Filmmaker Rob Stewart says society must change soon to save planet and humanity

Canadian conservationist-turned-filmmaker, Rob Stewart, is on a mission to save humanity.

For the past four years, Stewart, has travelled to 15 countries around the world while filming his new movie, Revolution. In this documentary style film he draws attention to the many environmental problems facing our society—including species loss, environmental degradation and ocean acidification—and explains what we must do if we want to save life on earth.

Revolution will be released April 12 in select cinemas across Canada, including Cineplex Odeon Crowfoot Crossing and Empire Studio 16 Country Hills.

Stewart believes that if we refuse to accept the degradation of our planet and instead promote education as a means to battle it, we can turn things around.

And he believes victory is possible even for a country like Canada, which has been viewed as one of the worst countries environmentally and was recognized as such when it received the dubious distinction of the “Colossal Fossil” award for the past six years in row at the UN Climate Change Conference

In 2007, Stewart’s first film, Sharkwater, gave viewers an inside look to the issue of shark finning. Since then it has won over 35 awards at various film festivals around the world and has led to shark fin bans in numerous countries.

Revolution, which opens in theatres April 12, is the follow-up movie to Stewart’s first award-winning movie Sharkwater. It tackles the larger issue of environmental degradation’s effects on humanity.

Photo couresty of Rob StewartFour years later, in 2011, Stewart founded United Conservationists, a registered non-profit “dedicated to creating media that inspires, educates, connects and encourages action to protect the ecosystems that we depend on for survival.”

Toronto-native Stewart, recently visited Calgary for an advanced screening of Revolution, and sat down with the Calgary Journal to talk about the environmental problems, where Alberta fits into the global picture and what the people can do to take action.

Sharkwater was focused on saving sharks and the bigger issue of shark finning. In Revolution you chose to look at the broader issue of saving humanity. What sparked that change of focus for you?

I was at the movie premier of Sharkwater in Hong Kong, right when we were about to get the movie seen by 120 million people, and a woman puts up her hand in the audience and says, “Why stop us from eating shark fin soup if all the fish are going to be gone by 2048 anyway?”

I went to try to figure out what was going on and I found out we were putting so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we could cause a mass extinction in the oceans just like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. So if we want to save anything we’ve got to save everything—it sort of made the shark mission seem smaller than we needed to battle.

Trying to save humanity is a pretty big challenge. What makes fighting such a big issue like that worth it or what keeps you motivated to continue despite facing this giant challenge?

Because it’s working. The world’s changing everyday, people are getting inspired, people are getting excited, education is changing the world, people know what’s going on — and because of that, their behaviours are changing.

Sharkwater taught us humanity is good, all we need to do is educate people and they would make good decisions. Right now we just don’t know what’s going on environmentally so we’ve got an awareness gap that we could bridge with education.

We could usher in a beautiful world where we design this to be paradise for us and for millions of other species, instead of a world with extinctions and pollution and degradation of eco systems. It should be amazing. We’re smart enough; we’re involved enough so that’s what keeps me inspired.

There are a lot of major environmental problems all around us that you tackle in Revolution: species loss, environmental degradation, ocean acidification. What does the action plan that you are proposing look like?

Mass education—once everybody knows what’s going on then we can make these changes.

The way the world works right now is enormously profitable, it’s a great system to have economic growth and to cut down the forests and mine out the oceans and mine out the oil and sell that to people. We’ve got to figure out a different system and we can only pull the power out of these powerful governments and corporations once everybody knows what’s going on.

We’ve got to be educated so we feel bad about engaging in things that are destructive and good about engaging in things that are sustainable. We need to redesign our economy so it’s not built on the destruction of our life support system. Maybe it should be built on the restoration of our ecosystems instead.

The oil sands are often flagged as being very harmful to the environment, yet Alberta’s economy depends on oil revenues. How can we influence change in a city like Calgary that is centered on the oil industry?

In Revolution, Stewart explores environmental impacts, including those of the Alberta tar sands. While filming, he attended and photographed anti-tar sands protests that are also featured in the movie.

Photo courtesy of Rob StewartI think we’ve got to appeal to everyone’s emotions. If people understood acidification and that four out of the five mass extinctions in the past have been caused by ocean acidification and we’re now causing the oceans to go acidic faster than most of those extinctions—we’re on the precipice of wiping out life on earth and that would make Calgary useless.

If Canada were looking after the long-term health and happiness of its citizens it might exploit the tar sands at a later date when it could figure out how to do that without destroying the environment, without releasing massive amounts of carbon, and that would happen at a time when the oil would be far more expensive and far more profitable.

A big focus of Revolution is on kids and what they can do to make the change. Why exactly are they so important?

Every revolution in the past was led by the people most directly influenced by the atrocity—it’s kids and it’s their future that’s at stake. They’ve got the most to lose and the most to gain in this. If you’re 60 and you’re looking at the numbers—by 2048 when we have no fish, no reefs, no rainforests and nine billion people fighting over the remaining resources—you can sort of go, “All right I’m out,” and continue life as normal. But a 10 or 15-year-old wants to have a life and can see that we’ve just got to change direction a little bit and redesign our lives and our patterns and we can figure it out.

So what does being part of the revolution mean for the average Canadian? How do the lifestyles and the everyday activities have to change for the revolution to really take place?

If everybody lived like we did in Canada we would need six planet earths to sustain life—we can’t have everybody living like us. That said, some fundamental changes in government policy would unleash the genius of corporations to figure this out. If you made pollution illegal instead of negotiating what quantities of toxic contaminants you’re allowed, you would make these corporations figure out how to conduct business without polluting. If you took some of the three billion dollars a year you were giving the tar sands and put that into educational institutions in Alberta, and said figure out how to harness the sun, we’d probably get really far.

It’s not like we have to bring Canada back to the Stone Age. We’ve already built a lot, so we’ve got to figure out how to work within this system. But we shouldn’t be planning on massive growth. We shouldn’t be planning on new development knowing what we know—it’s irresponsible.

When there are so many big issues to tackle, is it still important to isolate the smaller issues that are within the bigger picture?

Stewart began exploring underwater photography at 13 years old, a skill that is used throughout the filming of Revolution as he looks at the issue of ocean acidification.

Photo courtesy of Rob StewartIt’s important to tackle everything. We’ve got seven billion people on this planet with an incredible capacity to change the world. Everyone should take what they’re most passionate about and smash that together into a life where you’re working for good.

We know about karma and things do come back around so why would you not do the greatest amount of good on this planet while you’re here? The planet needs it, future generations need it, species need it.

Everything we love is in jeopardy.

Just talking about climate change is distracting us from the problem, because climate change is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Climate change is our cough, but you don’t cover your mouth and say you’ve got a cough. You’ve got to heal this sickness, and the sickness is there are too many people consuming too much.

People tend to shy away from involvement uttering the familiar phrase, “I’m only one person what can I do!” What do you have to say to these people?

It’s always only been one person that’s changed the world, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Hitler. It’s one person, one idea that pushes everything, and one-person times seven billion is a lot. You affect the world in a massive way everyday and whether you realize it or not, whether you take that power or not, is the choice.

What is the most eye-opening experience you’ve had while filming Revolution?

My most eye-opening experience was learning about Alberta’s role in this whole problem. We went all over the world looking for the biggest, most atrocious environmental issues, the best battles and who was doing the most. And the most atrocious environmental issue was here in Alberta. It’s the biggest source of carbon in the world; but the coolest thing about it was the young people’s push to try to stop it.

Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

rkane@cjournal.ca