Spotlight: Yann Arthus-Bertrand, cinematographer and Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme

UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Yann Arthus-Bertrand

7 February 2011 – A stalwart defender of the planet, French photo-journalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand became a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2009.

Mr. Arthus-Bertrand is the author of “The Earth from Above,” a book of aerial photos realised with support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He also directed the 2009 documentary “Home,” which drew attention to the environmental impact of human activities. In 2005, Mr. Arthus-Bertrand created the GoodPlanet Foundation to raise public awareness about environmental issues.

His latest film, “Forest,” addresses the importance of sustainable forest management and was screened at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations Headquarters in New York this month, as part of celebrations for the launch of the International Year of Forests.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. Arthus-Bertrand spoke about his commitment to the environmental and his efforts to help save the planet.

UN News Centre: What led you to commit yourself to the environmental cause?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Taking action makes you happy. To be invested in the fight, to believe in it, and try to advance things gives meaning to my life. I do not see being able to do the work I have chosen – that of journalist and photographer – without commitment. In today's world, a journalist cannot not be engaged.

Commitment gives meaning to life. I do it as a photographer, but an architect can do it by designing a “green” house, an engineer by developing a clean car. Every person can act in his or her own way. What is fundamental is to act.  Stop complaining because this sThe beauty of the Earth creates enormous emotion, and through that emotion, you can transmit knowledge and raise consciousness.tate is doing this or that, this company is doing this or that, this neighbour is doing this or that...

The world is moving so fast that it’s difficult to step back, to get perspective. To me that is the role of journalists, and not only journalists, to help get this perspective, to be able to touch people’s hearts. And to do this, to speak to people’s hearts, I believe in images: pictures, film, television, posters, Internet. These are very effective tools. An image of the Earth, its landscapes, directly affects people. The beauty of the Earth creates enormous emotion, and through that emotion, you can transmit knowledge and raise consciousness.

UN News Centre: Your photographs from “Earth from Above,” and your movies “Home” and “Forest,” are mainly drawn from aerial images which give that distance, that perspective. Are these aerial images your trademark way of raising awareness?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: It's very important to me because I try to speak to people, to civil society. Today, politicians are completely dependent on public opinion. They have an electoral vision. There is no great leader able to make a great decision, because in democracy, voters make the politicians. To spark an awakening of consciousness, to make things change, you have to convince people that action is urgently required, more than politicians who are just hoping to please their constituents.

I try to talk to the average person, which is extremely delicate because we are living in an economic paradox. The model is a society of consumerism. The whole world is determined by trade – which is really the blood of the world. The driving force is everyone’s desire to have a better life. How? By consuming. For countries, the “Holy Grail” is economic growth. Countries chase economic growth for a legitimate cause: better living conditions, having the means to build hospitals, schools. But at the same time, this is a model that pushes individual consumption, unbridled. Radical discourse, telling people "consume less to live better, because it is totally unsustainable" cannot be heard, it does not work.

UN News Centre: So where does change come from?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Provoke a revolution – in attitudes. Not a political or economic revolution but a spiritual revolution, in the sense of ethics and morality, so people ask themselves: “Do I have the right to do this? Can I live my life without considering my impact on the environment, on the planet that I share with others?” These are the considerations we need to spark in everyone’s minds. It is probably naive and utopian, but there is no other solution.

UN News Centre: For the launch of the International Year of Forests, you were asked by the UN to make the movie “Forest” on the importance of forests. The film targets a global audience via the UN, a global organization. Is the key here that your fight is worldwide?

Maelifellssandur, Myrdalsjökull Region, Iceland — photo © Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Yes and no. The fact is that seven per cent of the global population emits 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and the proportions are the same for the use of energy and raw materials, meat, wood, etc. Simply put, an infinitesimal minority consumes the most and imposes damage on the overwhelming majority, while asking it to change.

We, the rich, developed countries, are literally consuming the Earth. There are three billion men and women who have no impact on the planet, they are living as before, and yet they will suffer from climate change for which they are not responsible. I do not feel guilty about this situation, but I feel responsible. There is a global fight to wage, and it starts in developed countries. It is we who must change our way of living.

The West has become the world model; developing countries are dreaming of living like us, which is impossible. They should reject our model, because it is not sustainable. Developing countries should even give us the example, but unfortunately that's not what happens.

UN News Centre: Do you manage to get this message out in your travels?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: I remember an adventure in Borneo. I stopped one day near a field where a farmer was cutting a patch of forest. I spoke to him of deforestation, ecosystem, climate change. He said to me: “You come here with your helicopter to teach me a lesson? Me, I’m just working to feed my family.” Then he invited me on his boat, a traditional wooden boat. His wife was on board, feeding a baby and watching a US television show on a flat-screen.

What does that mean? It means that this woman’s dream is what this television programme is showing, the “American way of life,” Western-style, “live like us, consume like us, have the same comforts we have.” And at the same time we are saying: “No, you do not have the right, because the planet is in danger.” We created the dream, we profited from the dream, we show other people the dream and now we tell them, “Sorry, not for you. The planet is in danger.” Impossible. That’s the problem.

So the question is: Are we people from developed countries able to change? Are we going to learn to share? I have no answer, but I think it will take a lot of openness and a lot of love. We need to accept having less for the other to have more, we need to have a little less, share a little more. And that's really not easy to do.

UN News Centre: You often enlist financial support from the private sector for your environmental work. The UN has also been trying to involve the private sector, through the Global Compact. Private companies are often accused of being the cause of environmental problems – is their involvement the right way forward?

The Orinoco River — photo © Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: We can reverse the trend and change the game with a single word together. You cannot exclude some actors because you disagree with them or dislike their practices. So, yes, private companies are essential. Yes, we must work with them. You will not create a revolution by cutting off heads. We live in a democracy, everyone has the right to make its voice heard. The challenge is to convince people not to eliminate or ignore those they don’t like. And it's not so easy.  As I already said, change is very difficult. But that is what is at stake: a cultural revolution.

Today we are in a culture of consumerism – the more a country sells, the richer it becomes, the worse it is for the environment, but at the same time, the better it is for its economy. It is the capitalist system that is not good for the environment. I am convinced that we must revisit this model and it is very delicate, because we have evolved with this model. Look at any newspaper, watch television, lift your head and everywhere you see advertisement to consume.

It is not about the nice oil consumer and the wicked capitalist. The world does not work like that. When a taxi driver in Paris is shocked by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I ask him if he questions the origin of the oil he puts it in his car. Does it come from Myanmar, Darfur, Nigeria or the Gulf of Mexico? Stop complaining and delegating responsibility to others. If we want oil companies to change, consumers have the power to impose the change. If all of us say, "I do not want oil because it is coming from this country, because it is fuelling corruption, destroying the environment in such a region," the big companies will have to adapt.

Look what's happening today. Protecting the environment has become crucial for corporate image. They all want to show now that they are respectful of nature.

And let's not forget that a factory or business owner or business, at the end of the day is still a man with a family, with children, he watches television, he sees the problem and it is not his objective to destroy the planet.  He can become aware and decide to change at his own level. I believe that private companies, when they are sincere and honest in their commitments, are essential leverage in the fight against climate change, the struggle to protect forests and ecosystems.

UN News Centre: You work a lot with the UN – is it important for you that the Organization is directly involved on the global level?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Frankly, I'm not particularly impressed by the UN’s effectiveness. I am associated with the UN to get the message across. It is true that the UN has organized conferences like Cancun or Copenhagen to fight against climate change, but when you see what it costs and the result is… I unfortunately think that today, the UN is paralyzed because it is an organization composed of member states with different interests, so the organization cannot go forward without everyone being ready to move forward.

There are excellent initiatives, good UN resolutions, many good people, but I think they are cut off. There are three billion people who work the land by hand, and when you work at the UN, you are quite far away from this reality. It is a bit demagogic to say, but I was in Cancun, and it was too much: too many people, too many words, and ultimately not enough action.

UN News Centre: You are a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), isn’t that proof that you still believe in the UN?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: I'm not going to be the skeptic. You have to say bravo to any good initiative. Even if we take small steps, we are still going forward. The Executive Director of UNEP, Achim Steiner, is great. His team is great too, and when I can help, I do. But in general I believe civil society and NGOs will take an increasingly important role. Even states will turn to them because they are independent, can go anywhere, react much more quickly.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand takes an aerial photograph

UN News Centre: So you think it is civil society which will create real change?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: The proof is my presence here. The UN asked me to help raise awareness about forest protection. Everything we are doing on to support the International Year of Forests, our film “Forest,” the new website we launched with dozens of photographs of forests to show their beauty and importance, the educational posters we have distributed to schools across the world, the international photo contest – everything is geared toward civil society.

We also benefited by being in the US, where the film “Home” was never released. We are screening it for free in New York; we organized a screening and discussion at Columbia University, to educate future decision-makers. Non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations are indeed very effective levers for changing attitudes, awakening consciousness, for sparking this spiritual revolution I was talking about at the beginning.

UN News Centre: To conclude, what do you think is the top priority for the environment today?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: That everybody become conscious of the reality, so we can be governed by people who are convinced, by leaders more than politicians, who personally believe in this fight and whose choices are not determined solely by the necessity of satisfying voters. The priority is simple: “stop the blah-blah and take action.”

Read related news story:

UN launches year-long celebration of vital role of world’s forests