Photographer, reporter, film director and committed ecologist Yann Arthus-Bertrand is President of the GoodPlanet Foundation. He took to the skies to observe our planet and share his impressions with us. Here, he talks to us about his hopes and fears.
We’re always looking to put the blame on someone else. But we’re all responsible in some small way.
As a committed photographer, you took to the skies to capture the beauty of our planet and convey its vulnerability. Today, the whole world is watching the Amazon burn. What’s your reaction to the situation?
When I was born, there were 2 billion of us on Earth. The planet is now home to nearly 8 billion people. The machine of civilisation was put in motion, and we can’t stop it. Human beings want to improve their lives and they consume. That inevitably has an impact on the world. We think that consumption and growth are synonymous with progress. And it’s true that we are all now much richer than we’ve ever been. One person in nine around the world is hungry. Once upon a time, that figure was one in three. We live for longer and infant mortality rates have dropped. Human beings are living much better lives. In the race for progress, we focussed much of our attention on humanity. And the environment has paid the price. The fires in the Amazon are just an extension of the many other fires blazing around the world, from Siberia to Africa.
Who is responsible for these ecological disasters?
I ask myself the same thing. How can we deplore the fires in the Amazon, while France continues to import thousands of tonnes of Brazilian soya beans to feed into factory farming? We’re in collective denial. We’re always looking to put the blame on someone else. But we’re all responsible in some small way. Humans have lost their connection with nature. In this sense, then, ecology can help show us the way. We react, feel angry and ultimately take action, each at our own level, by trying to improve our lives while taking care of the environment. We shouldn’t fear the future. The future is now. We need to accept it, with everyone doing the best they can.
How has the situation changed since you became a photographer?
Today, the term on everybody’s lips is climate change. But when I made the film Home ten years ago, we were burning through 85 million barrels of oil per day. Today, those figures have rocketed to 100 million. We need to reduce our use of forestry, oil, coal and gas resources. And yet, it’s as if humanity’s instinctive reflex is to continue its onward march. It’s an innate response. But with 8 billion of us on the planet now, that’s just not possible. We all need to be thinking about this. I can’t stand the finger-pointing any more, blaming others, like politicians and lobby groups, for example. It’s everybody’s fault. It concerns all of us, and we all need to take action.
Brazil isn’t solely responsible for what’s happening in the Amazon. How can we work to change things?
The United Nations are now the ‘un-united nations’ or the selfish nations, with each trying to get their voice heard. The COP 21 agreements don’t even include the words ‘fossil fuels’, ‘coal’ or ‘oil’, just to ensure that manufacturing nations are willing to sign. How can you expect to make progress? Ultimately, we’ve got the politicians we deserve. Our politicians embody our desires. We have to find the courage to say no. With pesticides, for example, there should be a million of us out on the streets of Paris, in front of the Elysée, shouting our opposition and refusing to let a handful of agricultural lobby groups and manufacturers have their way. Each and every individual can take action by voting for the right people and becoming a responsible consumer. Everyone can orchestrate change. If everybody ate organic food, there would be no Monsanto in France. It really is that simple.
If everybody ate organic food, there would be no Monsanto in France. It really is that simple
Your work has often focused on humanity,and behind the images of burning trees are men, women and children. Are indigenous communities doomed?
Contrary to popular belief, indigenous communities often deforest. They need to cut down trees and kill animals in order to feed themselves. The international community offered $20 million to Brazil to help fight the forest fires. But rather than being sent to Brazil, this money would have been better spent in helping intensive farmers in France transition to a different kind of agriculture that would reduce their soya bean imports.
You’ve been flying over the planet for decades, bearing witness to its destruction and to human folly. Today, the situation is worsening… Do you feel optimistic?
I don’t want to be a pessimist, but we need to get real. There’s no point in pulling the wool over our own eyes. The fight against climate change is lost. We don’t need hope. We need courage. We need to grasp our own reality, accept it and reflect on what we can each do at our own level to change the way we use energy, travel, consume, and live our lives.
In light of today’s state of affairs, if you had to pick the one most pressing issue, what would it be?
We managed to transform the climate. How are we supposed to live with that? We need to focus on what we can do now. Ecology has gone way beyond just environmental aspects. Ecology should be guiding us in our everyday activities and choices. It should serve as a kind of ethical roadmap, a guide to truth and morality. This is crucial. When I was shooting my film Human in Madagascar, I asked people what their biggest dream was. I asked people living in poverty, people who have no choice but to work the land by hand to survive. It’s difficult to explain the concept of a ‘dream’ to somebody living in constant fear of illness, of not being able to work or panicking at the idea that their children might not go to school.
But one woman replied after giving it a lot of thought. “My greatest dream,” she said, “is to die with a smile on my face.” What a smart reply. Because we will all die, one day. The most important thing is to be able to tell yourself that you always did your best and that you acted with integrity. I’d like to die with a smile on my face, too.
We can all be of use, from architects to bakers to teachers. Everybody can help in their own way
How can organisations like your GoodPlanet Foundation help?
Personally, I set up the foundation to try and collate lots of positive action and to try to do more for the environment. I opened up this space that’s free to the public to give as many people as possible access to environmental information. I became a professional pauper in order to set it up. But I can’t complain, because it’s working. Everybody does what they can.