GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Countries should shift focus to saving species, preserving biodiversity

Friday, August 13, 2010 | 12:44 p.m. CDT

Charles Davis, Associate Professor, Missouri School of Journalism: More species are disappearing now than at any time in human history. Some scientists call the period we live in now the “halcyon extinction.” The idea is that human activity — everything from hunting to overexploitation of resources — has led to one of the largest die-offs in the earth’s history. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that the rate of extinction has surpassed the rate of evolution, for the first time in the earth’s history. This means that species cannot keep pace with the loss of biodiversity. In some ways, it is more serious than global warming because once we lose species, it is nearly impossible to get them back. By declaring 2010 the year of biodiversity, the United Nations is taking steps toward changing the conversation. It is a shift away from an emphasis on global warming to a focus on global sustainability. But why should we care if the Chinese River Dolphin or the Golden Toad of Costa Rica become extinct, and what is being done to prevent the loss of biodiversity? Our guests today are Jean-Michel Cousteau and Andrew Revkin, two people who have immersed themselves for many years in issues related to global sustainability. They have both found powerful ways to communicate the gravity of these topics to many people. Jean-Michel Cousteau is the son of famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. He is a Peabody and Emmy Award–winning filmmaker. He has produced over 80 films that explore water ecosystems in addition to the power and politics that affect those eco systems. He is also the founder of the Ocean Futures Society, a nonprofit marine conservation association. Andrew Revkin was an environmental reporter at the New York Times for 25 years and continues to write about environmental issues on his New York Times blog DotEarth. He is a senior fellow at Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies. His first book, The Burning Season, profiled the slain leader of a movement to save the Amazon. He has won awards from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the organization of Investigative Reporters & Editors based here at the Missouri School of Journalism. Let’s start with Revkin. What is the economic argument for preserving biodiversity on earth?

Andrew Revkin, environmental reporter, DotEarth: Part of the problem with biodiversity is it hasn’t been economically valued. There has been a movement lately to do that through ecosystem services. In other words, how much money do we save in having forest filter water heading into a reservoir? To my mind, that is kind of backwards. It’s like saying we can’t value them sufficiently for their own sake, so ecosystems have to be brought into the economic system in a more monetized way. In the long run, that is actually harmful. If you start doing this based on economics, why preserve a primary forest when a forest plantation might still filter the water into a reservoir just as well? So unless you’re framing it in increasing a sense of the values of a diverse global landscape, in the long run you will still see deterioration.


Related Media

Related Articles

Davis: If you frame everything in terms of economics, then you lose the innate value of biodiversity itself.

Revkin: I had to write the obituary for the Yangtze River Dolphin a few years ago. You can’t put everything in economic terms. Basically, that dolphin was not compatible with having 400 million people in that watershed.

Davis: Jean-Michel, we were speaking off air about the work you are doing now. How about bringing us up to speed on the documentary you are working on?

Jean-Michel Cousteau, filmmaker and founder of the Ocean Futures Society: I am working on a show that will highlight the impact my father has had on decision makers in government, environment and communications. So I had the privilege of recording that impact from people like President Gorbachev, Ted Turner and Jim Cameron. I have known Jim for a long time, and a few months ago we were in the Amazon at a biodiversity conference. I asked my friend Jim, “Did my father have anything to do with you producing Avatar?” And his first word was, “Absolutely.” So we are very much involved in doing this. Hopefully, that show will air in the U.S. by the end of the year. It will air in Europe at the end of December that I know of. In addition to that, we are very much involved in the Gulf. This is the largest man-made catastrophe ever on the planet that has impact on one of the richest marine environments and on the population that was trying to recover from a hurricane. When it comes to a spill, it will take decades before you can completely assess the consequences. When you talk about biodiversity, you have to understand that everything is connected and has value. I don’t know how you can put a value on smelling a flower or enjoying looking at butterflies, but we’re losing them.

Revkin: I wanted to mention something about Jean-Michel’s father, too. It filters down not just to people like Gorbachev, but when I had my Bar Mitzvah 40-something years ago, the present I remember was the U.S. Divers snorkel and mask that I got. That was Cousteau’s invention and the company he helped to create. His work inspired a whole generation of communicators. In fact, when I wrote about this on DotEarth back in June on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a lot of people weighed in. What that represents is something that is unfortunately going away, that generation of communicators that were able to popularize some of these values. The Discovery Channel does lots of stuff as well, so maybe it is still out there. I think something is missing, but I am not quite sure what.

Davis: It is almost like there is this avalanche of documentary information and yet Jacques Cousteau had a singular ability to bring all of the issues surrounding the oceans into a single communications platform.

Revkin: It is not just the communication; it is the passion. I wrote about David Attenborough’s series of birds a decade or so ago, and he was lying on the beach at night in New Zealand with seaweed over his body so the kiwis won’t know he is there and he is talking in this hushed whisper. There is something about that. That was the thing about Jacques Cousteau that drew me under water — that sense of enthusiasm.

Cousteau: Let’s not forget that in those days there was either no television or one of five channels at the most. He was a pioneer, and he was the only one doing it. Today you have dozens of people doing it. What I think is missing is the connection between nature and humans. To do a show on the beauty of the ocean and the beauty of the rainforest is great, but that doesn’t get you involved. It doesn’t make you committed to make a difference. As beautiful as they may be, I don’t get involved, and I think that is the difference.

Davis: That is a great point. One of the things about your work, Jean-Michel, time and time again, I am struck by the fact that it contains serious messages, but it remains hopeful. Can you speak to that balance?

Cousteau: Well, the alternative is of no interest. If I am going to be convinced by whomever that this is the end of a species, I may go out and try to catch the last fish in the ocean. But if I believe that we can change and there is a way out, there is education and exposure. When you deal with children, you look at them straight in the face and you know that kids are like sponges. They absorb the information. I have been doing this for 40 years now, and I meet people who are decision makers today who tell me that the experience I had 25 to 30 years ago during one of your educational programs is impacting all the decisions that I am making. We have a chance to change, and I think we will.

Davis: Interesting and still hopeful. That is what I love about your work. Mr. Revkin, let me ask you in terms of the Gulf for some thoughts. I would like to spend a few minutes talking about that situation in terms of its impact on biodiversity.

Revkin: I wrote at some point during this long, oily summer, that there is every indication that biodiversity is not going to be greatly impeded in the long haul by this. The socioeconomic impacts will be seen as greater than the ecological impacts. There are still unknowns, particularly about the oil that didn’t rise to the surface. When you look back at the Persian Gulf, the largest oil spill ever, that was an intentional one, so it’s different — the ecosystems there rebounded completely after not too many years. To my mind, the institutional regulatory issues here dominate. That is just my view of what I have seen so far. That is not to say there won’t be evidence emerging after some studies that there were some substantial impacts, but I think this is transitory in the long run.

Davis: You have written that climate is not the story of our times but rather a subset of the real story of our time, which is sustainability. Can you elaborate on that?

Revkin: There is a historian I heard speak not so long ago about this concept called “chronocentrism,” that every generation in history has always felt it lives at a unique time — that we’re special. The reality is, we really do live in an astonishing juncture now. After centuries of this growth spurt largely facilitated by fossil fuels and technology, we are reaching a crest in a few generations, whether it is 8, 9 or 10 billion is still a bit uncertain. Yet our appetites for goods, services and resources are growing at an unprecedented sky-rocketing level. More structures will be built in the next couple of decades than have been built in all of human history. So those kinds of pulses are creating this pressure on the natural world that hasn’t existed at a global scale until now. The warming of the climate is like a fever detected by a thermometer. It is a symptom, a subset of the larger phenomenon that is under way. One of the tensions is that our ability to perceive this through science has been in a race with the actual impact. It is as if we have awoken at the wheel of a car 50 miles per hour and accelerating but we haven’t taken driver’s ed and in fact the manual hasn’t been written yet. So we’re sort of plunked into the driver’s seat by our awareness. And now what do you do? That is why I think there has been a lot of tension of what to do. A big chunk of humanity hasn’t even yet accepted that we’ve become a planet-scale force.

Davis: We have a caller with a question.

Brian Jarvis: This is Brian Jarvis. I am a graduate student at Missouri School of Journalism, also a former producer for Global Journalist. I have been hearing some talk about awareness and education, but for the average person who isn’t environmentally conscious, what can we do on a daily basis to help the environment? Maybe there are some obvious things like recycling, but are there also things that might not be so obvious?

Revkin: Well, if you’re a parent, one of the key things is to get the kids outside. The book The Last Child in the Woods and other analyses show pretty clearly that direct experience with nature is something you can’t substitute for with watching a documentary. You have to get wet, you have to get muddy, and then you will create a generation that can carry forward some of the actions needed. These issues aren’t going to be solved by just the people who are around right now. It is a multi-generational question. The other is to take stock of your own lifestyle. In the middle of the Gulf spill, I wrote this piece saying there has been a lot of finger pointing. First it was all the companies pointing at each other, then Obama pointing at the companies, and then us pointing at Obama. But then I said, I live in a house that is heated by oil, and I drive a car that is fueled by oil, so I have to start looking at my own actions as well.

Davis: Jean-Michel, what is your take on what parents should be doing with their children, regarding biodiversity?

Cousteau: I definitely agree about getting the kids out of the home into the environment. The technology that has been made available is there to render service. They should not be an obsession in the hands of those young people, 24/7. They have to listen to the birds, look at the environment, and smell the flowers. What is a life support system? How does that function and makes you happy? The parents can play a very important role here. It is not the time to watch some stupid TV programs but to take advantage of what nature has to offer. And we need to re-evaluate what makes me happy, what makes one happy? Is it to have a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger this or bigger that — more of this or more of that? Absolutely not! If you stop using 1,000 to 1,500 plastic bags every year, which is what we do on the average in this country, at the end of the year you save $50 to $60. I have a hybrid. Now costs of my car and cost of the gas are half of what I was paying before. I have a lot more at the end of the month with the same salary. So I can include the standard of my living by stopping abusing or being abused by the system. Every one of us is bombarded by an average of 300 to 350 pieces of advertising every day. Whether we look at it or not, it is right there. So we need to get a hold of ourselves and improve the quality of life. So there are many things everyone can do. We don’t have to be environmentally conscious. We have to think about our pocket book, and that will help us make much better decisions.

Revkin: This is interesting terrain as a journalist, because it is hard for us to cover stuff like consuming less when we write for publications that are premised on advertising that encourage people to buy more. I’ve been doing it on DotEarth for years, and I wrote one piece for print on gross national happiness, the Bhutanese concept of shifting away from gross national product. That was in 2005, but during the economic crisis, I tried to get our business writers to think about it. We did a series called living with less. It was mostly a “woe is me” kind of series and I thought, why isn’t there a component in there about the upside of living with less? I do that all the time on the blog, but it is a harder sell in print. Not because anyone out there is saying we can’t upset our advertisers, but there is a culture.

Davis: The inertia as much as anything else.

Cousteau: Advertisers are the same as us. We are all in the same boat, and we need to do a better job with what we have. There are a lot of positive consequences to examining the way we behave and become in charge instead of being at the mercy of all the pressures we get from outside.

Davis: Looking around the world, where is a biodiversity hotspot that you feel is not getting enough attention from the press?

Cousteau: The Amazon.

Revkin: The Amazon is a big spot. I am way, way overdue to get back to the Brazilian Amazon where I haven’t been since the early 90s. I spent months there writing about the Burning Season. One problem we have as journalists is revisiting issues, finding the justification to go back. Of course now it is harder because of money constraints on journalists. In terms of less familiar ones, I think of places like the Yangtze River where the Baiji went out, not an exotic place but where you have species living in conjunction with people.

Davis: What are your thoughts on that, Jean-Michel — biodiversity hot spots that we’re not paying enough attention to?

Cousteau: The Amazon, of course, which is as big as the continental U.S. In the Amazon River, there are tributaries, and 10 to 12 of them are as big as the Mississippi, and 20 percent of the fresh water of any land mass on the planet is coming out of the Amazon into the Atlantic, so we are talking about a very critical place. Besides that, we need to focus on the ocean because we know maybe 5 percent of what is there. In 1960, two people went down to the Mariana Trench of 35,000 feet of depth, and they identified the presence of life by looking through a tiny porthole for a few seconds. Nobody has been back there, and we know nothing about a life support system in the ocean. Seventy percent of the planet is covered with water. The great majority of it is no man’s land. We know nothing, and at the same time, whether you live in the Midwest or you live along the coastline, we are all connected to that ocean for the quality of our life. The next time you go skiing, you are skiing on the ocean. The next time you have a drink of water, you’re drinking the ocean. People have to understand we are all connected to the ocean, and if we continue to use it as a sewage place, if we continue to demolish coastal habitats like what we’re doing in the Gulf right now, and if we continue to overharvest those resources, we’re going bankrupt. What have we done on land when we are no longer hunters and gatherers because there is nothing to hunt and nothing to gather? We became farmers? What are we farming? We’re farming grain and we’re farming herbivores. We’re not farming carnivores. We don’t farm lions and jaguars. They’re too expensive, and we can’t afford it. So when it comes to the ocean, we have reached the limit way beyond that, and we need to start thinking about farming. If I’m an investor, I am going to farm the ocean away from the ocean so I can protect my investment. And I am going to farm plants; they have done it in Asia a long time ago very successfully. They are the fastest growing plants on the planet, much faster than any place on land and I’m going to grow herbivores. Think about what you’re doing when you grow salmon. To make one pound of salmon, you need between 10 and 12 pounds of wild fish to feed that fish. We are accelerating the emptying of the oceans by allowing ourselves to buy farmed carnivores. This is absurd; completely absurd. If we want to care about our grandchildren and future generations, we need to change. And we can.

Davis: That is a profound point. And it is one that I wish we had more time to discuss.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall, and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Charles Davis, Associate Professor at the MU School of Journalism, was the moderator of this weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at Other recent shows are available on the show’s archives.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.