, we have to approach every complex issue that we face with a respect for science. Especially when it comes to our educational process, we have to teach and reward critical thinking, because that is what is lacking in our current culture. Believing in conspiracies is not critical thinking. In fact, it shows gullibility. There are people out there creating completely false information. I know this all sounds strange coming from someone who is chasing an unseen city through the Mediterranean, but I think that has actually helped me see the truth of these situations.

Don’t get me started on climate denial and all of that. The fact that the man nominated to head the EPA has sued the EPA, and refuses to recuse from them, is incredibly frustrating

How much do we really know about Atlantis?

There are a lot of people who aren’t aware of Atlantis’ story. Ultimately all we have are two fragments from Plato’s dialogues from Timaeus et Critias. If you just go by what is in there it really does not add up. He has Atlantis being the size of the south islands of New Zealand, around 3,000 stadia wide and long, with a canal that is 100 feet deep. The technology needed to build a water pathway like that wasn’t even around at that time. And if there is some truth to the Atlantis legend ,it may be in Spain. I want to fill in that picture. But as Simcha says, there must have been something that Plato was basing this on.

How do you explain the fact that we are still interested in this story?

I think you can relate the curiosity there is about Atlantis to the curiosity there is about the Titanic. There were other shipwrecks with greater loses of life. But the Titanic was a symbol for civilization and how we behave, about our hubris. The people of those situations became too proud, too big for their britches. It forces us to ask ourselves if we are living that out now, if we are the next Babylon?

The series you developed, Years of Living Dangerously, speaks a lot to the evidence that we are on the brink of disaster with our environment.

Don’t get me started on climate denial and all of that. The fact that the man nominated to head the EPA has sued the EPA, and refuses to recuse from them, is incredibly frustrating. There is a lot of anxiety right now about the possible catastrophes that could occur in the future. There has been a lot of good effort by people of strong conscious. But it seems like we have lost a little bit of that momentum. I don’t know what to say about a species that doesn’t read those signs. Perhaps our intelligence is more a handicap than it is strength, because we are more worried about our own present lifestyles than the future of our kind. For me the Titanic is the perfect analogy. We have seen the iceberg, and we are headed straight for it. At least the crew of the Titanic had the good sense to try to turn.

How do you remain productive in the face of such opposition?

In my daily life my activism is around climate change and sustainable agriculture, or rather sustainability in general. In the end you can’t take responsibility for the whole world, you can only take responsibility for your own actions. You can only take responsibility for your feet. This is what I can do and this is what I am doing. Every day in the morning when I go to shave, I think to myself, “I am ready to do what I can.”

Atlantis Rising airs on National Geographic this Friday, 9PM EST/8PM CST

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