In February of 1995 Charlton Heston called Rush Limbaugh’s radio program to read from Jurassic Park – the book, not the movie. In his best Old Testament boom, Heston declaimed a speech about man’s hubris that Michael Crichton had written for Dr. Ian Malcolm, the chaos theoretician played onscreen by Jeff Goldblum. It opens with this: “You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity!” It peaks with this: “We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try.” The lesson, both actor and talk-radio host concluded, was simple: It is the height of arrogance to assume that human activity could alter so vast and ancient a system as our planet. For years afterward, Limbaugh – the man who demonstrated how wildly profitable it could be to poison the minds of white America – would play the tape on Earth Days or whenever Al Gore was in the news, essentially asking his millions of listener Who you going to believe, most scientists around the globe or Moses himself and this one scientist that a novelist made up?
Crichton and Heston didn’t live long enough to see what such humility has wrought. In 2016, rising sea temperatures killed 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. In Jeff Orlowski’s new film Chasing Coral, the scientist and reef specialist Charlie Veron — born in 1945, three years after Crichton – throws a pained look at a millennial marine biologist and sighs “I’m glad I’m not your age.” During the 1980s, the decade Crichton wrote Jurassic Park, Veron never believed that the majestic reef he studied and showcased on television could be in existential danger; now, he looks stunned at what humanity and climate change have wrought. His hope isn't so much that the reef to which he dedicated his life might still be saved; he hopes instead that outcry over its death might at last spur the world to act to prevent the loss of coral elsewhere.
The oceans are warmer, of course, because our release of carbon dioxide has thickened the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, trapping heat that once would have bounced out into space. The seas absorb much of that heat, sparing those of us on land from radically increased temperatures – but not sparing coral, which after steeping in too-warm water blanches white and then dies. One scientist in the film notes that if a human body increased in temperature as much as much as sea water has in recent decades that body would die, too. He knows what Crichton and Limbaugh don’t: The true humility is the honest attempt to understand our place within the systems of our planet, and to strive not to upset them?
Rather than just a globe-trotting report on the crisis afflicting our oceans, Chasing Coral is about ad man Richard Vevers’s efforts to find a way to focus us on the problem. Orlowski (Chasing Ice) tracks a race to document rather than one of discovery, with a team of scientists and photographers traveling to endangered reefs to capture, with time-lapse cameras, the bleaching of coral and the death of the vibrant ecosystems that thrive around it. (The scientists continually compare coral to forests and cities, the point being that marine life depends upon it – and many of our lives, too.) At first, Orlowski’s reliance on reality TV-style interviews about process and emotions struck me as indulgent padding, but by film’s end their necessity is clear. We watch this crew emerge from the depths stunned and shaken, their hearts ripped open by their work: bearing witness to the slow death of a world.
The film is a devastating success, moving in its beauty and wrenching when that beauty withers away: acres of coral waste away to chalky ash before our eyes. Charlie Veron and the team dare to exhibit some hopefulness, a belief that the loss of the reef might spur our species into taking action to limit emissions at last. It’s not easy to be roused by the cheery final minutes, as the thrust of the rest of Orlowski’s documentary is our species-level obstinance. The film climaxes with images to weep over, reminders that the Earth’s rhythms aren’t as slow and mysterious as we might prefer to believe – that the true hubris is to believe that we’re incidental to those rhythms. The movie’s on Netflix; demand that people Limbaugh's age watch it, too.