Filmmaker Rob Stewart on his book Save the Humans

First aired on Q (29/8/12)


He's been called "part Michael Moore, part Jacques Cousteau," as well as "David Suzuki with a six-pack." Rob Stewart is the Toronto-based director of the 2007 documentary Sharkwater. He's also increasingly known as an environmental activist. He stopped by Studio Q recently to talk about his new book Save the Humans, and what he thinks we need to do to save both the world and ourselves.

In his award-winning film, Stewart looked at how the shark-fishing industry was not only depleting the population of a top-level predator, but the effect this was having on the climate. Sharkwater had a major impact: countries that banned the fishing practice went from 16 to more than 90 in five years. Save the Humans is also a project of passion — part memoir, part rallying cry, it documents how his love of the natural world made him a conservationist and asks how we can save other species if we can't save ourselves. He has a film on the same theme, called Revolution, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12.


Stewart told host Jian Ghomeshi that he combined his personal story with an environmental message in Save the Humans because his convictions came about through his experiences, and by sharing them he hoped to bring more people to the causes he cares about so deeply. "If I could take people on the journey of a fish nerd, you know, figuring out what's going wrong with the planet and trying to do something about it, maybe they'd come to the same conclusions as me and want to fight for sharks, and humanity."

He says he's been a "fish nerd" since childhood. "As a kid, I was chubby, I stuttered. And I had these pets, these animals, and none of these things mattered to them." As a child, Stewart also had the opportunity to go to the Caribbean and Florida, and explore the underwater world. "There's 3.5 billion years of evolution in the oceans, and 500 million years of evolution on land, so the stuff that goes on underwater is absolutely phenomenal," he said. "It's the most intriguing world possible."

In Save the Humans, Stewart describes his first encounter with a shark, at the age of nine. "I saw this shark, it saw me, and then bolted." He loved the ocean as a child, but had been afraid of sharks up to that point. To realize that the creature he so feared was actually afraid of him was "a hugely transformative experience."

Stewart believes that the general fear of sharks is what has made people indifferent to their fate. "Shark populations have dropped 90 per cent in 30 years, and we're killing 100 million sharks a year, mostly for shark fin soup," he said. "The main reason why that's happening without anyone caring is that everyone's afraid of sharks."

We may think we're making the world safer for humans by eliminating sharks but that's not the case, according to Stewart. "We're ripping out one of the frameworks for life in the oceans that gives us the air and the oxygen we breathe, and the food we depend on."

In his book, Stewart chronicles the challenges he faced in making Sharkwater, which included being charged with attempted murder, going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt, almost losing a leg to flesh-eating disease, and getting infected with dengue fever, West Nile virus and tuberculosis. He said that he persevered, however, because he saw the project as "my one shot at making a difference."

Sharkwater was also a turning point for Stewart in a personal sense. "Seeing all the destruction that humans had wrought on ecosystems and species, and the lack of care, I sort of developed a distrust and a dislike of humanity at times," he admitted. But making the film and seeing the response to it "instilled a lot more hope in me and made me love humanity a lot more than I ever could before."

His new mission to save humanity grew out of attending environmental conferences and festivals where his film was screening. He met many scientists and conservationists who convinced him that, as worthy as his crusade for sharks was, the bigger issue was that "by the middle of this century, we could have no fish in the oceans, no coral reefs, no rainforests and nine billion people on a planet that can't even sustain seven billion people."

For Stewart, "the main issue is that there's too many people consuming too much, and that consumption is destroying our life support system." He feels that education is the key to persuading people to act in the interests of humanity, and the planet.

How do you get people invested in this cause? Stewart adamantly believes that his book and movie will have a galvanizing effect; that they "can change the world."

He went on to say: "I think every bit of awareness changes the world, and that the more people who are made aware of these issues, the more people who are going to go to bat for [them]."