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'That's where the hope really lies': Documentary star encouraged by youth environmental activism

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Zack Rago of the documentary "Chasing Coral" talks with Love A Sea Turtle volunteers Greyson Graham and Braden McPhillips at the Town Common on Tuesday.

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By Kim Grizzard
Staff Writer

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Ecologist Zack Rago spent three and a half years working to document the demise of ocean ecosystems in “Chasing Coral.” Now this self-described “coral nerd” is chasing after a different goal: to help inspire the next generation of environmentalists.

Rago, 27, spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Greenville, talking with hundreds of students, including many who share his passion for the planet. Rago's visit, hosted by Sustain ECU, the city's Recreation and Parks department and the local conservation and youth leadership organization Love A Sea Turtle, was held in conjunction with World Water Monitoring Day.

“In the last two years I've reached about 11,000 kids and I don't think I've met a single kid that doesn't want a better future for their own planet,” Rago said. “I love getting out here and seeing what young people are doing in their own communities to make a big difference.”

Rago, who has a degree in evolutionary biology and ecology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, was initially hired to work as a technician on the 2017 documentary. He later emerged as one of the stars of the film, which chronicles his emotional response to the rate at which coral reefs are dying.

Tuesday's screening of the film on the Town Common was hardly a first viewing for D.H. Conley sophomore Braden McPhillips. A volunteer for LAST, Braden first saw “Chasing Coral” along with fellow members of his scuba diving club and watched it again as part of Earth Day events last spring at ECU.

“As a child, you're told that the world is ours for the making and that it will be here for us forever, but as I watched the documentary, I realized that that might not always be true,” said Braden, who serves as a water challenge ambassador for the environmental organization EarthEcho International. “We do have problems that we need to worry about, and some of the problems aren't always visible to the everyday community.”

Giving people a clear view of the plight of coral reefs is one reason Chad Carwein, university sustainability manager at ECU, chose “Chasing Coral” to be featured in April as part of a campus film and discussion series. It is also the reason Carwein and LAST co-director Kay Sokolovic were interested in bringing Rago to Greenville for a visit.

“We're about an hour and a half from the coast, but I still view eastern North and Greenville as a community dependent on the coast,” Carwein said. “It's all just so connected.”

“Chasing Coral,” which has been screened some 1,400 times in 100 countries, reports on what is said to be the longest, deadliest and most widespread coral bleaching event in history, which is blamed for destroying nearly 30 percent of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef along Australia's northeastern coast in 2016. The film predicts that bleaching caused by ocean warming will kill most of the world's corals within 30 years.

“It's easy to be alarmed and to see the devastating effects of say a forest fire,” Carwein said. “But basically the same thing is happening at the bottom of our oceans with coral reef ecosystems. It's more out of sight, out of mind because it is under the water. So raising awareness and understanding about this issue and what causes it and some ways that everyday individuals can reduce their contribution to global climate change is very important.”

Dan Sokolovic, co-director of LAST, founded more than a decade ago by the Sokolovics' daughter, Casey, said the film's climate change focus is not intended to stir controversy.

“The coral is dying; the evidence is there. There's no denying that,” he said. “People just need to be aware the Great Barrier Reef is dying, whatever reason we want to associate with it. The issue that it is dying a catastrophic death. It is totally bleaching out. It's going away.”

“Chasing Coral” includes reports of coral bleaching from dozens of countries in addition to Australia.

Sokolovic said LAST members have been able to observe changes in the ocean during scuba dive expeditions off the coast of Florida.

LAST member David Yoon, a freshmen at Conley, said images from his older sister's dive trip two years ago helped inspire him to take action to help the environment.

“It's a fact that the ocean is changing,” he said. “... As scuba divers, it is our duty to help protect our ocean.”

He and fellow LAST member Jae Yoon (no relation), co-founded Plastic Free NC to address pollution caused by plastics.

LAST member Greyson Graham, a sophomore at South Central High School, also a scuba diver, joined with friends to launch a marine debris removal program called “Keep Your Bottom Clean.”

“Our goal is to help put a dent in the large amounts of physical pollution like plastics and Styrofoam, etc., entering our oceans each year but through our local community,” said Greyson, who serves as a water challenge ambassador and a member of the youth leadership council at EarthEcho. “We want to make an impact in our community.”

During his visit, Rago, who stopped working with “Chasing Coral” in June to revamp his own environmental education organization, talked with student leaders about conservation challenges in eastern North Carolina. He said kids and teens in many communities are taking lead roles in helping to protect Earth. He pointed to Greta Thunberg of Sweden, a 16-year-old environmentalist featured on the cover of Time magazine in May, as an example.

While many of the predictions for the survival of coral reefs are dire, Rago is proud that “Chasing Coral” has played a role in influencing teens to become involved in environmental causes.

“I think that's where the hope really lies,” he said. “We're beginning to understand that there's not a silver bullet, and we're starting to see the youth rise up and say, 'We're going to do this in our community.'

“You guys really have something incredible going,” Rago said Tuesday. “... I just have to give a massive pat on the back to all of the students. This is an incredible community that's obviously doing a huge amount of good.”

CLIMATE CHANGE EVENTS

ECU’s Religious Studies Program will host environmentalist Bill McKibben for its 27th Distinguished Lecture on Religion and Culture at 7 p.m. today in the Main Campus Student Center Ballroom. The speech is free and open to the public.

McKibben is a best-selling author, teacher and journalist who has written extensively on the impact of global warming. He is the founder of 350.org, which advocates for actions to address climate change.

He will speak on “Faith and Climate: Trying to Make Sense of the Biggest Things that Ever Happened.” The lecture will address ethical issues and the role of faith communities.

McKibben has authored a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989) and Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play itself Out? (2019), according to ECU. He was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize (“alternative Nobel”) in 2014. In 2013 he was the winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize.

The Cypress Group of the N.C. Sierra Club will host a Climate Action Rally from 3-5 p.m. on Sunday at Elm Street Park. The event is meant to raise awareness ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit convening in New York on Monday and to support the Governor's NC Clean Energy Plan.

The rally is among Global Climate Strike events organized by advocacy groups worldwide between Sept. 20-27 to demand action on climate change in line with Paris Agreement goals to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next decade and to net zero emissions by 2050.

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