How 'Racing Extinction' Could Save the World

Discovery Channel documentary charts how humanity has altered the planet — and what we can do to help

A scene from Louis Psihoyos' documentary 'Racing Exctinction.' The film, which will be broadcast in 220 countries worldwide in conjunction with the Discovery Channel, tackles environmental issues ranging from climate change to wildlife black markets. Credit: John Behrens/OPS

Ten years ago, filmmaker Louie Psihoyos was researching ocean degradation when he crossed paths with activist Ric O'Barry, the man responsible for training TV's most famous cetacean, Flipper. Together they went undercover to expose the captive dolphin industry; what they witnessed off the coast of Japan became The Cove, winner of the 2010 Oscar for best documentary. "I really started out doing the movie I'm doing now," says Psihoyos, "and on the way I got distracted by Ric O'Barry's mission. But I'm glad we stumbled on The Cove's story — because I don't think I would have had the skills to do something as large as what we've done now. This is much more epic in scope."

Racing Extinction, the director's audacious and more epic-in-scope new film — airing worldwide today on the Discovery Channel, after having a brief theatrical run last September — does indeed widen the lens, documenting how human beings are permanently altering the geology of the planet, the chemistry of the ocean and makeup of the atmosphere. The film reveals oceans vacuumed of fish and suffocated by carbon dioxide; a wildlife black market (second only to drug trafficking in value); and Psiyohos' main concern, the rapid rate of animal and plant extinction. "I knew there were several species that risked going extinct in the oceans," he says, "but I thought it was more isolated. I didn't realize it was part of this much bigger story that people now refer to as the Anthropocene."

"One of the major drivers of extinction is that we hunt some species to oblivion," says Duke University professor of conservation, Stuart Pimm, one of the doc's talking-head experts. "It's what we do with sharks now." A species that predates dinosaurs, these creatures are critical to the health and balance of the ocean — and over 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins (used as the base of a popular soup). They are mutilated and dumped back into the water alive, left to drown or die of starvation on the ocean floor. It's genocide by any other name.

Failure to act, Psihoyos claims, is not an option: "As a species we're one step away from greatness or the greatest disaster in the last 65 million years." Earlier this year, Pope Francis exhorted the citizens of the world to save their common home. Racing Extinction sends a similar message, using not biblical tenets, but scenes of exquisite beauty: the liquid undulation of a manta ray, the bony ridge of a whale spine briefly breaking the surface, psychedelic plankton in a drop of sea water that rival anything Pixar could dream up. "The thread of the whole movie is that there's a hidden world of sound and visuals that we are not comprehending," the director says. "Not just the blue whale -- with the loudest song in the animal kingdom, but we can't hear it. I felt if we could break it down, people could realize there's a bigger world beyond their own perception."

"As a species we're one step away from greatness or the greatest disaster in the last 65 million years."

And in Racing's final minutes, NASCAR driver and environmental activist Leilani Münter races a tricked out Tesla through city streets, projecting huge images of endangered species onto buildings including the United Nations. "The most important piece of the puzzle is not preaching to the choir," she says. "The most important part of my journey is that I can drive a racecar. The car is the only thing that gives me the ability to talk to 75 million race fans. If I was just a biology grad from UCSD trying to get people to give up meat, put solar on their roof and buy an electric car, they'd never hear me."

Pimm, whose conservation group, SavingSpecies, offset the carbon footprint of Racing Extinction's production, agrees. "I told Louie that I didn't want to be in a movie that just talks about how bad things are," he says. "I spend my life working on solutions. This film is important because it has solutions. It conveys two messages; that the variety of life on Earth is beautiful and spectacular and everybody thinks that. And we can actually do something about saving it."

For Psihoyos, who's collaborated with Discovery Channel to broadcast the film in 220 countries during the Paris Climate talks, his hope is that the film will help light a fire. "These movements can happen extremely quickly," he says. " It's hard to remember how recently the smartphone came out – we were typing A three times to get to C.  Now we're all connected at light speed. Five hundred years from now, nobody is going to care who the president of the United States was. They're going to say we were the generation who knew what was going on. And if we don't do anything, we won't be forgiven."