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Maya Lin Discusses Climate Change-Induced Mass Extinction

Aired December 11, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, as world leaders argue over how to slow down the Earth's warming, one of the world's leading artists considers how we will lose if whole species succumb to climate change.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

It is a massive risk to our planet, the rising temperatures that have the potential to set off a cascade of environmental destruction. Global policymakers are trying to come up with a common strategy to lower the planet's mercury level.

We often focus on the danger that melting glaciers and rising seas will inundate low-lying areas, setting off millions of climate change refugees. But the warming trend also threatens entire ecosystems, raising the specter of another mass extinction when species critical to life on Earth simply vanish.

It's a subject that has attracted the attention of one of the most influential public artists of our time. That is Maya Lin. She's known for her giant and sometimes controversial public memorials, and she's about to unveil what she says will be her last.

CNN's Jason Carroll has more of her work.


JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The artist Maya Lin has long used nature as the palette upon which she memorializes what we as humans have lost. She burst onto the public scene in the 1980s, a 21-year- old college student with a monumental challenge: to heal the wounds of an America divided over the legacy of the Vietnam War.

She won a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., two walls of black granite, inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 U.S. military personnel who had perished.

The memorial stirred protest from those expecting more traditional images of men at arms, but the initial outcry soon settled into deep appreciation of what she had created, a place for remembrance and reflection, a hallowed ground that proved deeply moving.

MAYA LIN, ARTIST: The first time I went there, I think I found the name of a friend's father. And without thinking, I touched it, and I was crying. And that -- that means the piece has taken on its own life.

CARROLL: In the decades since, Maya Lin has established an international reputation as an artist and architect, immersed in her passion for landscape, nature and memory. She designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, an homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who died in the struggle for racial equality in the United States.

But it's the natural world that has inspired Maya Lin to a project even grander in scale, the potential for extinction of untold numbers of animal and plant species, what so many scientists forecast as a possible consequence of global warming and environmental degradation. "What is Missing?" is the title, referring to the eminent loss of animal life projected as a consequence of climate change. It's an interactive project that presents a call to action to protect the natural world before it's too late.



AMANPOUR: And that was Jason Carroll reporting.

And now Maya Lin joins me here in the studio. Welcome.

LIN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Thanks for coming in.

LIN: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: So a call to action, tell me how this new project of yours, this last memorial, is going to do that.

LIN: Well, I think it's -- it's an unfolding project. It's a little unusual as a memorial, because can I make a memorial that can exist in multiple places anywhere all over the world? It's a media piece that has many different iterations.

AMANPOUR: As you describe it, I want to bring it up, some of it, on our big screen there, and you can tell me about it. It starts out of focus, each element.

LIN: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about it.

LIN: It starts out of focus. You hear it before you see it. The sounds, most of them are coming from Cornell Ornithology Lab, which is one of the largest repositories of sound in the world. And it's getting you to begin to think -- maybe -- we're very visual -- can I stop you -- and then it goes into focus, and you begin to hear and read about different species, different places, different issues. It's not just extinct and endangered species I wanted to focus on; it's issues. What is missing? Rivers that no longer flow freely to the sea; the sounds of songbirds in our backyard.

I think -- scientists call it shifting baselines, whereby we've gotten used to diminishment because it's happened slowly in our lifetime. And it's like -- I'll take you back into history, and -- and there are quotes from Christopher Columbus, when he sailed into the Caribbean, he thought he had run aground. He hadn't. He had run into a sea of green turtles.

AMANPOUR: Which don't exist anymore. At that -- at that -- on that note, should we bring up the picture of the turtles that you've done?

LIN: And -- that would be great, because I feel like, of the seven or eight species of marine turtles, six of them are endangered, some critically so. The Caribbean green turtle has gone from -- some scientists think it's the most abundant animal, more abundant than the bison, and it is, again, threatened at this point.

So I think waking up a sense of awareness, but also a sense of awe. And there will be a message, because there -- animals we focus on in places that can be restored, if we give a habitat chance to recover, things come back. And this is a huge message. So there will be a message showing you what groups are doing around the world, as well as what you can do in your individual lives.

AMANPOUR: Well, I was going to ask you, how do -- how does the public access this? You said it's online, it's in different places, it's in different spaces.

LIN: Right.

AMANPOUR: It's not a public memorial that's solid and that you make an appointment to go and see it.

LIN: Right. The first iteration is at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It's permanent. We are in discussion with the Field Museum, Cornell, other groups. IUCN in Geneva would like to host one.

So, again, we'll create some physical iterations, but then we'll create online. And I think what I'm wanting to do is to create an online memorial where, even though I start it, I will open it up. By Earth Day 2011, I'm going to ask people to give me a story, give me a memory. So in a way, it'll be a collective growing memorial that will bear witness to what we're losing and also what you can do about it.

AMANPOUR: Tell me why this is different than some of the great nature documentaries on endangered species.

LIN: You know, I can't say. It's like the -- the critic in me is not very good at analyzing. I think it is a real collaboration between art and science. It is -- I know certain artists have begun to contribute; other groups have.

I think art gives you an opportunity to maybe re-think it in a way that is simpler at times. One could say that art can reduce things to almost a bare essence at times. And if I can use surprise and wonder as a way, it might not come at you with fact; it might -- it might approach it more viscerally. It might say that the sounds of these songbirds that as a child I used to listen to are in a 70 percent to 40 percent decline and wake you up to it.

AMANPOUR: And you're going to take this to Copenhagen, where the global leaders, as we say, are gathered to try to do something about climate change.

LIN: We will be co-hosting with a coalition of rainforest nations an event on the 16th where we will unveil what I call unchopping a tree, which is all about...

AMANPOUR: Which we saw in that piece, where the tree goes down...

LIN: You saw -- you saw a brief clip.

AMANPOUR: ... and then it comes up.

LIN: Yep, you saw a brief clip of it. It's about a four-minute segment, and we will be honoring and buying -- purchasing carbon offsets.

AMANPOUR: Are you trying to shock with that? Because it's quite a shocking thing to see those huge trees come down.

LIN: No, I'm actually not, because to be able to reroute -- what's the word? To be able to pull a tree back and -- and return it, to reverse the film, all of us can help to unchop a tree.


And I think what I'm really trying to do is to prove -- and we're honoring about six groups that are either doing preventative deforestation, which is REDD, or strategic forestation, that not only will this take 20 percent out of global warming emissions, I think -- deforestation causes about 20 percent of all global warming emissions. We can also help protect species. So I call it "We Can Save Two Birds with One Tree," and that it's...

AMANPOUR: Two birds with one tree?

LIN: Two birds with one. It's a win-win. And that not only can it be done, it should be done, and it's being done.

AMANPOUR: Tell me how you face -- there is a certain amount of skepticism about what causes climate change and what -- about what should be done to -- to address it. Does this film -- do you think this project addressed that?

LIN: No, I think I've moved on, and I think most of the world has moved on, and I think the fascination with some skeptics in this country, to me, is tragic. We have a very small window to do something, and this is not just for us. This is for our children, our children's children, and not just future generations of people, but of other species.

And I think one thing that is extremely important is, we tend to solve things linearly. So this year -- I mean, we're very focused on climate change. I think equal to that is biodiversity loss, and I think the scientists have measured that $33 trillion a year is what our ecosystems give us in purifying the air, cleaning the water, and that if we link the two, we have a perfect opportunity to sort of take a bite out of both.

AMANPOUR: How complicated, difficult, challenging was it to actually do this? And -- and how did this idea come to you?

LIN: I think I've wanted to -- as an artist, I work in series, and I've always known that I've wanted to sort of end the memorial series, having done five of them, with one that I am very personally vested in. So about, I would say, 20 years ago, I starting clipping just information about endangered species, habitat loss. I might get one article a year. Now I might clip in any paper four or five articles that are relevant. And so you can see in the last 20 years how much we've just overrun, degraded the planet.

AMANPOUR: So why is this your last memorial? And what you -- what do you mean last memorial?

LIN: I think it'll take me my life and beyond to continue with, so it's -- it's -- it's -- because it's not just a one-off. But for me, I wanted to end the memorials with one that is something I am actually personally very, very concerned about and something ever since I was a small child I've been aware of the effects man has on the environment.

And if I could do one thing, if I could help out in any way, this was where I would like to give a lot of my time.

AMANPOUR: Because you talk about a sixth great extinction.

LIN: Right. We are in the sixth mass extinction of the planet's history, as far as species loss, and the only one caused by one specific species, mankind.

AMANPOUR: Just run through the others.

LIN: Oh, I can't. It's like I can't pronounce the names.

AMANPOUR: Dinosaurs.


LIN: Dinosaurs was one. The last one, it was caused by an asteroid hitting the Earth the size of Manhattan. So every other catastrophic species extinction has been caused by something much larger than the world, in a way. And this is the only one where basically with habitat loss and with invasive species introductions and introduced diseases, we have literally set into motion an unprecedented number of species extinction.

AMANPOUR: Let's take a look at another one of them. You have so many there. There's jaguars, koalas, orangutans, which we've seen. Should we have a look at the jaguars? And tell me what particularly struck you about that.

LIN: I think the jaguars -- though their numbers -- of all the great cats, they are not the most threatened -- what is -- what is missing is the range of the jaguar, that they used to range from into North America, all the way down through most of South America. And so what is missing? The range of the jaguar.

And I think, again, getting back to -- species loss cannot be thought of without habitat loss at this point.

AMANPOUR: We're going to continue that right after a break. And also a quick reminder that you can see images of Maya Lin's work on our Web site, We'll be right back.




AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The north polar ice cap is melting before our very eyes. It's been the size of the continental United States for most of the last 3 million years, and now, suddenly, 40 percent of it's gone, and the rest of it is expected to disappear within 5, 10, 15 years.

Now, the mountain glaciers all over the world are melting, many of them at a greatly accelerated rate, threatening drinking water supplies. We've had these record storms, record droughts, floods, giant fires, unprecedented, all -- all over the world.


AMANPOUR: And that was the Nobel Prize-winner and, of course, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore laying out the evidence for global warming. And joining me again is Maya Lin.

You heard Al Gore very fervent in defense -- this is his life's work now. When you take this project to Copenhagen and beyond, are you concerned that you're just preaching to the converted? How will you get others on board?

LIN: I think because public art ends up being in unexpected arenas, we're stepping outside of the normal science arena. I think it debuted in California Academy of Sciences simultaneously up at Storm King, as well as in the Beijing Art Center. There are other iterations. Creative Time and the MTV Billboard, they're donating time on their billboard in Times Square on Earth Day. Actually, the whole month of April, we will be showing a four-and-a-half-minute video about species loss connected to habitat loss connected to "Save Two Birds with One Tree."

AMANPOUR: I'm fascinated, as we look at these -- and we roll these -- these elements throughout this program, there's the sounds -- and you talked a little bit about the sound just -- just a while ago, but you went to big effort to get the sounds from Cornell University's trove.

LIN: Well, Cornell Ornithology Lab has one of the greatest sound libraries, and they've actually -- I would almost call them a collaborator and a partner. Without them and without the sounds, I don't think I could have done this. National Geographic and the BBC have been amazingly generous, as well.

But the sounds, to me, again, we're visual. What if I could make it so that you don't see it first? It's almost deny the visual so you hear it; you're going to pay a little closer attention. We're going to be doing guerilla artworks where literally you might be walking into some fairly public places and you'll hear Madagascar, and then it'll take you to a monitor where it'll tell you how much of Madagascar is at threat, why is it important to save these areas.

But, again, it's not just species. It's places that are disappearing. And that's what we want to -- what I want to highlight.

AMANPOUR: And I read that you actually wanted to be a zoologist at one point.

LIN: I did. I went to college, to Yale, thinking I was going to become an animal behaviorist.

AMANPOUR: Well, why didn't you? Or have you?

LIN: It's terrible to say. My science adviser at the time said, "Well, Yale's program tends to be more neurologically based." We'll leave it at that. And at that point, I just decided, oh, I'll combine my interests in architecture -- it was more about I loved math and I loved art. And little by little, I've sort of split my time between the art and the architecture.

And I found that all my art, even the Vietnam Memorial, it's always been about respecting the land, cut -- you know, I've always thought, even the Vietnam piece was -- it's not an object inserted. I sort of cut the Earth and polished it. It's a geode.

AMANPOUR: You've cut the Earth and polished it. We're going to put up the picture of your Vietnam memorial, and you were so young when you got that commission, when you won the competition for that, and it created quite a furor in the public domain. It was considered not heroic. It was a gash.

LIN: Right.

AMANPOUR: How did you cope with that at that age? And how do you feel now?

LIN: I think when you're young, you know you're right, so you're not afraid of any of the detractors. I think if that had happened 10 years later, I might have been terrified. But I was so young and so idealistic, I knew that if I could make this, it would help people.

AMANPOUR: So it didn't knock you off your stride because of your youth, it did the opposite?


LIN: I think I disappeared back into -- I continued with my studies. I went back to Yale, got my architecture degree. I think the next 20 years, the amount of work I might have produced was just to get past it. I think that -- that might be the harder thing, just to -- to know as an artist that you can balance your life and create other works that will balance out.

AMANPOUR: Now, the Vietnam Memorial, you can -- you can judge. There are benchmarks. There are people who go to -- to -- to see it. You know how many people are going; you know the kind of effect it's having on people. How will you know the kind of effect "What is Missing?" will have?

LIN: You know, I think like all my other works, no matter how public, I still always think of them as one person interacting with it. And that might be how I kind of do what I do in the public realm and then disappear and be fairly private.

I don't know. I think that I have an instinct to make something and put it out in the public. And it's literally, how do people react to it? I don't know. And I assume -- with this one, I'm trying to effect change, but I don't think I ever really think about, oh, I'm playing to a million viewers.

AMANPOUR: You're traveling right now.

LIN: I'm traveling right now.

AMANPOUR: You're taking a year off...

LIN: Yeah.

AMANPOUR: ... if you can call it a year off, while you're still doing this.

LIN: Exactly.

AMANPOUR: What -- I know you're doing that for your family...

LIN: Right.

AMANPOUR: ... but you're also working, right? You're also documenting what's missing.

LIN: I am documenting -- I got a grant through Creative Time and Rockefeller Brothers to go around the world -- well, to travel and ask a question. So for me, the question was easy: What is missing?

So everywhere I go, translated into the languages, and I've been through Mexico and now South America...

AMANPOUR: What have you found there? What's missing?

LIN: In Mexico, what was missing -- and, again, I'm asking laypeople, people I meet along the way. The forests are missing. One woman told me about this story, she had a parrot, her mother had a parrot, and there used to be parrots and parakeets, and then at some point, someone stole the parrot, because they'd become so rare that the parrot had become valuable. In...


LIN: In Egypt, I haven't been there yet, so, again, I'm targeting certain areas. Again, I'm -- I'm actually filming -- as an artist, I'm filming the water. I just filmed the Amazon, the Rio Negro. I'll go in and I'll film parts of the Nile and -- and bring it back into what -- what's polluting it, how clean are these waters now.

AMANPOUR: And you have some pictures that you've been taking.

LIN: I have a few pictures. This is literally -- one of the huge threats to habitat loss are palm oil plantations. This is...

AMANPOUR: Is that -- is that also around the mangroves?

LIN: It's -- well, the -- they are. Palm oils threaten a lot of Indonesia. I think the orangutan. Palm oil, illegal logging, and, again, you know, subsistence farming, where you burn a plot, you put a cow on it, within three years, it's eroded. These are huge issues that, again, what - - what is happening in Copenhagen where a lot of countries are coming together to support and petition to make sure that red, which is all about REDD, which is all about reducing emissions through prevention of deforestation and degradation, it's huge, and it's on the table.

And if there's something, again, we could emphasize that -- to support REDD and to have both the United States and the E.U. set up the mechanisms to measure this loss and then begin to value a tree alive.

AMANPOUR: And who's taking the pictures? There's one where you have the mangroves, which are sort of in and out of the water. Who takes those pictures?

LIN: Those are all donated. So either the BBC, National Geographic, Cornell, independent filmmakers, this is a labor of love for me, and I've been asking everyone to be a part of it and contribute.

AMANPOUR: So this is pro bono work?

LIN: It's pretty much pro bono. I set up my own not-for-profit foundation.

AMANPOUR: And all your memorials have been, right? I mean, it's not like you actually get paid for them?

LIN: Well, I got -- you wouldn't call it paid much, like $20,000. I mean, I -- I basically think -- my parents were both educators -- that these were really done as causes. I mean, you know, the artwork tends to pay for my -- this habit of mine, but basically, with what is missing, I had a great commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission, which seeded "What is Missing?" and allowed us to build the first listening cone.

But now I've also set up my own not-for-profit foundation, and there have been amazing support through some -- some great people that...

AMANPOUR: Maya Lin, thank you so much.

LIN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: For this, your last memorial...

LIN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: ... to be unveiled next week, debuting a portion of that at the Copenhagen summit, at the climate change conference.

Next here, our "Post-Script." A unique view of the impact of global warming from the polar ice caps.



AMANPOUR: And now for our "Post-Script." A photographer who spent decades tracking the impact of global warming on our polar ice caps. Paul Nicklen has an obsession with polar life, shooting images even while immersed in the freezing water.

His photographs of polar bears and other wildlife are spectacular, and he says the Artic and the Antarctic are disappearing and that he wants his photo essays to stand as a reminder of what's at stake so that people can protect endangered species from extinction. Paul's work is the subject of a new book called "Polar Obsession" that's just been published.

And for more on the impact of global warming on the Arctic, visit our Web site,, where we have a special report on a town in Alaska whose very existence is threatened by climate change right now. And that's it for now, but join us this weekend for an extended edition of my in-depth interview with the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

For all of us here, goodbye from New York.