Looking Backward to Protect Our Future: Environmental Films Document Shifting Baselines of Our Natural Resources

Film has a remarkable ability to connect with people on the emotional level as well as to convey ideas. This makes film an extremely powerful medium for environmentalists who aim to sound the alarm; awakening sleeping caretakers of the lifeboat we call earth. Research in the field of psychology shows that a single image about particular events, like the image of one hungry child to represent a famine, can be more effective in eliciting a charitable donation than the most well documented statistical evidence showing massive trends. Moving pictures allow us to travel far from home, even to rarely seen wilderness, in order to see environments in peril "with our own eyes" and to connect personally with issues beyond the abstract numbers involved or the cold scientific data.

Threats to our natural resources are increasing rapidly with world population and development. The time is now for filmmakers, scientists and policymakers to collaborate on films encouraging humanity to preserve what remains of the resources that sustain human life on our planet. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made this point passionately when he visited Hollywood to ask filmmakers to take up the issue of climate change in their films.

Ban Ki-Moon expressed his belief that world leaders have a moral obligation to preserve and protect the planet, but they often neglect this duty when they become hostage to interests of those who put them in power. Even leaders with the best intentions and a clear understanding of the problems must be pushed into action by the public. Hollywood has "the creativity, the knowledge, and the technology to communicate the threats of climate change. I urge you to use these skills to help humanity."

While our leaders debate the causes of climate change and further fiddle, film makers can convey stories with urgency about the very real threats we all face from rising sea levels and increasing catastrophic weather events. Governments, industries and global organizations are more likely to respond when the populace at large demands change.

The concept of Shifting Baselines is a recurring theme in environmental documentaries. Shifting Baselines is the phenomenon in which the measure of the natural state of an ecosystem or element within it is affected by the decrease in these resources so that we are always lowering the mark by which we measure the loss of our resources. A comparison of prize-winning trophy fish caught over time can show that what today is considered a large fish was once the norm or small. In 2002, filmmaker and former marine biologist Randy Olson broadened the definition of shifting baselines with an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times to cover all aspects of change, and the failure to notice change in the world today. He and coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institute of Oceanography co-founded The Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project to promote a wider understanding and use of the term for conservation purposes.

Having just returned from participating in the Dominican Republic's first Environmental film Festival produced by the Global Foundation for Development and Democracy, I can report on several documentaries that successfully document urgent threats to our natural world, connecting viewers with the issues through well crafted stories that call on us to recall the splendor of our resources before human impact and to make changes before it is too late. While children are the future, they cannot recall a time when some resources were not threatened, and preserving this information may be key to our children's survival.

The opening film of the festival was award-winning Bag It!, a film directed by Suzan Beraza that takes the lowly disposable plastic shopping bag and uses it as a starting point to cover the wide range of threats to the environment and human health due to plastic pollution. The film follows the discoveries of a very lovable everyman on his quest to understand how we got to the point where almost everything we buy is packaged in plastic that we dispose of almost immediately though it lasts forever in our environment. Young people born after plastic bags became the single most ubiquitous consumer item on the planet at 1 trillion per year (Guiness Book of World Records, 2009) will not recall the pre-plastic era when nobody ever said "paper or plastic" and we managed to shop with our own reusable bags. Nor will they remember the days before microwave foods packaged in plastic lined containers that leach endocrine disrupters and neurotoxins into our food. But after seeing Bag It!, with its revelations about the chemicals from plastics that are appearing in the umbilical cord fluid of new-born babies and witnessing the emotional birth of the protagonists' first child, young audience members are waking up to realities of plastic pollution and what they can do to stop it: starting with bringing their own bag to the grocery just like their grandmothers did. Policy change is beginning to happen on a global scale to control plastic pollution: Today 25 percent of the world population lives in a jurisdiction where plastic bags are banned or taxed. As more people become educated through films like Bag It!, more of the world population will join this list.

Another film I saw during the fest shows how the natural resources of Cuba have managed to flourish thanks to the U.S. trade embargo and the resulting lack of development, while those of nearby Florida have perished. Cuba: Accidental Eden, is a fascinating glimpse at what our American coastal resources were like 50 years ago through rare access granted to marine scientist David E. Guggenheim who has been studying the coral reefs of Cuba for 11 years. The film begins with the journey of one endangered sea turtle across the ocean from the Florida coast to Cuban shores where she will lay her precious eggs. The film shows us through the eyes of the turtle and concerned biologists like Guggenheim, the splendor of coral reef that is now nearly extinct just 90 miles away in Florida. On land, interviews with Cuban biologists show us gorgeous creatures that once also lived on American soil like the famous painted snail. What will happen to Cuba when the American embargo is ultimately lifted? Will these resources be lost as rapidly as they were on American shores? Thanks to this film, hopefully there will be a passionate population that is aware of this threat and can do all that is possible to stem it.

The film The Polar Explorer by Gemini award-winning documentarian Mark Terry takes us with him to see the melting glaciers at both poles. No amount of debate about the causes of climate change or acceptable policy solutions can interfere with the urgency of Terry's dramatic footage of recently frozen ocean waters where no man has ever traveled by boat until he did. The scientists explaining the phenomenon of sea level rise is all the more relevant and impactful when interviewed on board the ship with Terry in these previously uncharted waters that so recently were solid. According to the scientists interviewed in the film, we have passed the tipping point and must prepare for huge coastal impacts from sea level rise. In a few decades, will frozen poles be a memory preserved only in films and photographs? Demonstrating the important impact of film in preserving our resources, Terry's film was screened at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun (known as COP16) and resulted in international agreements to prepare vulnerable coastal areas for impending sea rise. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The speed at which the polar regions are melting needs to be reflected in the speed with which nations come to agree on a decisive and definitive new global climate agreement. While the science is speaking loudly, it is often difficult for millions if not billions of people to witness this with their own eyes. "This is the value of the film The Polar Explorer," Mr. Steiner added, "seen through the eyes of the scientists on the front-line, it brings the climate impacts at the poles to audiences in the conference halls of Cancun and the computers of the global public in order to raise the alarm but also the imperative to act."

The closing film of the fest was The Last Lions, a National Geographic film that follows a lioness and her cubs as they try to survive and establish a new pride as threats from development and shrinking resources challenge their daily survival. This film is a powerful example of successful narrative through a single story to illustrate the perilous fate of the larger, but still perilously small group of the world's last remaining lions. The film begins with a view of our planet from space at night with the areas of light indicating human development. The dark areas, we are told in narrator Jeremy Iron's powerful voice, are the last refuge for wildlife, and we zoom into the dark space in Africa, home to the last lions. We are told the statistics -- in the 1940's there were around 40,000 lions roaming free. Today only about 20,000 remain. But the statistics, though shocking, are less moving than the incredible story of the one lone mother who after losing her mate, must find a way to ensure the survival of her little family as she is pushed from her pride land by another pride escaping other encroachment into the wild. The story is so moving that I literally had to leave the theater at one point, overwhelmed by tears. I was happy that I returned for the dramatic ending, and I am a new convert to the cause of the lions. And as the filmmakers request at the end of the film, I am ready to "make an uproar!"

The Dominican Republic, host to the film festival I attended, is in the process of developing and promoting its own film making capabilities so that it can tell Dominican stories about the wonderful people and resources of this beautiful island nation in the Caribbean. From what I was able to see in just one week from excursions outdoors like snorkeling at Isla Catalina, home to the Dominican Republic's largest coral reef, there are incredible resources here just waiting for a filmmaker's voice.