by Shauna Potocky
One cannot doubt the power of film, social media and the internet to connect people to stories, issues and challenges—whether on a local or global level. These same venues for communication also hold the power to share important positive stories, to educate, inform, empower and create space for important self-reflection.
One example of powerful storytelling emerged recently through The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition. The competition was hosted in collaboration with the American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and gave participants a venue to connect audiences to environmental issues through the power of humor and storytelling. What emerged was a highly engaged audience who rampantly shared the videos, providing a wide reach for the issues and giving emerging voices a platform for sharing and educating in a truly unique and engaging way.
The People’s Choice and Grand Prize Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Competition is the brilliant and inspiring Patrick Webster, a Program Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who specializes in educating the visiting public about marine science and ocean conservation issues. Patrick graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz and was employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Laboratory where he credits making the connection between “dry, academic science and translating it into words and concepts people can relate to and care about.”
I recently had the opportunity to connect with Patrick and congratulate him on his recent award winning film. It also presented the perfect opportunity to ask him about his emerging voice in the area of film and the environment, as well as his thoughts on engaging audiences and making tough issues accessible to people. Nothing short of thoughtful—one of the things that I was most struck by, was the assurance that young voices are emerging to help carry and create connections that can inspire change—and that they are doing it in new and fresh ways—ways that work.
Shauna Potocky: It is clear that you have a robust grasp of environmental issues, especially facing the ocean. What is your background in education or environmental work?
Patrick Webster: I’ve been working in the world of informal science education for about eight years now. I studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz, and I was thankfully employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UCSC’s Long Marine Lab for my whole college career. I’m also a big fan of stand-up and improv comedy—my “arts” requirement at UCSC was fulfilled with a stand-up class—and I am currently employed with this extremely niche set of marine-science-comedy-performance skills as a programs specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
I think I defaulted into conservation and environmental work from studying marine ecology and living in the Monterey Bay area—the culture here is very ocean-minded. When you’re learning about how organisms affect and are affected by their environment, just by doing whatever it is they do to survive, and when you apply that ecological thinking to people, it changes how you think about your place in the world. When you see what we’re capable of doing—both bad and good—to our local ocean, you learn quickly that if you’re not careful with what you’re doing now, you could blow it for [everyone else in] the community, human or otherwise. I like to talk to people about conservation issues, because they really boil down to our priorities and choices: we’re lucky as humans that we can pick the role we want to play in the environment—and we know now that you can make a better living whale watching in the Monterey Bay than you could whaling!
S.P.: Many of your films include underwater scenes. How did you get into scientific diving?
P.W.: I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was five years old, ever since I saw the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But growing up landlocked in the French Alps and the suburbs of Stockholm, diving wasn’t ever on the radar as something that anyone does until the college years. It was when I started taking upper-division classes in marine science, that I realized all the people I looked up to were scientific divers, and all the best stories told by the “elders”-involved dive trips and associated shenanigans. That’s when I knew I had to be a science diver, too. It also helps as motivation that 99% of the real estate on planet Earth for life to live is in the ocean—might as well get out there if you can!
S.P.: How did you find your voice in video and film production?
P.W.: The first time I realized I might be on to something in film was the reception to my submission to the “Youth In Yosemite” film contest. It was a very personal story about my connection to Yosemite through my late grandpa and my rock climbing hobby. I liked how it came out, but the response was very humbling. A lot of people said they connected with the story personally, that they cried and were reminded of their own family history of visiting the park. A long-time Yosemite resident told me that I was the first “outsider” he’d met who “got it”, and he thanked me. That gave me the confidence to enter more contests, and when I won the BLUE Ocean Film Festival’s YouTube contest that same year—with comedy instead of the dramatic Yosemite piece—that’s when I knew that “Hey, maybe people want to hear what I have to say.”
S.P.: What gives you hope or inspires you, when you consider the environmental issues that the world or the ocean face currently–such as what you highlighted in your film? They seem like huge challenges, how do you see us facing them?
P.W.: There are so many environmental success stories out there that we simply don’t notice for the same reason we don’t notice things getting bad in the first place: shifting baselines. Every time I see an otter in the kelp right outside, that is an incredible sight, and every time I see an otter I should be saying, “HEY EVERYONE, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THERE’S AN OTTER RIGHT THERE!” I mean, they literally recovered from being classified as extinct! We are so used to seeing otters that we forget it is like seeing a kelp grizzly. Same thing with peregrine falcons, pelicans, all the whales in the Monterey Bay—those were all on the brink of disappearing forever. Now they [sea otters] are back and doing good. But we don’t notice them because they’re normal again, which is great as long as we don’t forget where we came from.
All it took for those animals to recover was for us humans to simply stop doing stuff we didn’t need to be doing. That is what is hopeful to me about “conservation issues”: they all boil down to a matter of choices and priorities. All it takes is for enough people to say “Hey, why don’t we just stop doing that?” and things start recovering right away. DDT is killing birds? Let’s stop doing that. Catching too many fish is bad? Let’s stop doing that. The climate is wrecked by burning fossil fuels? Let’s try to stop doing that. It has worked for us before to just stop doing bad things for things to get better. It is a matter of willpower.
For a lot of problems, that willpower is blocked by a lot of moneyed interests. And that’s hopeful too, because it means that if you can figure out how to make conservation more profitable than exploitation, you win. If the worst of humanity’s traits is greed, then flipping that for the planet will save us all and then some. It’s totally doable. I think that people are realizing the economic value of keeping ecosystems healthy, and I see that reality every day. Looking outside my window, I can see a bay that swapped whalers for whale watchers, flensing beaches for seal sanctuaries, a cannery for an Aquarium.
S.P.: If you could encourage others to make a difference–what advice would you give? How can people find their own voice, like you did through film?
P.W.: Find out what you’re good at, and then keep doing that. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also very accessible. We all have our passions and our skills, and finding where they overlap is key. I’m passionate about marine science, but I’m not that dedicated a marine scientist. Had I gone the bachelors-masters-PhD-in-a-row route, I would have been ignoring the fact that I’m a far better communicator and I am an investigator. Talking in public about science has always been easy for me; writing scientific papers has always been a struggle. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it on things that are merely tangential to your actual niche. Each species out there does at least one thing better than everybody else, and people are no different.
Then, you have to listen to the people in your life, the strangers and the loved ones, and especially to the people who don’t owe you a thing. If they’re giving you feedback, it’s honest. If they tell you you’re on to something, make a note of that, because that might be where your voice is hiding in plain sight. Self-reflection is key: what is it that I do that comes easy and that people resonate with? If you find that nugget, that’s your gold vein, and you work it for all its worth.
Patrick Webster’s current projects can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/underwaterpat and by following him on Instagram @underwaterpat. Be sure to stay tuned for his upcoming launch of www.upwellingmedia.com.