Darren Aronofsky almost became a biologist.
The filmmaker who made Requiem for a dream, Black Swanand Mother spent his high school summers volunteering at the New York Aquarium, which was close to his home in south Brooklyn. Speaking at Fast Company’s European Festival of Innovation in Milan, he said he was mainly attracted to the gig because it gave him free access to the cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. But one summer at work, he came across a catalog from the School for Field Studies, which trains high school and college students to become environmentalists. He signed up to become a field biologist-in-training. He went to Kenya to study water strategies and to Prince William Sound to study seals.
He eventually became a world-class producer and director, but over the past decade he has returned to his roots. “I can’t get to work on a story that isn’t related in some way to the environment,” says Aronofsky. “I think this is the story of our time.”
As a filmmaker, Aronofsky believes he has the opportunity — and the responsibility — to use his platform to inspire others to work to protect the planet. And with current technologies at our disposal, from drones to AI, he says we can now accurately represent the planet through film. In the documentary A strange rock, which he produced for the National Geographic Channel in 2018, all of this technology is deployed to depict the majesty of the earth in 160 different locations, using six shifts over three years. “We used technology to capture the most beautiful and extreme places on the planet,” he says. “The series was told by the only people who have seen the planet from above: the astronauts.”
In the series, Aronofsky made a deliberate choice not to mention “climate change” or pollution by name, despite those elements being implied in the visuals. “There are so many things on the market that hammer people (with these messages),” he says. “I thought maybe just admiring the clockwork and showing how beautiful this planet is, it would make people think, ‘Maybe let’s not destroy this. “”
Aronfsky says even films that aren’t overtly environmentalist are designed to make people think about how their actions affect the planet. Take Noah, for example, which is based on the biblical story. It describes how God looks at man’s evil deeds and attempts to destroy the Earth with a flood. “I wanted to make this movie since I was a teenager,” says Aronofsky. “I thought there were a lot of connections to what’s happening on this planet today. We have to take care of creation, and we don’t. We’re running into this apocalypse as well.
David de Rothschild, an environmentalist, agrees that the constant flow of negative stories about the planet is not very effective in inciting action. “As environmentalists, we are undertakers by nature,” says de Rothschild. “We tell you all the bad news. And bad news creates fear. And fear often creates paralysis.
But for him, a counterweight to that is sharing stories of hope and improvement. For the past two decades he has been keen to use technology to solve some of the problems we have created on the planet. For example, he was keen to raise awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a section of ocean near California where huge amounts of plastic waste has accumulated in a giant heap. In 2010 he built Plastiki, a 60ft catamaran built from 12,500 salvaged plastic bottles using a brand new recycling system he and his team created. He sailed this boat from San Francisco to Sydney, where much of this waste exists, to bring attention to the problem but also signal a solution in the form of the boat itself, which was actually made from of this waste.
de Rothschild thinks we can continue to do more of this kind of storytelling and problem-solving with the new technologies that keep emerging. “When you think about the impact a drone could have on documenting the impact on our oceans,” he says. “It used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get helicopters and rigs to capture images in a remote location, whereas now you can do it in high resolution for a few thousand dollars.”
In fact, all the technology we have today could be deployed to solve the environmental crisis and make the earth habitable again. de Rothschild says part of the frustration of being an environmental researcher or ecologist is that there doesn’t seem to be a will to solve problems. “We have solutions to all the problems we face today,” he says. “We could now get out of fossil fuels. Even though we have AI and all these tools, we have to have empathy. When does humanity find its moral compass?
Africa Flores-Anderson, a scientist working on a joint initiative between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development, says we need to strike a balance between offering the world optimism that we can save the planet with realism. As a researcher, she uses satellite data, AI and machine learning to monitor forestry and water quality. And what she discovers should terrify us. Entire aquatic ecosystems are destroyed by human pollution. “I think we have to be realistic about what’s going on,” she said. “And we must also learn to appreciate this beauty that we risk losing. We have to do both.
Ultimately, understanding the extent of damage to the planet is not enough. We must act accordingly. “For the first time, we actually have the tools we need to get a portrait of the planet,” says Aronofsky. “We can see it moment to moment, day to day. What is missing is a plan for the planet. The hope of all these new tools is that they will allow us to take all this data and very quickly create a design system that will say, this is what a balanced ecosystem with eight billion people could look like.