Sunday, December 18, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: scientists suggest media should pay for conservation

Ever had an idea that sounded great at first blush and then as you waded into the details, it started to lose its luster? We've all had them. Some were undone right at the start while others seemed to be heading in a positive direction as the details were fleshed out, only to hit a wall when some fundamental truth - an unknown obstacle - shows itself.

I was reading an article/podcast in Scientific American about four British scientists who, in a recent issue of Science, were promoting the idea of media companies that profit from wildlife films being required to contribute a portion of their profits to conservation causes.

Writer David Biello poses the question in Scientific American, "
Given the success of channels like Animal Planet, shows like Planet Earth and even films like March of the Penguins, big media makes big money from nature. Do they then have an obligation to re-invest some of their profit on the nature that provided the "ecosystem service" of existing to be filmed?"

Ecosystem service is a term used by some scientists and conservationists to describe human-valued benefits provided by ecosystems such as pollination, clean water, and the minimizing of storm damage by wetlands. Applied to nature filmmaking, if companies profit from the visual images and interesting stories that nature provides, shouldn't these companies be obligated to give something back in return.

Sounds like a great concept on paper, but when one delves into the devilish details, I see at least three issues cropping up. First, there is the fact that only a small group of players are making substantial money in the field of nature filmmaking. In this genre there are very few blockbusters; the examples that are often cited - from March of the Penguins to Discovery Channel's Shark Week - are more exceptions to the rule than the norm. Most nature filmmakers do it for the love of nature or their compassion for conservation. They would be making a lot more money shooting commercials for fast food restaurants and SUVs.

Second, if such a requirement were to be implemented, who would oversee the accumulated monies and who would determine which of the hundreds of conservation organizations would receive funding and to what extant? The British scientists proposed the establishment of a trust fund but conceded that developing an impartial and reliable board of trustees would be challenging. Where would these people come from and would they be bringing a potential for favoritism to their role? One can imagine the political overtones regarding a trustee's credentials and impartiality - problems akin to what we find in selecting judges for the Supreme Court.

And finally, given the first two issues mentioned, there is the larger philosophical argument of whether such a payment would be an unfair imposition on the free enterprise system. Take the Animal Planet channel, a Discovery Communications brand, for an example: how much of its current programming is devoted purely to nature? With it's current slate of human drama reality-based programs (a trend that is fueled in part by the high costs/low return of doing pure, 100% nature-only films) how does one fairly determine who should pay and at what level?

In media's defense, it can be argued that nature filmmaking has an ancillary effect of bringing ecological and conservation issues to the public's attention; that its very essence, that of entertainment meant to be seen by the widest possible audience, is sufficient payback. Its success spills over to conservation organizations by making the public more aware and receptive to supporting (i.e., funding) conservation.

Certainly a case can be made for suggesting that media companies with a substantial investment in nature filmmaking should, out of a sense of moral obligation, clearly support in some way the organizations who are dedicated to preserving the filmmaker's subject matter. That I support wholeheartedly. But the actual execution of making it a legally binding requirement opens a Pandora's box of complex and challenging issues.

Source: Scientific American

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