Meet French ecologist Yann Arthus-Bertrand

The time for talking about saving the planet needs to be replaced by action – and we are all responsible, ecologist and aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand tells Jane Hanks

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Most people know of the French photo-journalist and ecologist Yann Arthus-Bertrand through one of his books, The Earth from the Air, which was first published in 1999.

On the front page is the famous photo of a decimated mangrove swamp in New Caledonia, where the receding vegetation has left the shape of a yellow heart. He was the first person to use aerial photography to reveal the extent of human damage to the earth.

Nearly twenty years on he continues to make films, take photographs, talk at exhibitions of his work and act as President of the GoodPlanet Foundation he created to limit environmental damage. Despite all that he feels that still, people do not understand the threat to the world we live in.

Jane Hanks talked to him just before the opening of an exhibition of photographs from his film Home which are on show at Sarlat, Dordogne until September 16.

He is a very busy man and grabbed a few minutes at the end of a car journey to talk to me on his mobile phone. The week before he had been in Brittany to talk about his new film to be released in 2019, Woman and that week he was due to go to Sarlat for a conference debate about his exhibition there.

Above all he wanted to talk about ecology, and there was frustration and anger in his voice when he said that things were getting worse not better in the environment:

“The photos are very beautiful, but behind all that there are very important things which are happening. Every year the figures are worse and worse and today we need to start a revolution. This revolution will not be political. We have the politicians we deserve and all the COPs 21,22 and 23 [Conference of the Parties on climate change] have served no real purpose.

“It cannot be an economic revolution either because the world still seems to need growth; and even in countries which are rich like ours, growth is seen as being indispensable, when it is this growth which is very bad for our environment, with its effects on global warming, fishing and biodiversity.

“At the same time it will not be a scientific revolution because we will never replace the millions of barrels of oil with solar panels, so the revolution will be spiritual, that is to say we must use all the human qualities we have such as empathy, compassion, well-being and ethics because all the proposals we try to work with need these qualities if we are going to succeed.

“At present we are 7.6 billion people on earth and if we continue to buy and to eat in the way we do today, the earth will not support that.”

Nature lover by nature

Yann Arthus-Bertrand was born in 1946. From a young age he was passionate about animals and nature. When he was 20, he became Director of a nature reserve. Aged 30 he went to Kenya with his wife and carried out a three-year study on the behaviour of a family of lions in the Massaï reserve. There he started photography as a way of recording his observations.

At the same time he earned his living as a hot-air balloon pilot and so discovered a new way to look at what was happening on the earth. He published his first book, Lions and he likes to say that the lions were his first photography teachers.

Little by little he became a reporter, focusing on environmental issues and working for National Geographic, Paris Match, Le Figaro Magazine and others. He wrote another book, Good Breeding and Horses about the relationship between man and animals.

Then in 1991 he founded the first aerial photography agency in the world – which led to his first major project, The Earth From The Air, sometimes called The Earth From Above. It has sold 3 million copies and the open-air photographic exhibition that accompanied it was shown in around 100 countries and has been seen by some 200 million people.

The idea was used as the basis of a TV documentary series in 2006 and it then developed into a film, HOME, which is still being watched by audiences in 2018.

On the day of its release, World Environment Day, June 5, 2009 there were free screenings across the world and that day alone it was seen by 600 million people. So perhaps it is not surprising he feels frustrated that his message, relayed to so many people still is not having the effect he would like it to. I asked him, what he felt people should do once they had seen his films or his photos:

“It is not for me to decide. People are intelligent enough to see that it is up to them to act. You know, in all my films I tell people to stop eating intensively farmed meat which are destroying our planet. Are you vegetarian? No, well it is no use repeating the same thing over and over again. You will see in my film I speak a great deal about eating meat.

“Everyone can do what they can. Eat organically. It is indispensable to eat organic food. When you see the diminishing bee population, the reduction of insects, the effect on our biodiversity it shouldn’t be necessary to tell everybody to eat organic food.

If everyone ate organic food there would not be any pesticides. If there were no pesticides there would be no threat to biodiversity.

“I am fed up of repeating the same thing. If you do not eat organic food, you are responsible for the effect on biodiversity in France, for example. I have to say the same thing over and over. People do not want to change. It is a question which is very personal and spiritual; do you want to change or not?

“If you eat ham, if you eat chicken you are responsible, yourself, for the loss of biodiversity. Me too, we are all responsible. I think we must take a much more radical sense of our responsibility.”

I suggested that not everybody thinks we are heading towards the end of the planet: “All the scientists think we are going towards the end of the world, all of them. So we all know what is happening. We think it is all a long way away so we do not care. But you know it is much too late to be pessimistic. What we need is action. Today that is my viewpoint.

“We have all polluted, I have polluted. It is for us to change. I think above all today we need to put a lot of humanity into our ecology; welcome the refugees, help those around you who have less than you do.

“We need to love trees, we need to love animals, but also we need to love our fellow humans. That is perhaps something that the ecologists have forgotten.”

His GoodPlanet Foundation aims to give practical solutions to help people live in a more ecological way. Among other actions it has 41 projects in 21 countries to help people live a carbon neutral life, for example building bioclimatic schools, giving people access to renewable energy and working to restore biodiversity.

Last year the Mairie in Paris agreed he could use a building, the Domaine de Longchamp, in the Bois de Boulogne, for a 30-year period to be the first place in the capital dedicated to energy. The general public can visit it free of charge.

There are exhibitions, concerts, conferences, debates, a vegetable garden, an orchard and beehives. Yann Arthus-Bertrand says it is a “green bubble, where visitors can experience a generous and positive form of ecology free of charge with their family and friends, where parents and children alike are all welcome.”

As a result of his Foundation he was appointed United Nations Environment Programme Goodwill Ambassador in 2009. He has made two other films; Planet Ocean in 2012, which he co-directed with Michael Pitiot and which explores the importance of the ocean and the need to care for it; and Human in 2015, which is a series of interviews with people of all kinds from all parts of the world to show what it means to be human.

His latest film, Woman will be released in 2019. It focuses on interviews with women who have stood up in their country at all levels: “It is a film about courage, injustice and love,” he says. “It shows above all that certain women have the good sense to change things. Rwanda, where there are more women than men in politics, is the country in Africa where the health service is improving the most.

“Women look after their children, they are like that and it shows that women understand what needs changing. It is important – what the position of women is in this world of men.”

He says he regards himself both as an ecologist and a photographer: “I am still a photographer and a film maker and a director. I have a Foundation and the Domaine de Longchamp. I am someone who tries to get across his message using the cinema and as well I am the president of the foundation and I try to do what I can.”

Do you think things will improve if we all make little changes?

“To tell you the truth I do not know any more. I think all actions are important and eating organic food every day for ever is not a little action it is a big and important one.

Do you think there is any improvement in the state of our planet?

“I think that people have become aware of the problems now. But the figures are worse and worse every year. That means we have not progressed from the point of view of the environment, not at all. I think we have left everything to associations and others to look after the health of the earth.

“Today we talk about the fact that soon we will have no more elephants. We talk about Green Business, but no, what we must learn to do is to live with a decrease in growth, to live better with less.”

He does give the thumbs up to the British who have moved to France:
“I think a lot of the British come to France to live in the country unlike the French who go to the UK to put money in the bank.

“I think the British who come to live in the countryside bring a great deal of good vibes towards the local peasants, they buy locally and want to live simply, so it is a good thing having the British, come to France.”