Nature Photographers On What Quarantine Means for the Planet


Speaking with Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier about the #ExtinctionEndsHere campaign

Wednesday, April 22 not only marks Earth Day — but it’s also the 50th anniversary of the yearly celebration of the importance of protecting our planet. To mark the occasion, our Wake-Up Call newsletter (subscribe here!) was fortunate to speak with acclaimed National Geographic nature photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, co-founders of the ocean conservation group SeaLegacy.

This week, along with Global Wildlife Conservation, they launched a powerful #ExtinctionEndsHere campaign — to highlight the human impact on the coronavirus pandemic and call for an end to wildlife markets. Here, Cristina and Paul open up about the campaign, what quarantine has meant for the planet, and how we can all celebrate Earth Day.

Wake-Up Call: First things first — what is the significance of highlighting this issue at this particular time?

Cristina: We actually waited quite a bit of time because we didn’t want to be insensitive to the fact that so many people around the world are suffering and dying. The suffering is not going to stop anytime soon. But the truth of the matter is that this pandemic is human made and that we caused it because of our fractured relationship with nature and particularly because these wildlife markets are allowed to exist. So when you think about it, one man had one shoe and one bomb… and forevermore we will all have to take our shoes off at the airport. So whoever showed up at a market with whatever critter started this virus — detonated a nuclear weapon on humanity. And unless we stop these wildlife markets, it’s just gonna happen again.

Paul Nicklen: Every time we have a disaster, we throw money at it, we react, we panic and we get sad — and then we get on with our lives and it’s business as usual. So we’ve just had the world’s biggest hurricanes on record, the biggest wildfires in the Amazon, the biggest fires in Australia… and then on top of all that, this pandemic. I think that this pandemic is really this key inflection point that is forcing us all to stop and think about this path that we’re on. This is the moment to reverse it, to change it now.

And of course, our interview is coming out on Earth Day. We’re in the midst of this pandemic and so many of us are going to have to spend the day indoors. So what are some things that we can do to support this campaign and the environment from our own homes at this time?

Cristina: It starts with saying, “Earth Day shouldn’t be just a one day per year celebration.” If we want to live on a planet that’s suitable for life, we have to make Earth Day an everyday thing. It has to be top of mind. Being an environmentalist or caring about the environment shouldn’t be optional. We live on a very small planet, and Earth Day is that day to remind ourselves of it. And so this Earth Day, on its 50th anniversary, we all can re-engage with our commitment to be better citizens of Earth.

Paul: It’s very important for people to realize that every time they eat, every time they order food in a restaurant, every time they pull out their credit card and buy and shop, and every time they vote, most of all, you’re making a decision about the type of planet that you want for yourself, your kids, your grandkids. And this is a key moment.

What do you hope people take away from this campaign?

Cristina: First of all, that it’s just another message from nature to humanity about the path that we’re on. As the video says, if hurricanes, if wildfires, if floods are not enough — this is enough to remind those that we cannot go back to business as usual to economic models that have left both humanity and nature behind. As we emerge from this pandemic, we have some big choices to make. Going back to the way things were is not going to get anything better. We have an opportunity to rethink how we support communities and nature going forward.

And similarly, what would you say to somebody who hasn’t been paying close attention to what’s been going on with the environment?

Cristina: The very difficult thing about both climate change and this kind of pandemic is that they’re not one day events. It’s like a slow moving tsunami. So you’re seeing the symptoms of a very sick planet, then you’ve seen some of the most evident consequences. But if somebody has not been able to connect the dots between what’s happening and if somebody is not really concerned about these types of events becoming more prevalent and more constant. As long as we continue infringing on nature and as long as we fail to quarantine whatever’s left of nature and leave it alone, these things are going to continue happening.

Paul: The planet is obviously 4.5 billion years old and has essentially arrived at this equilibrium, and we are chopping at the foundation of it. All of these signs are just indicators that it’s becoming very unstable. Just like your own body, the more unhealthy you get, you become much more vulnerable to diseases. The planet is just going to keep getting more, more sick.

Cristina: Until now, maybe we all have been relying hopefully on a handful of environmental groups and maybe we hoped our governments are paying attention, but now we see that’s not the case. So we all need to be a lot more engaged and a lot more involved in demanding the kind of planet that we want to live on.

A lot of people right now are watching nature documentaries or looking at pictures of the outdoors… now that we’re stuck at home. You both, of course, have such incredible nature photography careers. How are you coping with staying at home?

Paul: Well, it’s funny because we actually live right on the ocean in British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. We have an acre of land and we have deer and birds and quail and sea lions. We have a great whale feeding in front of our house. So I’ve always said, “I’d love to spend more time at home.”

As much as I feel terrible for people in the world and about the economy collapsing, I’m excited for the reprieve, this break, this breath of fresh air that the planet gets to take during this time. We’re starting to see whales migrating back through this corridor where they haven’t been coming for years because of ship traffic. We’re starting to see the Earth wake up again.

For us, our heart is very sad for people — and worried — but at the same time, we’re grateful for the wake up call. We’re grateful for putting this into a global meditative state to reflect on what’s going on and where does this come from.

I think that’s why the timing is still excellent for this video — to go into people’s homes while they’re all sitting there and looking for entertainment. We’re using the power of visual storytelling that we do so well through SeaLegacy and the Global Wildlife Conservation Society to just really connect the global audience to this issue.

Cristina: Senator Cory Booker and Senator Lindsey Graham last week had a bipartisan hearing about this wildlife trade. So this is a very timely issue — and the time to tackle it is now.

As you said, every day should be Earth Day — but we’re grateful to speak with you on this particular day. Thank you so much.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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