We live in the age of consequences

Interview with Hannes Jaenicke, actor and environmental activist

Hannes Jaenicke with polarbear skin

As a successful actor he's at the center of media attention, as convinced environmental activist he steps in for endangered species worldwide.

Hannes Jaenicke uses his popularity to raise awareness for the threatened state of our planet and redefines German animal documentaries on the way. As vegetarian and fan of organic food he consciously chooses a sustainable way of life every day.

A talk about his goals, motivations and future projects.

Manuela & Carsten: Can you tell us a little bit about your life? When did you decide to be more than “just” an actor?
Hannes Jaenicke:
I come from a politically interested family, where social engagement was normal and as a teenager I already joined Greenpeace with a membership of 50 Deutsch Mark at the time. The idea of using the medium television came when I did a documentary called Vox Tours Extrem, about traveling to places where no one goes. I did a clip about Yukon, which neighbours Alaska, where we filmed Orcas. During the filming, I met a very nice marine biologist who took us to do whale watching and explained us, that Orcas nowadays only have half the life expectation of 70 years, because of the heavy metals in the water polluting them. It was a great segment, but Vox cut it out before airing it because as private TV station they don’t want to show dying Orcas. So we, Markus Strobel, the owner and cameraman of Tango Film and I, decided to make a short film about Orangutans, financed by us. Then we wandered from station to station and it took over one and a half years until we could convince the ZDF, a public broadcaster, to make a series with it.

M&C: Dying Orcas where cut out. Is the majority of people just not interested in what is happening to our planet?
H.J.:
A part just buries their heads in the sand and says „We can’t change anything anyway“ but others are very interested in the topic. I think the Al Gore’s film, his Nobel prize and Oscar have helped to take the whole environmental theme out of the muesli corner and has put it finally at center stage. I do think the number of people who are interested in the topic is growing.

M&C: In your last film you said : „We live in the age of consequences“. What do you mean by that?
H.J.:
Humans have always lived in the age of consequences, only that nowadays the consequences are adding up. I interviewed many leading climate scientists, among others Mr. Schellenhuber and Mr.Rahmsdorf from the climate institute in Potsdam, people who are consulting Mr.Obama or Mrs. Merkel. If you listen to their calculations about the melting of the polar ice caps and the permafrost, it is really shocking. With the melting of the permafrost we release incredible amounts of methane, which is 16 times more toxic than CO². We produce this in such incredible amounts that the whole climate will collapse one day and slap us right into our faces. Already now we can see the effects, everywhere in the world there are the so called natural disasters, where people like to say: “They have always occurred”. That is simply not true, because the frequency has increased significantly in recent years.
We have to start thinking about what we are doing when we travel, consume, in our everyday lives, when we eat, etc, and if it is still appropriate what and how we do it. In my opinion it is not.

M&C: What do you think can we learn from indigenous people?
H.J.:
I really do not want to romanticize indigenous people. If you really look closer into the lives of Mayas, Incas or Cherokees you can see that they were clearly no pacifists. But they showed us, that it doesn’t make sense to take everything from nature so that in the end there is nothing left. The great quote of chief Seattle "Only when the last tree has withered, the last fish has been caught, and the last river has been poisoned, will you realize you cannot eat money." is now over 120 years old and still totally relevant. That’s something the indigenous cultures had clearly understood.

M&C: In the West we act on the maxim: "The more, the better". How does that go with the protection of nature and animals?
H.J.:
It doesn’t go at all! I think the most fatal mistake we are making in our capitalistic mentality is the expectation of endless growth. Nothing on earth grows endlessly, so why should an economy or GNP. It is in the last consequence a devastatingly destructive system.

M&C:  Are there any solutions at all?
H.J.:
Yes, there are solutions, but normally they are inconvenient. No politician or manager would promote to just do with less, and no one knows anymore the word modesty.

M&C: Which possibilities do we have as normal citizens to support environmental protection?
H.J.:
We can only really protect the environment with the right price politics. Who pollutes, should pay, and who protects should be financially rewarded. It is a fundamental principle of a free economy. The usual quarter-profit orientation forces managers to be catastrophically short sighted. He has to show the shareholders every quarter the return on investment he has yielded. We should think in longer terms, not only about how we can achieve quick profits.

M&C: Governments and the industry are apparently limited in their actions. Who is crucial?
H.J.:
In the end and the beginning there is the consumer, we fuel the market and my wallet is my sharpest weapon. We still buy SUVs, that’s why they are produced. If we wouldn’t buy them, they wouldn’t be produced! My wallet decides what companies produce, so the responsibility really is with the consumer.

M&C: What could someone do, who doesn’t have your foresight and transparency?
H.J.:
The first thing is the duty to get informed. For example, I didn’t know for years that the charger uses battery if you leave it in the plug. My electric toothbrush was plugged in 10 years, I just didn’t know. Why not? I could say, the industry didn’t inform me, but I can also say I didn’t ask! So the first thing is to ask and get informed. What are the consequences if I buy this car, what does it do to overfishing if I eat this fish? It is a deficit of information that we still behave as we do.

M&C: Can you give us other examples?
H.J.:
The list of things that everyone can do easily is endless. We Germans are world leaders in recycling but now in the US there is a new thing, called pre-recycling. That means to just not buy things that are heavily packaged. Just don’t buy plastic, because plastic is the biggest garbage problem in the world. Why does everyone give out plastic bags for free? There are so many natural materials that can be used! Everyone can think for themselves: how much garbage do I produce? How much Co² do I produce? That depends on how many lights I use at home, how long I bathe or shower, how much I heat.

M&C: Do you have a clothing dryer?
H.J.:
No (laughs). But seriously, I used to do the washing up by hand for a long time until I read, that modern washing machines use much less water. You just have to get informed, and that means making an effort.

M&C: So you have to be informed and make your daily decisions consciously?
H.J.:
There is a website by Al Gore called Green America, with a hitlist of the 10 most ecologically criminal companies. Here we always see Esso, McDonalds, Nestlé or Monsanto. Aspartam, known as NutraSweet, is a synthetic sweetener produced by Monsanto. It is one of the most toxic things people consume on a daily basis, it is supposed to be calorie free, and is highly toxic and carcinogenic. These kind of companies should be avoided, that’s not too hard! But you have to be informed and change your consumption habits. In the beginning it takes an effort, then it becomes normal.

M&C: Do we need more people you stand up and motivate others?
H.J.:
Change never comes from the government or corporations. Change is always caused by individuals, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin L. King, Nelson Mandela or Chicco Mendes, who got up and said what they didn’t like and what had to change. They are multiplicators. But in the end we all have to individually try to do something.

M&C: How do you feel when your documentaries are successful?
H.J.:
Well, obviously I am very proud to be able to make them and grateful that people watch it. I feel I am doing something that makes sense. I don’t know if it really changes something, but at least I give people food for thought, and therefore I think that for the first time in my life I use the medium film in a way that means something. I believe people have the right to be entertained and I enjoy making light, easy entertainment but there is this other ways of using this medium.

M&C: What kind of people do you meet on your trips?
H.J.:
Most of them are real fighters, risking everything. Willy Smith, the founder of the Borneo Orang Utan Survival Fundation (BOSF), who we met in Borneo, already survived 6 attempts to murder him. It is a miracle that these people are still alive and yet they don’t stop. I couldn’t do that and risk my life.

M&C: What is it that thrives these people?
H.J.:
Many times a healthy portion of anger. We all learn that anger is bad, but it can be channeled in intelligent ways.

M&C: Do you have hope?
H.J.:
If I didn’t have hope I wouldn’t do these documentaries and would stop supporting all the NGOs right now. But when talking to scientists about climate change or the extinction of species there is really no reason for optimism. Maybe it’s all sentimental stuff and maybe the planet doesn’t need polar bears. But I think it would be a pity to just destroy everything without trying to save it.

M&C: Is there anything else you wish to tell our reader?
H.J.:
I can only advise everybody not to loose their sense of humor. That’s probably one of the reasons, why the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela were so successful, they are not grumpy and obstinate people but happy and open-minded. To keep your sense of humor, That’s my advice for all committed people who like to think for themselves.

The interview was conducted on October 2nd, 2009 in Munich.

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