Interview with Don Cheadle, Hollywood actor and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador
There's nothing like a brush with death to concentrate the mind, and - as actor Don Cheadle tells it - a narrow escape from a charging rhino got him thinking hard about biodiversity. He was visiting an African animal sanctuary while recovering from knee surgery, which made walking difficult, when an "almost fully grown, black rhino" took against him.
He tried to run away but: "as I glanced back to see how close death was, I saw one and a half tons of angry adolescent rhino, not two feet away, focused squarely on my back pockets. With my hobbled leg there was no chance to outrun him. But I dug deep down, self preservation taking over, and miraculously, impossibly managed to scale an eight foot high fence to my left.
"Sitting up there on my perch," the star of Hotel Rwanda continues, "a thought crept into my head: 'Maybe this charging rhino has it right. If I were a wild animal watching my habitat slowly disappear as humankind encroached upon it further and further, my water diminishing and my food sources becoming more scarce as a result of global warming and the proliferation of pollutants, I might try to take matters into my own hooves and take a human being off the count. Who could blame me?' "
Born in Kansas City 46 years ago, and growing up in Denver, Cheadle had a "mounting interest" in the environment from as far back as he can remember. He recalls wondering, as a child, where all the waste he produced would go and was inspired by the open spaces of Colorado to want to protect them. Later he lived in Nebraska, where water rationing was common. These and other early environmental influences "created a mental landscape", which inspired him "to care".
And care he does. He has long campaigned against the genocide portrayed in the film for which he is most famous. In 2007 he was awarded the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Humanitarian award for services to the people of Darfur and Rwanda, and, together with fellow actor George Clooney, was presented with the Summit Peace Award by Nobel Peace Prize laureates for their work in the stricken part of the Sudan.
He practices what he preaches on the environment, running his home on solar power and even - as a single-digit handicap golfer - playing with recyclable golf balls. And now he is to take his campaigning to a new level as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNEP.
He hopes the new role "will give me the opportunity to learn more substantively about how countries around the world are addressing environmental challenges, and let me use my influence to bring people together on what should be a no-brainer: our interconnectedness with our ecosystems and each other.
"I hope I can use my position to do more than cut the line at the airport or get a great seat at a restaurant (though those are admittedly really nice perks!) and in my small way be a voice in partnership with those trying to be heard and perhaps help push their efforts over the top. I hope to use my "celebrity" to motivate and move us back from the brink.
"Scientists believe that half to two thirds of all species will be on the brink of extinction by the end of the century. That is a fact that should grab all of our attention and shake us out of our stupor.
"Our leaders should be making these vitally important issues their first priority and pouring a majority of their manpower and resources into stemming the tide, but alas they are not. We must take up the fight to see that they receive the attention they merit - not for some lofty ideal of preserving a particular habitat or species because it is 'the right thing to do', but for the very selfish reason of ensuring that we, as a species, can go on.
''For better or worse, we are all captive on this big blue ball. If we continue to abuse it, it will abuse us right back''. The rhino would agree to that. GL
This interview appears on the latest issue of Our Planet magazine and can be found at: http://unep.org/OurPlanet/2010/sept/en/
About Our Planet magazine
UNEP's quarterly magazine Our Planet features authoritative articles on the theme of environment and development by world scientific and political leaders. Our Planet has an estimated annual print readership of around 300,000 a year, while the Internet editions are read by some seven million people from 118 countries. Our Planet is published in English, French, and Spanish, with Korean, Chinese, and Japanese language versions produced by local UNEP-linked groups.