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Journey to Planet Earth: The State of the Planet's Wildlife Debuts at AAAS
In Florida, development and polluted waters threaten the Everglades with a slow death. In the Arctic, the loss of ice sheets to global warming is putting polar bears in jeopardy. Along the Amazon, millions of acres of jungle are being burned down to create agricultural land that will feed China’s hunger for soybeans. In Africa, changes to the landscape caused by farming are putting enormous strains on animal populations and compounding human poverty.
The message of the new PBS documentary “Journey to Planet Earth: The State of the Planet's Wildlife” is deeply troubling, and in its premiere Tuesday night (18 April) at AAAS, the emotional impact was palpable among the crowd that packed the auditorium. The documentary stressed the interrelations of climate, land, oceans and rivers, animals and people, and then detailedoften with heart-rending imageswhat happens to wildlife when human activity upsets nature’s equilibrium.
“The State of the Planet’s Wildlife is a difficult filmit was a difficult film to make and audiences may find it difficult to view,” Hal Weiner, who produced the film with his wife, Marilyn Weiner, told the audience before the show. “To be perfectly honest, the message we bring to you tonight is brutally honest. Some of the scenes are graphically shocking, but we had no other choice.
“Marilyn and I decided early on that when scientists tell us that as much as half of the world’s species are in danger of becoming extinct, we believe it is our responsibility to tell that story. To sugar-coat the truth would like suggesting that the world’s temperature have not reached unprecedented levels or that the world’s glaciers are not melting or that the seas are not rising.”
The documentary, narrated by actor and writer Matt Damon, is the ninth in the “Journey to Planet Earth” series produced by the Wieners since 1999. It was broadcast Tuesday on PBS television channels in the United States, and eventually will be seen by an estimated 40 million people worldwide, many of them students.
Journey to Planet Earth: The State of the Planet's Wildlife
Many PBS stations will rebroadcast the documentary. Check your local listings.
A couple of hours before the broadcast, the premiere at AAAS drew an estimated 175 people, including key members of the documentary crew and representatives of the National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the major underwriters of the Weiners’ project; the South Carolina Educational Television Commission, one of their long-time partners; the Nature Conservancy; the World Wildlife Fund; and other environmental organizations.
The Weiners chose AAAS to direct a three-year, NSF-funded outreach program that is promoting the series at U.S. science and natural history museums. The museums, in turn, use the series as a springboard to develop special programs for school children and families.
For example, the California Science Center in Los Angeles has a program to teach about nature and environmental stewardship, with some of the lessons based on a community garden built on its grounds, said Judy Kass, senior project director for Public Understanding of Science and Technology at AAAS. Generally, she said, AAAS has a longstanding interest in the challenges explored in the Journey to Planet Earth series.
“The television series calls attention to very important environmental issues such as the state of wildlife and human resource consumption,” Kass said. “These are certainly subjects of interest to AAAS members. And we’re delighted to be able to partner with informal science institutions such as museums and zoos to make these issues relevant on a local level.”
The latest documentary, like those which came earlier, is strictly non-partisan. It appeals less to politics than to a powerful love of animals in wildlife that many humans share. The animals are shown happily thriving in the wild, and then suffering when environmental degradation or encroaching humanity undermines their habitats.
“Right now we know that at least 25 percent of the world’s 4,000 or so mammal species are threatened or endangered,” Steve Osofsky, a veterinarian and policy adviser at the Wildlife Conservation Society, says in the documentary. “Two out of three bird species are in decline worldwide. I would say that the state of the planet’s wild life is precarious and I think the decisions we make in the next few years will be very important in terms of determining which way things go.”
The film shows haunting images of monkeys being cooked for food and of polar bears seemingly desperate for the ice shelves they need so that they can lie in wait for seals. Another scene features a tiger being trapped and shot. The Weiners have stressed that they obtained the tiger film from an unidentified source, and that they neither set up the shooting nor paid for the footage.
But counterbalancing such shocking images are accounts of communities that have recognized that their own well-being depends on maintaining nature’s balance. Efforts underway in Florida are helping to reverse damage to the Everglades. And along the Blackfoot River in Montana, cattle ranchers and others are going to great lengths to co-exist with the threatened grizzly bear population.
“Action is being taken to assure that our children and grandchildren just may have the opportunity to have the pleasure of seeing wildlife in wilderness areas,” Hal Weiner told the audience at AAAS. “Making that happen is not an easy task, but it can be done.”
In comments after the screening, Marilyn Weiner credited AAAS’s outreach program for extending the reach and the impact of the film.
“All you can hope is that stimulates discussion, that you get people to really think about these issues, and that you get them to realize that there are things that people can do,” she said. “You can make choices when you go to vote, you can make choices in the way you live.”
For more information about Hal and Marilyn Weiner and their company, Screenscope Inc., click here.
Edward W. Lempinen
21 April 2006