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Humans are ruining the environment

Photographing the world's most beautiful places from the air led to a passion for the planet for Yann Arthus-Bertrand, as Oliver Rowland discovers

Photographing the world's most beautiful places from the air led to a passion for the environment for photographer and eco-activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Known for his books of spectacular photos, France 3 TV’s Vu du Ciel and the film Home, he is the public face of grass-roots group 10:10, his GoodPlanet Foundation and Unesco’s International Year of Forests campaign. Oliver Rowland finds out more

How did your passion for ecology start?

I went to Kenya to study lions and discovered photography; to earn a living I became a balloon pilot. My [aerial photography] book La Terre Vue du Ciel changed me, because the Earth was more beautiful than I had imagined and transformed by the impact of humans.

There were two-and-a-half billion of us when I was born and there will be seven billion in June. All the scientists I met on my travels fear for the environment, so that worried me as well. The wonderful work done by non-governmental organisations, by people who decided to act, who have made a commitment, had a big impact, too. I was moved to see they were not giving up, they were not despairing. You often hear pessimistic people say it is too late.

What made me think was that, today, there are two billion subsistence farmers and they will be the first to suffer from climate change. When you have no fertilisers and no agricultural machinery, to grow crops and feed yourself is very difficult. That made me think about my responsibilities, so I became an activist, through all the means I have, whether it be photos, cinema, or television.

So you think climate change is the biggest danger to the environment?

The biggest danger is humans. We are a very intelligent species who have managed to colonise the world, but we are literally consuming it.

You spearhead 10:10 in France aiming to get people to cut their carbon emissions by 10 per cent in a year; you started in June 2010, so it must be continuing this year?

We ask the whole of France to cut greenhouse gases, starting in 2010, and we are giving it about a year to see what can be achieved. About 200 towns have signed agreements, including Paris and Lyon. I can’t change the world overnight: it’s never enough, but from the moment a single person signs, a town council signs, for me it’s a success.

We are going towards a real revolution that is not political, scientific nor economic, but much more spiritual, where we will realise each one of us can do something. We mustn’t just wait for something to be done at [climate change conferences at] Cancun or Copenhagen. We think we need to have the latest TV, a new car, and that we are happy if we are consuming.

We must learn to repair what can be repaired, throw away less and consume a little less. That’s what 10:10 is.

Is the 10 per cent objective realistic?

It’s just a good intention. Our lives are full of carbon, so we need to think about where it is and where we can economise. It’s not hard. Stock exchange firms calculate it as they need to be able to give figures on their impact; for others, we just hope they will play the game.

10:10 is not coercive, there are no sanctions, people are free to participate or not. I like to see the glass as half-full, not half-empty.

In any case, we only expect firms to achieve three per cent; 10 per cent is too much to ask. But many have cut their emissions a lot because of the economic crisis, eg. banks use less air travel and have cut by more than 10 per cent.

You had a lot of events on October 10, a symbolic day (10/10/10). Is anything special planned this year?

Not for the moment, but we are talking to the organisers in Britain to see what they are doing, what’s going on. It started there and we will follow the worldwide movement.

Is France committed to the environment?

In the first Sarkozy years, the government had commitment with the Grenelle Environnement; at the Copenhagen conference [in 2009], we were one of the governments that fought the hardest. [former environment minister Jean-Louis] Borloo had political clout, a carbon tax was proposed. Unfortunately now we have the impression they are a little bit bored with ecology [eg. the role of ecology minister was demoted to a junior ministry and the carbon tax was shelved].

Electoral support did not really materialise, but I still believe in it. With 10:10 what impressed me was the number of businesses that responded. The most important thing is to convince the public and business. Politicians can’t do anything if the person in the street isn’t convinced and keen for change: in any case, our politicians resemble us, we get the politicians we deserve.

My work is to use TV, and teach people. If people are not really conscious of the problem and they think ecology is just a fashion, that it makes no difference, everything is hard. People must realise we need to continually think about our impact and try to do our best.

I went to the Cancun [Mexico] summit by plane, and I know it’s not good for the environment, but it’s my choice and I take responsibility for it. But I would not go by plane for a three-day holiday in Marrakesh.

Do people feel being green is too much effort?

There’s a big difference when you are really conscious of the issues. With my friends and colleagues, taking the environment into consideration is simple, almost pleasant; it becomes a reflex. It’s when you have not really become aware that taking steps for the environment seems an effort. For many people, it is not a reflex yet.

Do you recommend readers visit your sites or for information on green lifestyles and CO2-emission calculators?

They are tools that can help, but all that’s needed is little everyday gestures. Each person can find their own ways. It helps if you are well-informed, eg. if you know that meat production causes more greenhouse gases than vegetables; but it comes down to the same old things, using your car less, heating less; but really my role is not about those details, but to give the big picture of the impact we have on the world.

I just did a TV programme for France 5 about palm oil in Borneo [causing deforestation]. You realise there is palm oil in everything: it’s incredible, in crisps, cheese… Politically, what could be done is to insist products say “palm oil”, not just “vegetable oil”, which is meaningless.

What do you think of the eco-districts scheme [government loans for new green building projects in cities]?

It’s a good idea. I just inaugurated some new low-energy consumption houses with the Environment Minister, at Jaux, Oise. You need developers and councils to take an interest, but also the public must be willing to pay 10 per cent more for their home.

As you fly around France by helicopter or hot-air balloon, have you been struck by environmental damage?

Not really. There are some places, like Borneo, where you really see deforestation; places like Dubai where you see it’s not normal to build a city in the desert; but it’s the future that’s worrying, not so much the present.

Even if there are natural disasters, climate change is not really very noticeable yet, and people are in denial. They know what’s happening, but don’t want to think about it. They think we can’t change anything, but we can.

You have a new book out on New York: do you enjoy photographing cities?

It’s something I do for fun. I especially like flying over Paris, Venice and New York: they are extraordinary cities. New York is fascinating and I worked with an architect who did the text and knows all the buildings; that was exciting. I’ll be doing Venice again this year.

This year is the Unesco Year of the Forest: are you doing anything special?

There is a whole United Nations programme. We did an official film that we will present to heads of state next month; schools worldwide can download free posters of forests from the internet site, and we have a photo exhibition. As an Unesco goodwill ambassador, I am often asked to organise photographic and film projects, because it’s what I specialise in.

Are French forests in a healthy state?

Yes, fortunately. In fact, we should exploit their resources more than we do. The sector is underdeveloped because we don’t heat or build much with wood and even when we do it often comes from Germany, which is ridiculous. In the Congo or the Amazon, things are quite different; you can’t compare with France.

We have intensive agriculture and don’t need to make use of the forests as our ancestors did. In the Luberon, you find forest areas that were once cultivated and people lived in them; there was a lot of silk production and people used the wood to make charcoal and grew crops, because the land is very fertile in forested areas.

Are there any parts of France you especially enjoy flying over?

I like flying over some areas that might not necessarily seem especially interesting, because it all helps me to get a better picture of our territory and its characteristics. You learn a lot. However, I like flying over Paris very much, because it is my city. To fly over it and, like with New York, to try to take the best possible pictures, is the artistic side of my work.

What is the secret to taking spectacular pictures?

To go to a spectacular place.

Will Vu du Ciel continue on TV this year?

Not in the same format. Things are a bit confusing at France Télévisions at the moment, we are not quite sure what we will be doing, but in theory we are doing several programmes.

I will be talking about the same things: the impact of man on the Earth, our responsibility, not guilt, and meeting people who are finding solutions and acting. Today we must not just talk, but act.

You set up your initiative, Action Carbone, partly to off-set your emissions from flying: do you get a lot of criticism for those?

Certainly, and it’s normal, as I am in the public eye, but I’ve made a choice to fly in helicopters and to travel by plane. In fact, planes emit a lot more carbon than helicopters. In my film Home, 70 per cent of our carbon emissions were from plane journeys.

I run carbon-offsetting projects, such as helping people in developing countries to use green energy, and I’m proud of that. Some call me a hypocrite, but at least I am trying to do something. There are two billion air journeys a year; if all those people used carbon-offsetting, it would change the world.

You must have been pleased with the response to Home

Yes, because it’s always interesting to make a good film. I’m starting my next one soon, and I hope I can do as well. I plan to do something about the people who don’t complain; all the people who work the land with their hands to feed their children, who are about two billion in the world; who, more than us in the rich countries, are going to suffer from climate change.

They don’t complain and often have a good sense of what we have lost. I will start work this year, but it will not be ready for a few years.

New York: Une Histoire d’Architecture, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and John Tauranc, Editions de la Martinière, priced €49.90.

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