Interview: Louie Psihoyos, Director Of Racing Extinction

In 100 years half of the world’s species will be extinct. What can you do about it? Well according to the director of Racing Extinction – just do one thing. We are all in this together and Louie Psihoyos didn’t set out to make a movie but create a movement to get everyone to make one change that will in turn help save the planet. I sat down with him to hear exactly the: how, what, why, when on extinction, activism and how his films are weapons of mass construction!

You mentioned in the film that the project started from reading a piece in the FT [Financial Times], is that correct?

It didn’t really start there but yeah it was the Financial Times I was reading in Germany that was talking about mass extinction. But really it got started when I was at Sundance. I took two books one was, a friend of mine, wrote Terror [He and] I dug dinosaurs with him and early mammals in the Gobi desert. He’s talking about how we’re losing species faster than mankind’s ability to record even that they are even on the planet with us. I thought that was pretty depressing. I picked up another book A Reef In Time by Charles Veron about the great barrier reef and how we’re losing the core reef right now because of acidification which always prefaces mass extinction. I thought ok I wrote a book about palentogy and I didn’t know about the mass extinction going on right now and to me was the shocking news and so it was then that I decided to do a film about it. It was hugely daunting because how do you give people a sense of the scale

Exactly and when I was watching your documentary I thought it’s so vast. It’s minute and vast at the same time, did you ever think maybe about doing your film on mass extinction and then focus in on one thing like man’s direct impact and then do volume 2 indirect impact?

First of all there’s a mass extinction that’s caused by several drivers so it’s not just one thing. I didn’t want to focus in on one driver because people could say: I don’t drive a car so carbon dioxide might not be the biggest problem and I don’t traffic endangered species so there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s something everybody can do to stop this. We made a conscience decision early on to not make the bad guys: other people, other governments, other corporations. Each one of us we cannot get through our day without having an impact not just on the environment around us but future generations – every action we do today is going to affect you know the planet millions of years to come.

Let me explain…burning of fossil fuels is acidifying the oceans at this massive rate and I wanted people to know everyone can do something to reduce their carbon footprint that’s why we’ve been working on a campaign for the last two years. We realised after the first film I did – The Cove – spent all that money and time trying to make a good film and then first person came out after the film they said this is great what can I do to help. The second person. The campaign is as important as the film. So I told the crew we’re not making a movie we’re starting a movement. The most important part of the film to me is what people can do once they get out of the film so going to and finding the one thing that they can do.

Sure and there’s a figure in the film – 1.25 billion cows on the planet, but for me when I was watching it you said you wanted to focus in on in the individual but a lot of it was focused in on South East Asia the manta rays and the shark fins. I didn’t see any – cattle farms in the US – the focus felt directed at developing countries rather than developed.

We’re in there. We’re represented pretty heavily and…the US is number 2 importer of illegal wildlife. We can’t talk about everything in the film. I mean America is by far the largest producer of carbon dioxide per capita but by country China is but there’s far more people in China so it gets reduced. We do focus in on Asia but we focus in on ourselves. I said the worst thing you can do to the environment is make a film about it. That’s hard to admit

I thought that was brave you said that at the beginning of the film

We had to do it because everyone is a hypocrite including myself. We do massive amount of things. I try to live my life as a monk as much as I can. I flew here yesterday and blew my carbon budget in a single day. They say you have to break a few eggs to start an omelette but we set aside acres of rainforest that’s how we offset our carbon budget. My own organisation we set up solar panels and we generated a 140% of our energy off the roof and that means I get cheques from the electric company.

It’s not a movie it’s a movement and so isn’t there a danger with the hashtag do one thing – it’s quite disposable. You tweet it – give up meat, go veggie and forget about it. It’s a movement like the ice bucket thing. Is there not a danger that people don’t fully engage.

We’re pretty good at what we do starting movements and we’ve been working on the Cove issues for 6 years and we haven’t stopped and recently bought the rights back to that movie and we’re giving it away for free in Japan. We’re really deeply concerned by these issues and we stay on them until we solve them. They were killing 23,000 dolphins and porpoises in Japan and now they’re killing less than 6,000 and we won’t stop until the last dolphin is freed. That’s the way we operate. We’re a small organisation and care about these issues. How do we mobilise? I made the Cove in my backyard. I thought who is going to want to help me on this issue and now we have a million people signed up and those million people can get performers not to perform at Seaworld. Now with Discovery [channel]- with 220 countries on a single day hopefully that million people become ten or hundred million people so we can get the politicians to do the right thing.

Sure…how do you maintain it. This is really powerful. It’s our very existence as man. You can watch this and think this is so vast – am I doing any good by going meat free one day a week – is it doing any good?

The average person in the UK eats 10,400 animals in their lifetime


Ok, that’s a lot of animals

Try to think about raising all those animals and what they need to be fed, try to think of the ineffiecies of just keeping them in one cow fed. It’s like going to the bank and saying here’s a dollar, give me back a nickel [5 cents] and I’ll be happy with it. That’s the kind of scale we’re talking about for the environment. We’re taking out far more resources than we should and like we say in the film – the raising of meat for human consumption causes far more greenhouse gases than all the emissions from the transportation sector. So just one day out of every week, that’s one seventh of those 10,000 animals that aren’t being killed and it’s healthier for yourself. Everybody feels like they can’t be changed. They get involved in campaigns. We worked on a campaign to get UPS to stop the importation of shark fins and it took 185,000 signatures and once that happened it. Everybody becomes part of that and now it’s like lets work on Fedex. Once people get involved in one thing and they see a success it is contagious.

Movements seem to be disposable – this is a lifestyle. When you are watching the documentary the beginning part – its beautiful. I got overload and then at the end you flash up some of things we can do and we can change but if I had seen that at the beginning – these are my practical steps – I’d have been on board straight away.

Well you actually saw that if you see the way the film is constructed at the beginning of the film – early on in the first act – Charles Veron is talking about greenhouse gases and cows – setting you up and embedded in the exposition of the film. All the solutions are in the film are seeding it. It’s not just tacted on.

Your message is powerful yet it gets slightly lost with the beautiful minds talking about issues and then having to wait until to the end to find out what the practical steps are.

You have to wait even further to get on the campaign. If you start preaching right away I’m going to lose everybody – except half a dozen vegan friends – we don’t need to talk to them they are already on the same page. Those people who saw An Inconvenient Truth we want to reach [other] people Republicans etc. It is a lifestyle but I think you have to be careful not to preach to people. A lot of people are sceptical this guy is trying to take away: my meat, my car and he’s trying to put solar panels on my roof. It sounds like we’ve evangelising and we are but I think you have to be careful how you talk about it.

Racing Extinction airs on Discovery Channel UK at 9pm on Wednesday 2nd December.

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