James Cameron Talks Sustainability at Greenbuild Conference

James Cameron might be best known as a filmmaker, directing such memorable films as "The Terminator," "Titanic" and "Avatar," but he also is a staunch environmentalist. He is passionately involved in sustainability issues, working with several NGOs on climate change, energy policy, deforestation, indigenous rights, ocean conservation, sustainable agriculture and the impact of our food choices on the environment.

Last week at Greenbuild — the world's largest conference and expo dedicated to green building — Cameron gave the keynote at the opening plenary, which focused on what it will take to get meaningful action on climate change leading up to the United Nations COP21 Climate Negotiations in Paris in December.

After his talk, I had the opportunity to go backstage and speak with Cameron. What follows is the conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Why did you decide to come out to Greenbuild?

Well, because you’ve got a room for of 10 or 12 thousand people who work in industry and business and architecture with a conscience. They understand the issues and they’re trying to be solution-oriented. I think what you’ve got here is people who are leading by example by making money and doing good at the same time. So they’re doing well by doing good.

And I think that’s really the model because if we don’t get business and industry behind these issues, we’re not going to be able to solve it, or not be able to solve it in time. There are other things that need to be done: raising public awareness, increasing public commitment to the kind of changes that need to happen in the energy sector and transportation sector and the food sector.

I’ve chosen food because it’s the least well-understood component of this. People understand the energy issues, they understand the transportation issues, but the average person does not understand the connection between what’s on the end of their fork and what’s happening in the atmosphere, and how that’s affecting people 7,000 miles away or up in the arctic, or destroying rainforests through deforestation.

As a media person, my job is about making connections, helping with education and doing that either through entertainment — the "Avatar" films — or through documentaries, which must be entertaining as well but have a much higher education component.

You talked about picking your battles and leaving a legacy around environmentalism, like with 'Avatar' and 'Years of Living Dangerously.' How do you choose your projects?

I’ve got a small but good team around me, and we select for maximum impact. What can I do as an individual? What can our small group do to have the biggest impact? For example, I put several millions of dollars into the Avatar Alliance Foundation, endowed that with an eternal role to be as strategic as possible to leverage that endowment to a much greater effect. We work with NGOs — part of the money has been spent on research, for example, around this whole animal agriculture issue.

The Food Choice Taskforce, for example, is actually funded by the Avatar Alliance Foundation, which is the go-to group for information. If an NGO, whether it’s the Sierra Club or Greenpeace or whomever, wants up-to-date analysis of the science so that they can quote statistics, they will come to us. We’re actually force multiplying through other NGOs rather than try to set up an ego-stoked NGO of our own, and then competing with them.

The media plays an important role in the public’s education on sustainability issues, but how do you translate that into votes to help break the deadlock in Washington?

The first time that climate has really even been discussed in a presidential campaign is this campaign cycle. We’re making progress: people are waking up to the immediacy of the issue with respect to climate change. It’s slow, but it’s positive movement. There was a point where "An Inconvenient Truth" came out — people woke up about it and then they kind of pulled the covers over their head and went back to sleep — and the pendulum swung the other way. But now it’s swinging back inevitably because the truth can only be suppressed for so long.

How do I do it? I just keep banging away at it. I think everybody out there just has to have hope and keep pressing forward and know they are doing the right thing. And that’s what you’re doing, right? Gotta have hope.

When people ask me if I’m optimistic, I say "no," but I’m hopeful. There’s a difference. Hope is an emotion; optimism is a logical analysis of the likely outcome. The likely outcome doesn’t look good, but I’m hopeful that humans are resourceful, and if it's pushed hard enough, then we’ll come roaring out of the corner with some pretty ingenious solutions. The problem is, that’s a double-edged sword because if we wait and trust everything to some innovation cavalry that’s going to come charging over the hill and save us, that’s not the answer, either. It’s really about internalizing the message and taking individual action.

That’s the other thing I like about the whole food component — you can attack the second biggest sector for greenhouse emissions by your personal choices. Same way that you pick what you’re going to wear that day, you can pick what you’re going to eat. You don’t have to wait for government to do the hard yards. We can do it ourselves.

(Image credit: Wikimedia)

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