Ignorance Is Killing Our Earth

On Earth Day, the filmmaker behind the powerful environmental documentary Revolution explains just how dire the Earth’s sickness is—and how our generation can help save it.


Imagine how much has changed on this planet since you were born. Just a moment ago in evolutionary time, this planet was paradise for innumerable species. Life crept and grew in nearly every crack, depth and mountaintop, flourishing and evolving with every change in the environment. Now our presence has so radically altered life on Earth, our very survival as a species is in jeopardy. To tell this story, we set out on a four-year, 15-country adventure to make the film Revolution.

On the island of Madagascar, which has lost 90 percent of its forest, we found a 1,500-year-old Baobab tree. Many are far older, having begun their lives before we counted time—before Christ. To imagine the changes that have occurred on our planet within one tree’s life span is amazing. We built engines, cured diseases, took to the sky, reached the moon and the bottom of the sea, colonized almost every habitable place, celebrated arts, connected billions of people with technology, and increased our population from a few hundred million, to more than seven billion! And this has had a huge impact.

By mid-century, if we continue on our current trajectory, we face a world with no fisheries, no coral reefs, no rainforests, declining oxygen concentrations, and nine billion hungry, thirsty people fighting over what remains. Studies show 90 percent of the big fish are gone, 75 percent of the forests are gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and phytoplankton—plants in the ocean responsible for producing at least half of the oxygen in the air we breathe—are rapidly declining. Fresh water and grain stores have never been lower. In the life span of one tree, we’ve consumed most of our life support system.

I believe we’ve reached this crisis through ignorance and a lack of imagination. The environmental movement thus far has fought against our problems. This immediately positions the movement as the underdog, environmentalists as radicals, and pits us against the biggest corporations and economies in the world.

From this perspective, a 10 percent or 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions would be celebrated as a huge success! Unfortunately, this might not even buy us 1 percent more time on a hugely degraded world. It’s easy to be apathetic and pessimistic in a world where our ambitions still lead to collapse.

I think we should imagine a world worth fighting for. What if pollution was illegal? What if we focused on ecosystem restoration instead of economic growth? What if the rivers, lakes, and oceans were restored to thriving ecosystems full of life? What if we reforested the land, acquired food locally, captured carbon from the atmosphere by farming intelligently, and harnessed the power of the sun for energy? What if we brought nature back? Could we rise above the fossil fuel vs. environment battle by charting a pathway toward something incredible?

We know what we’ve lost—90 percent of the big fish, 75 percent of the forests, etc. If we put the fish, forests, and life back, we could capture enormous amounts of carbon in that life and regain priceless ecosystem services. Shifting agriculture toward methods that focus on increasing species diversity and capturing carbon in soil could increase food production and pull enough carbon from the atmosphere to halt climate change and ocean acidification. I think imagining what this world could be if we designed it to be beautiful for us, and all species, is a far more exciting prospect that might get people, particularly youth, involved. But first we must understand why change is needed.

Today, a small fraction of the population understands the severity of our environmental predicament. The environmental movement has been seen as protecting species on the other side of the world—saving pandas in China, or stopping sea levels from rising in Bangladesh. We don’t see the severity of our situation nor the power we have as individuals, because the effects are often so far removed. In the oceans, our waste of more than 40 billion pounds of dead fish annually goes unnoticed. The accumulation of our carbon pollution in the seas causing acidification, dissolving the shells and skeletons of most life that lives there and has only recently been discovered by science. Unaware, we continue to engage in destructive behaviors, products, politics, and corporations.

My hope lies in our humanity. Our emotions, our feelings can guide us. Once we’re educated, we feel badly about engaging in activities that are destructive, and feel good about those that support ecosystems and the future. This can starve destruction and feed what’s beneficial.

Every revolution of the past was led by those most directly impacted by the atrocity. It’s the future that’s at stake now, and from what I’ve seen, kids are going to lead this revolution. They have the most to lose, and the most to gain, and they’re engaged and involved.

Youth are finding this crisis an opportunity to live a life of meaning, to become a hero for an ecosystem, species or the future, and to live a life different than their parents did. In a time when society needs meaning, the biggest battle ever fought is calling out for the best in humanity, and pulling it to the height of its potential. This challenge is for all of us, no matter what side of the world we live on. For the first time in history, we have something to unite us, bringing down borders of race, citizenship, and religion.

To bring this message to the public, we made Revolutiona film about life on Earth, and the revolution to save us. I hope that Revolution can be a tool to engage our humanity and enable us to imagine a world worth fighting for. We’re on the brink of something incredible, and with millions of conservation groups and billions of people connected, I am truly excited to see what the next stage of the environmental movement looks like.