10 Questions for Rob Stewart, filmmaker behind Sharkwater
Filmmaker and diving expert Rob Stewart says "it"s our survival that"s in jeopardy."
Filmmaker Rob Stewart comes from Toronto, Canada, and began filming underwater at age 13 and training scuba instructors at age 18. He has spent years traveling the remote corners of the world and filming life in the underwater depths as the chief photographer for the Canadian Wildlife Federation magazines and as a freelancer for everyone from BBC Wildlife to the Discovery Channel. When Stewart encountered indiscriminate shark killing due to illegal long lining while on assignment to photograph sharks in the Galapagos Islands, he left his photography career at age 22 to film the dramatic documentary Sharkwater. Four years and 15 countries later, Stewart’s film has arrived, giving viewers a visually stunning beneath-the-water look at the brutal trade in shark parts and what can be done to stop it.
E Magazine: What is the most pressing environmental issue in 2007?
Rob Stewart: The most pressing environmental issue of 2007 is over consumption. The ever increasing population currently sitting at more than 6 billion people have a huge ecological impact on the planet, which in itself is a living system. Currently we would need more than 6 planet Earths to sustain life based on the resources we use in the western world. Ninety percent of the ocean’s large predators are gone. Every fishery is expected to have entirely collapsed by 2048. We waste an estimated 54 billion pounds of fish each year, while 8 million people die of starvation. Our relationship with the natural world isn’t working, and it needs to be re-vamped.
What is your greatest environmental fear and why?
My greatest environmental fear is that the oceans will continue to be ignored until it’s too late. There are 2.5 billion years of evolution in the oceans, and a mere 500 million or so on land. When life evolved in the ocean, the atmosphere was very hot, full of carbon dioxide. Plants in the ocean evolved, and started sequestering carbon, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, releasing oxygen, and the planet began to cool. Over hundreds of millions of years, much of the carbon that was removed from the atmosphere was stored as oil and natural gas reserves in the Earth’s crust. Now we’re bringing that carbon out again and releasing it back into the atmosphere. We have made great jumps in our awareness regarding global warming, but we haven’t acknowledged the ocean’s role in global climate. The oceans are the greatest regulators of climate on the earth. Phytoplankton (tiny plants) in the oceans provide 70 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere, and are the greatest sink for carbon dioxide on earth. We’re now destroying the oceans, removing apex predators such as sharks, dredging the oceans; without considering that this atmosphere, our precious oxygen, and our hospitable planet, is all made possible because of life in the ocean that is part of a food chain. Food chains are sensitive, haven taken hundreds of millions or billions of years to form, and we’re destroying it.
Are you a vegetarian? Why or why not?
The impressive predator, the reef shark, has reached endangered status.
Yes, I’m a vegetarian for a number of reasons. Eating animals requires ten times the resources and drain on the planet than eating plants. I’m already incredibly privileged, and don’t think I should drain more of the planet, especially considering 8 million people die of starvation every year. There are also numerous health benefits, and it greatly reduces the chances of disease, especially the number one killers such as heart disease, stroke, cancers, etc. I also really appreciate animals, and I’m happier living with non violence.
As an eco-advocate you undoubtedly try to "walk the talk." But what do you have the most trouble changing about yourself or your lifestyle?
The biggest issue with walking the walk is actually meeting the drop in consumption, and learning enough about what to do and what needs to be done. We’re so over the mark in terms of sustainability that our cuts in consumption are going to have to be pretty radical. We’re currently running around promoting Sharkwater, so my consumption is quite high, though we’re always trying to find ways of reducing it. We know to use less energy in our homes, buy locally, drive and travel less, eat vegetarian, become conscious of where products come from, etc. The big issue is that there is no blueprint for sustainability, no action plan. I think conservation needs to become more mainstream and cooler, so everyone wants to be involved. When that happens, the blueprints for sustainability will be easier to follow.
Who could be the environmental movement’s most unlikely allies?
I believe that technology companies could be the environmental movement’s allies. We have 6.5 billion highly intelligent people on this planet. We went to the moon with what would be considered unsophisticated equipment today. We can find better sources of safe, renewable, green energy, and this needs a huge jump in investment and technology. I would hope that the current energy providers and sources such as oil, would allocate a percentage of their industry towards R+D towards green energy. They will run out of their current natural reserves, so even in a business sense, it would seem logical.
Which environmental group do you most admire and why?
I most admire Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I had the privilege of working with them for some of the filming of Sharkwater, and this group stood out amongst all others. Led by Paul Watson, this group puts everything on the line. Life, security, freedom, and safety come second to the main goals of enforcing international conservation law on the high seas, and drawing attention to our exploitation of the oceans. I think the planet needs action now in a big way, and people that are on the ground making a difference. We’ve come too far to sit back and watch. The era of letter writing is over. Which green trend do you most distrust? I most distrust carbon offsetting. It’s a feel good tactic that really doesn’t put less carbon into the atmosphere.
What’s your favorite earth-friendly mode of transportation?
I love the bicycle. In major urban areas, it’s nearly as fast as cars, and it lets me be a kid again and play.
Gorgeous underwater footage makes Sharkwater a compelling visual journey.
How could the environmental movement reinvent itself?
The environmental movement needs to reinvent itself away from gray beards with beakers, writing checks to over-funded conservation groups, feeling good by saving the cute and cuddly animals like pandas. The issues of climate change, destruction of ecosystems, loss of species, and over-exploitation are issues of human preservation on earth. The Earth will be just fine, as it has for billions of years. The oceans will recover after we’re gone. The question now is how many future generations will live in starvation and crisis because we’ve failed to wake up in time. We’re the newcomer on this planet and it’s our survival that’s in jeopardy.
For this, conservation has to become mainstream. It needs to be "cool." There’s nothing cooler than saving life instead of destroying it, than preserving beauty, not exploiting it. If we can engage all audiences in the issue and its importance, and it becomes cool so people want to partake,
we’re going to see huge changes.
We’ve spent the last few thousand years building a sophisticated global economy at the expense of the natural world. It’s time to change our economic models, time to shift our focus towards making money, generating jobs, and helping the economy by designing life, systems and tools that work in harmony with the natural world, not against it.There is simply no issue more important. Conservation is the preservation of human life on earth, and that, above all else, is worth fighting for.
Sharkwater opens in Florida September 28 and everywhere else November 2.