Photographer Joel Sartore runs a project called Photo Ark. His objective is to photograph portraits of as many animal species as he can, to document the world’s biodiversity, before they all go extinct. Similarly, the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University has been collecting the sounds of wildlife since the 1930s, the largest such archive in the world, and includes within the sounds of many animals, especially distinctive bird calls, which will never again be naturally heard in the wild.
These are perhaps the most sobering moments within Racing Extinction, Louie Psihoyos’ follow-up documentary to the Academy Award-winning The Cove. As the title suggests, the focus is global extinction, and the extraordinary rate of wildlife extinction taking place. Estimates suggest that species are currently getting wiped out 1,000 times faster than the natural rate of extinction, and it’s the fault of human activity. Psihoyos wants to uncover, expose and communicate that activity.
The structure could definitely be more rigid. While much of the film is moving and even quite gripping at times, especially the undercover scenes, it jumps almost randomly from discussing the loss of bird species to climate change to manta ray hunting to permafrost melt to shark finning and more. Whilst obviously all connected, trying to squeeze in all of these subjects, which could probably each fill a feature-length film in their own right, does come across as slightly disjointed at times. It’s a lot to take onboard, and could result in some mixed messages – understandable for a film where more than 2,000 hours of raw footage was shot.
Nevertheless, Psihoyos and his team, including undercover environmental activists Shawn Heinrichs and Paul Hilton, know the power of strong visual images. From rooftops in Hong Kong completely covered in thousands of shark fins, to the use of carbon dioxide-detecting cameras, to the infamous projections of wildlife onto the skyscrapers of Manhattan which raised significant publicity for the film earlier this year. He is seemingly also aware of the need to take the cause beyond the core conservation audience, hence the headline-grabbing stunts in New York. As is repeatedly pointed out by people throughout the film, if people don’t know about this wildlife, then they won’t care about saving it from extinction.
There are certainly some poignant one-liners. From warning that our activity could lead to a sixth extinction (‘humanity has become the asteroid’), to the observation whilst listening to the last ever recording of a Hawaiian ʻōʻō bird singing to a mate who will never return his call that, 'the whole world is singing... but we’ve stopped listening’. Dr. Christopher Clark from the Bioacoustics Research Program also likens the destruction of natural world to ‘like having a symphony, and one by one, you just pluck each of the instruments out of the orchestra, until your last voice is there... and then it’s gone’.
A significant portion of the film is devoted to the challenge of anthropogenic climate change, not only how human activity is primarily at fault, but how the knock-on effects can accelerate the problem, as melting permafrost releases methane which speeds up the warming process, for example. And from initially discussing the fate of blue whales, the biggest animals ever to live on the planet, we later learn about the damage which increasingly acidic oceans are having on oxygen-producing plankton, essential for the survival of almost all life on Earth. It ultimately comes down to preventing the extinction of humanity itself.
While Racing Extinction does slightly falter purely as a film, it more than makes up for it as a educational tool in order to build a movement. The final thoughts encourage viewers to reduce their personal carbon emissions, to reduce their meat consumption, to promote renewable energy sources and encourage their political leaders to take action on these issues. Using the hashtag #StartWith1Thing, Psihoyos has clear ambitions to take the film’s message far beyond the world of traditional conservationists – the only danger is whether he is trying to do too much with one film. Nevertheless, it certainly has the power to educate, illuminate and motivate, and is likely to be the conservation film of the year.