Sundance Film Review: Racing Extinction

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Written by Chrisella Herzog, Managing Editor

Earth has previously experienced five mass extinction events. These events were marked by massive changes in the Earth’s ecosystems, and resulted in such cataclysmic events as the death of the dinosaurs from an asteroid that struck the Earth.

We are currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event. And scientists have not been shy about what the cause of this massive change is: “Humanity has become the asteroid.”

“My friends in paleontology say we will look back at World War II as a footnote in history compared to what this generation did by avoiding this issue,” said Louis Psihoyos, director of Oscar-winning film, The Cove, and co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society. “We’re the only generation left that can save these animals.”

After his success with The Cove, Psihoyos returned to Sundance this year with a film meant to build on its success (dolphin killings in the area highlighted by The Cove dropped from 20,000 per year to about 200) for a broader, and more urgent, call to action.

Racing Extinction shines a light on the various ways humanity is driving the sixth mass extinction, and in the process threatening not only the survival of creatures around us, but also our own survival. The filmmakers go undercover into markets where endangered species’ meat is openly traded, showing images of rooftops covered in shark fins drying for shark fin soup, of the shop of a trader who smuggles shark oil into Italy for use as fish oil, and of back alley shops with dried manta ray gills for sale. These traders know what they do is illegal, feeding a demand brought on by manipulated local health myths. But then there are those who do what they do as a matter of survival; the film highlights the poor fishing village of Lamakara, Indonesia that survives by selling the meat and gills of the manta rays that swim in their waters. The filmmakers showed how they helped the village transition from a fishing economy to a tourist economy, taking visitors out to visit the manta rays.

According to Racing Extinction, the only international law that governs the protection and trade of endangered species is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement dating back to 1975. It is far from comprehensive; in fact, the film shows the process of lobbying for manta rays to be included on the protected species list.

Although most of the scenes of endangered animal trade in Racing Extinction are from Asia, the film does not spare the rest of the world, and especially the West, from its role in this. Using special camera filters to show carbon dioxide output, they drive through a city to show emissions that come from every part of our daily life. It’s a dirty sight. But if that were not enough, the film takes us back to the oceans, describing how they absorb this carbon dioxide and become increasingly acidic. Increasing acidification of the oceans has resulted in a 40 percent loss of phytoplankton populations over the past 40 years. If that statistic does not concern you, it should: phytoplankton is responsible for 50 percent of global oxygen production.

When oceans fail, all life fails.

The final factor in this devastating look at our climate future is methane. As the planet warms, the permafrost in the northern-most areas of the globe is melting—and releasing millennia worth of methane trapped in the ice. It is believed that methane gases caused the “great dying” of the dinosaurs after the asteroid struck Earth, and according to the film, methane release from the Arctic could be runaway unstoppable in just 3 to 4 years.

According to National Geographic, 75 percent of agricultural land is currently used for livestock, which not only decreases natural habitats that could reduce carbon dioxide levels, but also increases methane production from livestock. In a Q&A after the film showing, Psihoyos comment on how this affects our planet: “A vegan driving a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat-eater on a bike.”

This should not give you the impression that Racing Extinction is a hopeless look at a bleak climate future. According to Psihoyos, it is meant to be a call to action as well as a call for hope. It features bleak imagery followed by beautiful shots of nature at its finest, a vision of what we can save. It reflects on the role of art, photography, and film to educate and empower. Jane Goodall, who is featured in the film, sums up a core message of Racing Extinction: “Without hope, we slip into apathy.”

Disclosure: Racing Extinction was a partner in the Diplomatic Courier’s “Clean Air, Clean Water, Clean Energy: Blueprint for a Better Future” Summit in Salt Lake City on the sidelines of the Sundance Film Festival.