“I didn’t start out as an ecologist,” Nicolas Hulot says, “I became one.” Still boyish and exuberant, with an ever-engaging smile at 62, Hulot has definitely made up for lost time. He is single handedly responsible for French media adding the term, “télé-écologist” to the lexicon. His original TV show, Ushaia, gave birth to its own satellite TV channel devoted to nature and the environment. Now, as France’s new minister of ecology, much will depend on whether the country’s political system will allow him to incorporate some of the perceptions that he believes are crucial for the human race to survive.

The Nicolas Hulot Foundation counts more than 850,000 supporters and has come close to defining France’s climate change strategy. Hulot’s Defi pour la Terre provided the basic policy analysis to equip French politicians with the  framework they needed to start dealing with the environment. The Nouvelle Observateur once referred to Hulot as France’s unofficial “green” vice-president. Hulot’s previous coup was a stunning feature-length documentary, The Titanic Syndrome, which opened in French cinemas just before the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

Hulot is not the first celebrity to warn us about the impending threat from climate change. Ever since Al Gore’s pioneering documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, a number of directors have cashed in on the growing public anxiety fed by the steady increase in the number and severity of climate disasters around the world. In France, aerial photographer Arthus Bertrand produced “Home,” which also takes a dystopic view of the planet’s future.

Seeing the dangers that lie ahead

What made Hulot’s Titanic Syndrome different from other films was its  analysis that went deeper than simply itemizing damage to the planet. Instead, Hulot targeted the globalized economic and social factors that inevitably lead us to self-destruction, even when we can clearly see the danger that lies ahead.

As Hulot sees it, the new globalized system—a mixture of obsessive consumerism, mindless economic expansion, and extravagant waste of limited resources that has increasingly spread across the world — is both fatally flawed and fundamentally unsustainable. Climate change, in short, is just one manifestation of a much more complex problem. “The system that served us well in the past,” Hulot concludes, “has become part of the problem and not the solution.”

The flaw is that the system is based on the assumption that that the world is endowed with limitless resources and that we can continue to expand indefinitely and call it progress. We can’t. Global free market consumerism has created the illusion of wealth, but it has also made forget our sense of responsibility to each other and it has encouraged us to measure success in terms of accumulation. The result is a system that provides a feast for a few, and leaves the immense majority of the earth’s population with a few crumbs.

The planet is in danger of a Malthusian catastropohe

Hulot is the first to admit that he was originally swept up in the illusion of the earth’s invincibility as anyone else. As a child, he says he thought that progress was inevitable and that there were no limits. But twenty years of criss-crossing the planet to shoot nature documentaries for television has shown that in fact the earth is anything but invulnerable to the ravages brought on by over population and by a careless squandering of precious resources. The planet, Hulot believes, is in danger of a Malthusian catastrophe. It may be later than Malthus’s original prediction, but it is just as real all the same, and now it is coming back to bite us with a vengeance.

If, at the end of the reign of the Sun King, Louis IVX casually remarked, “Après moi le deluge,” the epitaph that is being written by our seeming inability to deal with the problem might as well be, “After us, the end of civilization and the human race as we know it.”

We are like the Titanic, sailing into dangerous waters and ignoring the increasingly urgent warnings to change course before it is too late. Like the Titanic’s officers, our leaders display the kind of hubris and unjustified self-confidence that has preceded mankind’s catastrophes dating back to the tower of Babel. We may be traveling first class, but when the ship goes down it will take all classes with it, including what amounts to steerage.

Erasing the earth’s hard disk

“The story of the Titanic,” Hulot warns, “ends badly for everyone.” As Hulot sees it, the financial crisis is simply another symptom of a flawed system. Far from saving us, the end of the financial crisis, and a new surge in worldwide consumerism will accelerate the eventual collapse.

In the meantime, the earth’s hard disk is being erased. Scientists estimate that the planet is losing 1 per cent of its known animal species each year, and that a quarter of the planet’s animal life is now in danger of eventual extinction. Man is removing 25 per cent more of the earth’s natural resources every year than nature can replenish. The oceans have been subject to wholesale rape to such colossal extent that both fish and crustaceans are likely to disappear before 2050, leaving us dependent on artificial fish farms to remember what sea food actually used to taste like.

Naturally, jobs are at stake, but Hulot contends that much of the damage is due to industrial processes, which are needlessly wasteful, mostly because there is no economic incentive for them not to be. Industrialized fishing accounts for roughly half the fish that are caught, and nearly 50% of that catch is thrown away, either because the fish that are trapped in huge nets fail to meet regulatory requirements, or because they don’t fit market demands at the moment.

Raising climate change as a priority

The real question that Hulot asks is: “How do we save the planet from ourselves?” As Hulot sees it, the evidence that we need is already there. The scientific reasoning may be complex, but the threat itself and what needs to be done is not hard to understand.

Climate change threatens to result in the deaths of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people, but is lower on national priorities than fighting a questionable war in Iraq, or trying to track down a hand full of worldwide terrorists who with the exception of the World Trade Center haven’t been able to accomplish anything resembling the casualties resulting from a drought or the increasingly intense tropical cyclones that we are seeing more frequently. Why do we spend billions to protect against dangers that are mostly imaginary while we ignore the greater danger that threatens our very existence? Logic and common sense both argue that the current trend is unsustainable, so why do we seem so incapable of doing anything about it?

A critical role for the media: People need to understand what’s happening

The explanation, Hulot feels is that politicians are essentially prisoners of the public who vote for them. National leaders can broadcast their concern at international conferences like the G8, the G20, and even the climate change conferences, but until the public becomes genuinely convinced of the danger and begins to demand action, the political gestures will remain largely superficial and ineffective.

The solution, Hulot is convinced, is to get the broad public to understand the problem at a visceral level. When that happens, the leaders will follow as they always do. Hulot applauded US President Barack Obama’s declarations about the climate, but he also suspected that Obama would find his hands tied when it came to actually making a meaningful change. “The climate is not seen as a very high priority in the US,” he explains.

To understand the problem and to genuinely believe in its urgency, the average person reading his paper in a cafe-tabac each morning or watching the evening news needs to hear it explained by someone who can frame it in terms that he or she can actually understand and relate to. That person who can convince the man in the street is probably not going to be a scientist, an intellectual, or even an angry tree-hugging activist. On the other hand, it might just be Nicolas Hulot.

Why Hulot – as France’s new ecology minister – may be the right person to get the public onboard has a lot to do with who he is and where he comes from. The increasingly concerned activist emerged from a relatively ordinary and generally happy childhood in Brittany. Hulot’s grandfather was an architect who was influential in the reconstruction of St. Malo after the war, and an inspiration for Jacques Tati’s classic film Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

In his early memoir, Les Chemins de Traverse, Hulot describes the terrible shock that changed his life forever. On Christmas Eve, when he was just 18, his mother asked him to go to the basement to get a spare chair for some expected guests. Rummaging through the basement in the dark, with his sister standing at his side, Hulot bumped into a soft object rolled in a carpet. When he found a light and unrolled the carpet, he discovered the mummified body of his older brother, Gonzague, whom everyone thought had started on a trip around the world several months earlier. Next to the carpet was an empty bottle of sedatives and a suicide note that stated simply, “Life is not worth living.”

Chemins de Traverse begins with a quote from the Romanian poet, Mihail Eminescu: “Life is a value lost, for him who has not lived it as he would have wanted to.” Hulot developed an almost obsessive determination to make certain that he did not make the same mistake, and that determination seems to have shaped almost his entire career. Virtually every setback he experienced in the early days of his career eventually proved to be an advantage that pushed him forward to a greater success.

From photography to filming

Hulot’s father, a romantic dreamer, trapped in a mundane routine position as an executive for a candy company, had quit his job in order to open a gardening center on the Riviera. The enterprise soon went bust, and the marriage ended in divorce, but the relocation to the Riviera introduced Hulot both to his father’s sensitivity to the beauty of vegetation, and to a lifelong passion for motorcycles enhanced by the spectacular Grand Corniche above Nice. When Hulot’s mother moved back north after the father’s death from cancer, Hulot began working as a tractor-driver pulling yachts in and out of the sea at St. Lunaire, across the estuary from St. Malo. To raise extra money, he started selling snapshots to tourists, and eventually tried his hand at wedding photography, and then aerial photography of the coastal estates, which he marketed to the proud owners of various chateaux.

Photography eventually landed him a job with Sipa, a fledgling photo agency started by Göksin Sipahioglu, a Turk with a reputation for exploiting young talent. Another lucky contact from Hulot’s days working in the dockyard at St. Lunaire landed him a chance to do a photo story on Eric Tabarly, France’s record-breaking long distance sailor, considered the father of French yachting. Sipahioglu hadn’t shown any interest in the Tabarly story, so Hulot went to another French photo agency, Sygma. While in South Africa to see Tabarly, he had a sudden inspiration and decided to illustrate the effects of apartheid by hiring a white model to pose on a black-only beach. The story, which ran under the headline, “She risked ten years in prison to be here,” made a sensation, and Sipahioglu, anxious to get Hulot back in the fold, assigned him to cover events across all of southern Africa.

While in Rhodesia, which was soon to become Zimbabwe, Hulot became fascinated by the sheer beauty of the forests and wildlife. At the same time he felt increasingly frustrated with the French press’s appetite for salacious trivia. If Princess Caroline went grocery shopping with her husband, he noted, it would outspace a story covering 5,000 deaths in Uganda, a flood in Mozambique, or a massacre in Cambodia. “My news was given over to economic censorship,” he later wrote. “I suddenly discovered, in the greatest incoherence, the sordid interests, the limits of information submitted to the desiderata of commercialism.”

But he also recognized the power that media represents. Along the way, he began experimenting with radio as a sideline, and he soon realized that he could reach more people through broadcasting than almost any other way. Eventually, France Inter, anxious to appeal to a youth audience, zeroed in on Hulot’s love of motorcycles. His penchant for engaging in imaginative stunts made him a natural choice. The show’s popularity surpassed everyone’s expectations.

The stunts led from motorcycles to an increasing fascination with ultralights, essentially a motorized hang glider. He began flying along the coast of Brittany and doing brief broadcasts from the air. The formula called for more and more risk. Although Hulot stressed that he was often terrified, he also claimed that he considered fear to be a valuable asset, constantly reminding him to rationally calculate the odds, and always to go for expert advice before taking on a project, a lesson he has continued in the climate change debate.

Growing risks to appeal – and almost death

Despite precautions, the stunts did not always end well. At one point, he was thrown out of a speedboat and suffered temporary amnesia. Trying to have himself filmed while doing a running commentary as he was parachuting over Victoria Falls, he was frustrated to see his cameraman descending more rapidly than he was. When he tried to repeat the stunt, his own parachute at first failed to open fully and for a few brief moments he seemed to be facing certain death. After the jump, he discovered that the cameraman had accidentally triggered the shutter before leaving the plane. The film consisted of shaky shots of the boots of everyone waiting to exit the plane. A motorcycle accident reduced one of his favorite machines to a fractured heap of shredded metal.

Hulot’s search for more and more impressive exploits reached a critical turning point when he encountered Hubert de Chevigny, one of France’s most experienced pilots of ultralights. After spending six weeks with Hulot in Brittany, de Chevigny proposed flying two ultralights to the North Pole. The American explorer, Richard Byrd, had flown over the pole 60 years earlier, but hadn’t landed there, and a recent French attempt to reach the pole on foot had failed. That was in 1984. It took two years to put the financing together and when the effort did get off the ground, the outcome was nearly catastrophic. After leaving the northernmost outpost above the arctic circle, Hulot’s ultralight crashed, and was unable to continue. He nearly died from the cold after neglecting to remove his flying gear before crawling into a sleeping bag. The moisture from his suit promptly froze, turning the sleeping bag into an approximation of an ice coffin imprisoning his slowly freezing body. Hulot survived mostly because he had read dozens of polar accounts describing the symptoms of hypothermia. Bad weather prevented de Chevigny from going on alone.

The idea of reaching the pole might have ended there, but a chance radio interview a year later with the famous polar explorer and ethnologist, Paul Emile Victor presented Hulot with a second chance. When the interview had ended, Victor asked Hulot why he had failed on his first attempt, and the volunteered to support a return trip. Hubert de Chevigny then managed to interest Gérard Longuet, the minister in charge of France’s PTT, in the idea. France’s post office was not as concerned with the publicity the trip was likely to produce as it was in becoming part of a pioneer adventure that would make the PTT’s employees feel that the organization was capable of being part of a pioneering future. With the PTT’s support, Hulot and de Chevigny finally had sufficient financing. On May 4, 1987, after some harrowing adventures, Hulot and Chevigny succeeded in reaching the pole in two ultralights with yellow wings—the PTT’s corporate color. They planted both the flag of the European Union and the French tri-color.

From Ushuaia…

At a command post installed at the PTT ministry in Paris, the reactions, were ecstatic. Longuet was pleased and he had gathered a select group of celebrities and VIPs, including Dominique Cantien, a top producer at TF-1, France’s main TV channel. Not long afterwards, Cantien contacted Hulot, and Ushuaia was born. The name, a Yamani Indian word meaning “bay that penetrates to the east,” refers to the capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia is the southern most city in the world. “I thought the show would last for a season,” Hulot later said. “It lasted 20 years.”

Krov Menuhin (see recent Global Geneva article on the oceans), the son of the famous violinist Yehudi Menhuhin, who was already an experienced producer of nature films for BBC, was brought in by Domenique Cantien to help work on the show. “In the beginning we didn’t have much money,” Menuhin says. “There wasn’t much nature in it. It was mostly derring do.” The show scoured the earth looking for picturesque settings in which Hulot would launch into one incredible adventure after another from kayaking in the arctic to flying in a one-man hot air balloon over Mongolia. Domenique Cantien, who stayed with the show for a few years, later boasted that they must have circled the earth 30 times. In the process the show gradually evolved from exalting extreme adventure to taking a frank look at what was happening to the planet. “Slowly, but surely, we began moving towards natural history,” Menuhin says. “As we did, Nicolas began to see a mission. It was something that he could do, and he was good at it.”

What made Hulot particularly effective was that, dropped into extraordinarily beautiful and exciting settings, he knew how to ask the questions that every viewer back in France wanted to ask. It was as though you had become part of the adventure.

…to national crusade

From the beginning, Hulot’s approach was markedly different from much of the ecology movement that seems to have grown into a semi-religious crusade. Menuhin remembers Hulot telling his staff, “First of all, lets show people the beauty of the planet instead of hitting over the head with ecology. Once they have seen it, they will care about saving it.”

Not surprisingly, Hulot’s approach had its critics, both in the media and among some of the more strident eco-activists. The fact that politicians paid  more attention to Hulot than to other environmental organizations naturally aroused jealousy. A web site, Pacte-contre-hulot.org has done a fairly complete job at collecting just about all the major criticisms. The most common complaint is that Hulot’s foundation and the Titanic film both received important funding from four major French corporations, including TF-1, l’Oreal, EDF and the hotel chain, Ibis. The companies are listed as founding partners, and they each contribute €500,000 a year to the Nicolas Hulot foundation, roughly 44% of its total funding. TF-1 and Studio 37, a subsidiary of Orange (telephone), were co-producers on the Titanic Syndrome, and EDF, SNCF, and the Bettancourt Foundation each contributed €500,000 to its €5 million budget.

There was some speculation that the sponsors had toned down the sharpness of the film, but when it showed in Paris theaters, French media including Le Monde chided Hulot for appearing alarmist. The French satirical newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé described Hulot’s narration as interminable poetry, and then quoted an unnamed associate as saying that while Hulot’s politics are progressively radicalizing, he remains a pragmatist. In fact,  Hulot’s politics are essentially humanist and intended to encompass everyone. Indeed, one of Hulot’s main arguments is that no single faction has the answer, and that the problems confronting us now are so serious and so universal that they demand the combined efforts of all parts of society working together from NGOs and the public to the corporate sector and government.

The need for unity extends beyond any one country. Hulot points out that developing nations, or emerging countries like China, may argue that they need a special allowance to emit carbon gasses so that they can catch up with the industrialized countries, but the end result is likely to be that they will go down with the ship along with everyone else.

More fundamentally, Hulot feels that globalization has created a new nomadic culture, splintering society and destroying the natural connection that we have to the land and to each other. The effect is a detachment from place. We don’t pay attention to the damage because we are not connected to any one place long enough, and if we don’t like where we are, we move away. Those too poor to move are either ignored by those in power, or used as a marketing tool by international organizations and NGOs who dispatch their staffs on more global junkets to discuss the problem, while failing to institute meaningful change.

How do we break the cycle? Hulot advocates facing what is happening around us head on, and making a fundamental reassessment of both our values and where we want to end up. Instead of blindly believing in growth, we need to reestablish a balance, and renew our sense of responsibility to each other. Saving the planet and ourselves requires nothing less than taking a hard, objective look at reality, and that is where The Titanic Syndrome, comes in.

Jean-Albert Lièvre, who handled the filming of Hulot’s documentary, provided a glimpse of the planet that is both exquisitely beautiful and nightmarishly terrifying. The contrasts recall an earlier film from the 1960s, Mondo Cane, which also focused on the absurd inconsistencies that make up the modern world, although there was less a sense of urgency at the time.

Lièvre, who spent four years filming the sequences, has his camera zoom in on a crowd lined up for days to buy the first Apple iPhone in Tokyo, and then pan to a seemingly endless warehouse with giant bins filled with discarded television tubes. Gargantuan machines, with steel jaws that resemble a Japanese manga comic book drawing of a robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex turned transformer, prowl across an infinitely vast mountain of garbage and abandoned vehicles, grabbing huge chunks of machinery and crushing them before spitting them out.

A well-dressed evangelical minister in Lagos, Nigeria, tells his flock that God is business. Computer circuit boards, filled with dangerous toxic chemicals, wind up in a Nigerian scrap operation where despite the hazard, poverty-stricken men break up the plastic by hand and then burn it in bonfires. Images suggesting adventure and sexual innuendo associated with a new automobile lead into the frustrating paralysis of a Los Angeles traffic jam, and the camera finally turns to an elderly woman hopeless spinning out her last days in a car overflowing with tattered belongings somewhere in the southwest US.

A nightclub scene in Hong Kong, leads to shots of an old man in a Hong Kong slum, where the inhabitants lock themselves into wire cages at night to protect themselves and their few possessions from each other. Lièvre shows the full circuit of the global economy, complete with many of the scenes we would just as soon not see, but which are critical to understanding the causes of the crisis. It is a magnificent wake up call to the realities of our current life-style.

Lièvre did most of the shooting with small three-man crews using relatively small professional high definition video cameras. The images on a large theater screen are indistinguishable from those produced on conventional 35-mm film. The small cameras and crews, however, allowed filming in areas where standard motion picture cameras would have been impossible to operate. Some night scenes and shots of the Aurora Borealis were actually taken with a consumer Canon digital SLR camera, snapping an image every 2 seconds. And then joining up to a thousand still images together by computer.

Lièvre says that he initially wanted the film to run without any narration at all, letting the images speak for themselves, but it was later decided that the warmth and accessibility of the narration would make it easier for viewers to absorb and make sense of the enormity of what they were seeing. A DVD, contains versions with and without the narration. Lièvre says that the effect of seeing the images alone is even more unsettling.

Alerting the French public to the dangers

For his part, Hulot’s objective was to alert the French public to the danger that is waiting down the road. Asked when the film was launched whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future, Hulot answered wryly, “Of course I am an optimist.” But then he added, “Sometimes I am a despairing optimist.”

William Dowell is the America’s editor of Global Geneva. He used to be based in Paris for TIME magazine where he first encountered Nicolas Hulot.