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Screenings, Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Challenging choices: what future for planet Earth


Gerald SchmitzElizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
(New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2014)
Racing Extinction (U.S. 2015)
How to Save the World (Canada/U.K. 2015)

God always forgives, but earth does not. Take care of the earth so it does not respond with destruction. — Pope Francis

This is the first of a two-part series.

Today is the 45th Earth Day, an annual reminder to take action on the planetary environment (visit Coinciding with that is the release of a recut and updated version of the original 2012 documentary Revolution by Canadian activist filmmaker Rob Stewart. Much more about this globe-spanning ecological call to arms can be found at: Disneynature has also just released another captivating animal documentary, Monkey Kingdom (, promising that part of opening week admissions will be donated to Conservation International for the protection of endangered species.

This week and next I’ll review six other recent books and films that address the major challenges facing our biosphere and the consequential choices confronting our species.

These choices, which need to be informed by the best available scientific evidence, are at the same time fundamentally ethical. The above words of Pope Francis from a 2014 speech were cited by Policy Options editor Bruce Wallace in introducing a series of Christian commentaries on Environmental Faith in the magazine’s January-February 2015 issue.

That faith perspective is important because conventional Christianity has often asserted man’s dominion over nature and been slow to recognize the demands of environmental justice. Conservative defenders of unlimited growth still scorn the idea that “God is green,” as the National Post’s Peter Foster (an agnostic) put it in a Jan. 8 pre-emptive attack on the forthcoming papal encyclical on the environment. However, as Leah Kostamo wrote about “The moral call to action” in her Policy Options contribution: “For Christians across the generational spectrum, there is an increased understanding that if they are to truly love their neighbours, they are going to have to care for their neighbours’ ecosystems.”

So what does this mean and what does it entail?


A landmark study published in the Journal Science in May 2014 concluded that plant and animal species are disappearing at an accelerating rate that is 1,000 times the rate prior to human habitation.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction examines past and current extinctions in fascinating depth. The evolution and spread of homo sapiens is an extraordinary story. We survived when many bigger stronger animals did not. We are the first species with a global reach and the capacity to transform the biosphere as a whole. In this “Anthropocene” era, humans, by altering the composition of the atmosphere, affecting the climate and changing the chemistry of the oceans, are contributing to a mass extinction of species, the sixth since life began on the planet some 3.5 billion years ago.

The book’s early chapters deal with previous extinctions. For a long time paleontologists (including Darwin) did not contemplate mass extinctions until overwhelming evidence accumulated of periods of extreme species loss. A paradigm shift was necessary to investigate causes including catastrophic events and massive rapid climate change. The most well-known is the fifth extinction, the Cretaceous-Paleogen event following an asteroid strike 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Since the emergence of humans several hundred thousand years ago a lot of species have disappeared including early hominid ancestors and primitive relatives such as the Neanderthals along with the megafauna they hunted. What is alarming is the dramatically increasing rate of extinction under conditions of modern industrialization and population growth. The enormous rise in carbon pollution doesn’t only affect the atmosphere and species on land. The oceans absorb about 365 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. This acidification is deadly for coral reefs and most marine species. Human are having an impact on the global environment in other ways: through deforestation, desertification, overfishing; by spreading pathogens and invasive species; the list goes on.

Kolbert observes that only about 11 million of 50 million square miles of ice-free surface can be called wildlands and “these days every wild place has, to one degree or another, been cut into or cut off.”

Our presence is felt literally everywhere on earth. The saving grace is that we humans are uniquely positioned to make choices about the evolution of planetary life. We can choose to alter destructive behaviours and to protect other species and their habitats, recognizing that preventing a further mass extinction may be key to our own survival.


Director Louie Psihoyos, who heads the Oceanic Preservation Society, says of Racing Extinction: “With this project, I want to tackle the most important problem the world has ever faced, the epic loss of biodiversity. By combining a compelling film and a groundbreaking activation campaign, we want to create a movement for change.” (Visit Previous efforts like his Oscar-winning The Cove and Blackfish have had an impact. He believes that “film can change the world” using photography as a “weapon of mass construction.”

The challenge is huge when in effect “humanity has become the asteroid” threatening a sixth mass extinction. Confronting the threat can be dangerous work (800 environmental activists have been killed in the past decade). Psihoyos and his intrepid associates sometimes engage in risky undercover techniques to obtain evidence of illegal trade in and consumption of endangered species. They also profile people like Christopher Clark who has created an archive of animal sounds at Cornell University and Joel Sartore, founder of The Photo Ark.

Before more living species disappear it’s urgent to tackle the causes: the spike in carbon dioxide emissions common to all mass extinctions; ocean acidification; the release of the more potent greenhouse gas methane from a melting Arctic and from increased livestock production. Indeed methane emissions from the world’s 1.3 billion cattle exceed emissions from the entire transport sector. (An intriguing article in the Technology Quarterly section of the March 7-13 issue of The Economist looks at how Silicon Valley startup firms are attempting to make marketable plant-based versions of meat and dairy products, citing the founder of one named Impossible Foods that: “Animal farming is absurdly destructive and completely unsustainable.”)

Racing Extinction effectively presents a wealth of information using excellent graphics and stunning images from land and undersea. Cutting edge technology highlights in a strikingly visual way the extent and effects of the carbon pollution, notably from vehicle exhausts, that surrounds us everyday.

The filmmakers aren’t just passionate about documenting a planetary crisis, they intervene to change destructive behaviour as in a small Indonesian village that was the centre of a slaughter of manta rays for their gills. They needed to persuade locals to turn instead to cultural tourism. In 2013 an effort was successful to include protection of mantas in the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Indonesia has since created a marine sanctuary.

Last September around the time of the People’s Climate March in New York City the filmmakers projected images of endangered species on iconic buildings. It’s all about engaging viewers. Racing Extinction, to be broadcast worldwide on the Discovery Channel, makes the most dramatically compelling case possible that people, individually and collectively, must change for the sake of the planet.

A passion for changing the world can be fraught with pitfalls, however, as explored in director Jerry Rothwell’s How to Change the World ( an incisive portrait of Greenpeace from tiny beginnings to global organization with an annual budget exceeding US$300 million. Narrated by Canadian actor Barry Pepper, it draws on extensive archival footage and books by charismatic Vancouver Sun reporter turned “cultural revolutionary” Bob Hunter who died in 2005. He was at the centre of a ragtag band of west coast group activists who chartered a vessel (the Phyllis Cormack) to sail to Alaska to protest a 1971 atomic bomb test on remote Amchitka Island. Hunter wanted to “plant a mind bomb.” Ultimately the test went ahead but the group, which adopted the name Greenpeace, became a media story. As it took on marine conservation and other environmental causes, interest exploded, and support groups sprung up under the Greenpeace banner. Chaotic growing pains led to infighting (in 1977 Greenpeace Vancouver sued Greenpeace San Francisco).

As Greenpeace went international the founding members also began to fall out. If one rule was “Put your body where your mouth is” — and the daring at-sea protests against whaling ships became legendary — another was “Fear success.” A feud with the leadership of Patrick Moore drove out the young radical Paul Watson who would spearhead the anti-sealing crusade and found the Sea Shepherd Society. Moore, whom Watson labels an “eco-Judas,” moved on to adopt a more business-friendly approach and become a Greenpeace critic. A frustrated Hunter lamented: “How can we save the planet if we cannot save ourselves?”

The movie offers fascinating insights into a burgeoning organization’s complex interpersonal dynamics and debates over strategy in the midst of what Rothwell calls “a sometimes crazy mix of psychedelia and politics, science and theatre.” The candid reflections of participants speak to dilemmas than can apply to all movements for change.

Still this takes nothing away from the important legacy and ongoing work of Greenpeace which currently has 41 national offices and 2.8 million members. Observes Rothwell: “At a time when we need to engage with problems on a global scale, hopefully this story of one small group of people can get us thinking not only about how we act individually but in partnership with each other.”