How to "trick" people into caring about nature

M. Sanjayan talks to Salon about why conservation is in our own self-interest

Published January 25, 2015 3:00PM (EST)

The first reason to watch the premiere episode of "Earth: A New Wild," the new nature documentary hosted by M. Sanjayan, is the baby pandas. Fourteen baby pandas, to be exact, which Sanjayan, a conservation scientist with Conservation International, visits at the China Conservation & Research Centre for the Giant Panda at Wolong National Nature Reserve as they prepare to be reintroduced into the wild.

But cute as they are, the pandas are a bait-and-switch, Sanjayan confessed. Keep watching, and it soon becomes obvious who the real main focus of the series is: humans, those animals who more often than not get left out of other nature programs, and whose role in the natural world tends to be forgotten, perhaps by many of those who watch those shows. "Earth: A New Wild" aims to bring humans back into the picture, and does so by means of a bold premise — that caring about nature can actually be self-serving.

"You have to live under a rock today not to know about our impact on the natural world," Sanjayan told Salon. "I wanted to show the planet that there are incredible people" who recognize the implications of that, and who are doing something about it.

It's not every day you get to talk to someone who's so optimistic about the future -- and who has stories from 45 shoots in 29 different countries to help make his case. Check out the trailer for the show, which premieres Feb. 4 on PBS, below. Our refreshingly upbeat conversation follows.

I’ve been seeing headlines around about how you’re setting out to "reinvent the nature documentary" -- and after watching the first episode I'd say you're not reinventing the nature documentary the way, say, Discovery Channel is reinventing the nature documentary. Could you tell me a little bit more about what your intention is with the show?

We had a very big idea some years ago, and that idea was that nature documentaries are fundamentally ignoring one of the biggest components of nature, which is the human angle, the human story. We knew we wanted to do something out there that brought that in, partly because of the message -- the message to me is that people aren’t separate from nature, that we’re a part of nature. And if you’re part of nature, then the reason for saving nature becomes about ourselves, becomes self-serving.

Now that’s kind of a big, difficult, complicated idea and I was very lucky to meet a very talented filmmaker by the name of Dave Allen, who is probably the finest natural history filmmaker out there. He’s won multiple Emmys; in fact he won an Emmy just two years ago for the best natural history documentary. It was Dave and I in that collaboration that really brought this to life. We wanted to do a show that had the spectacle of “Planet Earth”: it still looked epic and you still were able to marvel at the planet, but we weren’t going to frame people out of the picture. We were going to purposely, in some ways, include the human story. And as a result, we wanted to erase that distinction between humans and nature and us here and saving nature over there.

In a lot of ways, you’re making a very utilitarian case for conservation.

Look, I am personally motivated by love. That’s what drives me. I love the natural world, I love being outdoors and seeing amazing things. But it turns out love alone is not enough -- it hasn’t been enough -- and we still only manage to convince a tiny fragment of the world’s population to really care about this thing we think is the most important thing we should be caring about right now. So if I’m to turn that tide in any successful way, I need to make it about them. I need to make it about your self-interest and what’s really important to you, not what’s really important to me. And I think that’s the challenge for us in conservation: how do we take this mission of saving the most important places and natural-world habitats and convince people that they’re doing it for their own self-interest?

Sometimes it feels like it’s asking a lot of people. I’m thinking of the segment with people who are dealing with tiger attacks and deciding that they’re okay coexisting with these animals in ways that could be extremely dangerous to them.

Well, some are okay. And here’s the thing that blows me away: It is the tolerance of some communities to really challenging situations. I mean, look, I live in the American West, and when a rancher has a depredation event because of a bear or a wolf, people get up in arms. A black bear shows up in the suburb of Los Angeles and that bear is going to get buckshot. It’s kind of amazing to me that in Africa, in Asia, I suppose in Latin America, too, the tolerance that local people seem to have. Here in Bangladesh, a person a week gets killed by a tiger in this forest. And it’s shocking to me that they don’t get up in arms and just take the whole thing down. It’s certainly understandable, and yet you find this deep understanding -- not amongst everyone, tigers absolutely do get poisoned and killed and harassed -- but there is still a constituency there that gets it. They get that the tiger in some ways keeps that forest safe. I talked to a man, a young guy, younger than me, who was with his father when his father got jumped by a tiger and killed. His dad literally died on his lap. I asked him, “Why don’t you want to go kill the tiger?” And he said, “Yes, I wanted to, initially, and then I just thought the tiger was just doing what it does. And if the tiger isn’t here, everyone will go into this forest. They’ll completely cut the forest down, and then we won’t have anything.”

See, he understood what I think is a false dichotomy that we sometimes spread. If you were to tell me that if tigers disappeared from Bangladesh, if we got rid of all the tigers in Bangladesh and all the forest in Bangladesh, we no longer would have poverty in Bangladesh, maybe that’s a trade I would be willing to make. But you know damn well that if we got rid of all the tigers in Bangladesh, and all the forest in Bangladesh, you would still have poor people, except they would now be poor forever. So when we say, how can you take the side of the tiger when there are these poor people, it’s always a false dichotomy, because that’s not really the choice you’re making.

You go to great lengths to show how everything is connected. The tigers are scaring away the humans, which protects the mangroves from overexploitation, and then they go ahead and protect humans from storms. Were those hard connections to draw out?

They were actually surprisingly easy to find. There were many, many, many stories like this that we had that we couldn’t do, that we didn’t have the time or the capacity or the scheduling to pull off. There were as many stories we told as we left untold. So the stories themselves were actually quite plentiful. If you look, they’re there.

The harder thing is how to bring it to life on screen. We didn’t want talking heads, we didn’t want lots of charts and graphs, we didn’t want to show just the tiger doing its thing in the forest, nor did we want to show you a bunch of scientists. There are lots and lots of good interviews and things like that. So the hard thing is how do you combine natural history, blue-chip filmmaking with good science and a surprise; the audience is drawn into the story and almost forgets that they’re actually learning something.

You trick them into it.

You trick them into it, you do. You catch them with baby pandas.

I loved those pandas.

I know, and I was very skeptical about going to some pandas, and I’ve got to say I’m glad we did it, because they are an extraordinary animal. You hear so much bad news coming out of China and to see this guy, director Zhang Hemin, who’s in the film, come up with this incredible plan that he was going to put the wild back into a baby panda and get it out there -- it's pretty incredible. And the panda that you see in the film that gets released -- that was almost two years ago -- she’s still out there and now she’s been joined by a second panda, a male, and also another female and a cub.

You mention all the bad news that’s coming out of China and you can kind of say that for the rest of the world. I recently wrote about this report that found that half of the world’s total wildlife population has disappeared in the past 40 years. I’m wondering if you worry at all that focusing on more of the positive impact that people are having on nature can almost create an overly rosy picture of what’s going on?

I think that’s a fair criticism. I have heard this; we worried about this. But we also felt that too many films draw you into this problem and then leave you with "more research is needed" and "if only people cared and we got rid of these bad, evil poachers, then everything would be fine." You have to live under a rock today not to know about our impact on the natural world. We’re aiming this for a PBS and National Geographic audience, an audience that is to some extent pretty well-versed in the issues of the planet. So we wanted to use that as a starting point. So we do show you the Aral Sea, the fourth-largest lake in the world in Uzbekistan that disappeared. We do show you how the Colorado river dies. We do absolutely talk about over-grazing or how the breadbasket of America is really the Great Plains that we’ve plowed over. We show you those things but then we just use that as a launching point to move forward.

And I wanted to show the planet that there are incredible people. I didn’t want to feel alone anymore. I’m tired of feeling like I and a small band of folks are the only ones who are doing this stuff. What happened on this journey was that after traveling for two and a half years and going to 29 countries, I realized that I’m not alone anymore, that there are lots of incredible people actually making a difference, sometimes at scale.

The very last episode of the very last show, the very last sequence is in New York City, and we purposely ended there. There’s this incredible woman named Kate Orff, who’s an industrial architect, and she has this incredibly mad idea that she’s going to restore the water quality in New York Harbor by bringing oysters back. It’s a preposterous dream, but that was two years ago and I just met Kate two weeks ago at the Explorers Club in New York, and she told me that she’d just gotten a $60 million grant to scale up her work. And that’s just one person. That’s just one woman who’s not even a biologist, she’s an engineer.

So I came away really amazed, not at the trends -- you’re absolutely right, the trends on the planet are incredibly worrying -- but by the energy that a whole group of people that I never even knew about are bringing to the problem.

And at the end of the day, I also wanted to make something that I wanted to watch. The simple rule of filmmaking is, don’t ever make something that you yourself wouldn’t want to sit down and watch. It’s pretty hard to sit down and watch five hours of just depression. You just can’t do it. You’ll do it for 10 minutes, you might even be able to read a book like that, but I have a very hard time with this stuff now. I wanted to put something on that I would laugh at. When I go out in the field, even when I’m going out to see something pretty bad -- I’m going out to investigate poaching or I’m going to look at the Aral Sea or the Colorado River, this amazing river that feeds America that has incredibly wildlife that has died on our watch -- there is laughter in there. I mean, I’m only human, I’m with other people. We see amazing things and we marvel at nature’s resilience and we cry sometimes but we also laugh. And I didn’t want only to show you the crying. I also wanted to show you some of the funny things, the laughing along the way, because what a joyous time to be born on the planet. What a great moment to be able to be in a position where we can make a difference, right? There’s been no time in human history when we know so much about the future and have the power to actually do something about it.

It’s the time to inspire people toward action.

Absolutely! And not only that, we can see it, we can forecast the future for the first time in our lives. For the first time in humanity we can see the entire planet. We went to space in my generation. You can see the whole planet, you can see what’s going to happen in 20 years, in 50 years. We have the science to do that. We have the power right now to make those changes. I always feel like we’re the generation that will see the worst but has the opportunity to do the most, so why wouldn’t you want to be around right now?

By Lindsay Abrams

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