“Racing Extinction is required viewing for all citizens of the world,” said John Hoffman, executive vice president of Discovery Channel’s Documentaries and Specials division. The quote at first seemed like typical press-release hyperbole, but upon viewing the film, I have to agree. No matter what your political biases may be toward topics such as climate change, hunting endangered animals, destruction of natural habitats or other environmental issues, Racing Extinction should engage you with its sobering, at times bleak, look at the devastation facing our planet. It seems that in the “race” against extinction — not only the extinction of other animals and the environment, but the likely disappearance of our own species that would ensue when they are gone — “extinction” may be nipping at our heels more closely than we thought.
In the documentary, director Louie Psihoyos and the group behind the Oscar-winning film The Cove assemble a group of artists and activists for undercover operations to expose endangered species trafficking, infiltrating dangerous black markets and using high-tech tactics, and also to document the link between carbon emissions and species extinction. Their experiences are harrowing and dangerous as they covertly film potentially dangerous black marketeers through buttonhole cameras. But what they find is even more distressing — markets filled with illegal shark fins, high-end restaurants illegally serving whale meat and other signs of mass slaughter of endangered creatures.
The film expertly connects how the disappearance of wildlife has a direct effect on our planet. It looks back at the previous five mass extinctions that have occurred on Earth (the most recent one that killed the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago is probably most familiar to viewers), and puts forward strong evidence that humanity itself is potentially ushering in a sixth one. The film explores how — along with wildlife decimation — ocean acidification, destruction of habitats and even methane from cows raised for food, as well as other human activities, may lead to what one expert calls “runaway climate change” that would be unstoppable.
But while the film raises issues that are extremely dire, it also strikes notes of positivity and hope. Hope that people can help, even if it’s only by becoming more aware. The last part of the film shows the team working with digital artists to project amazing images and statistics onto buildings, including the Empire State Building, that detail how many endangered animals are vanishing each day, and we see emotional reactions among the crowds of onlookers. In another cool touch, the team, which includes racecar driver and environmental activist Leilani Münter, works with special infrared cameras that are able to physically show how much carbon dioxide is being emitted by individual cars as they pass the cameras — it’s a visually arresting moment that really gives pause for thought.
Racing Extinction should do a lot to bring awareness to crucial issues facing our planet. And since the film is being broadcast in more than 220 countries and territories, John Hoffman might be closer to realizing his hope that every person on the planet will see it.
As a side note, I find it refreshing that Discovery is airing this film, and it appears that they are holding true to their recently expressed desire to get away from junk science like the infamous Megalodon and Eaten Alive mockumentaries. And they don’t appear to have any more qualms on airing programs related to climate change, which is somehow controversial in America (a few years back, when Discovery aired the BBC program Frozen Planet, the network was hesitant about whether it would air the climate change episode, which is ultimately did). The network may get some flak from climate change deniers for even airing this film, and the network probably expects it, but it’s great that they are going ahead anyway.
Racing Extinction premieres Dec. 2 at 9pm ET/PT on Discovery Channel.
Credit: Patrick MacLeod/Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS)