On Saturday night, the line to get into the 230 Fifth rooftop bar wrapped around the block, but people weren't waiting for a drink. I filed onto the top of the building with hundreds of others and pushed my way through to the edge. The crowd stood shoulder to shoulder, all facing the looming skyscraper to the north. Then 40 stacked projectors on top of a nearby building switched on, and the Empire State Building became the world’s largest tombstone.
The roof fell silent and a newly recorded song by J. Ralph and Sia called "One Candle" belted from the rooftop's speakers. The crowd cheered as snow leopards, manta rays, and elephants came into view. Insects, sea creatures, mammals, and birds crawled, swam, and flew over the structure, as spectators "oohed" and "awed." At times, sounds of the rainforests also came through the speakers, transporting us from the Manhattan roof to the lush habitats these animals call home. For three hours, endangered species were illuminated on the skyscraper’s surface.
But the cheerful mood gave way to chills; as the music turned to a solemn ballad, each new animal on the building’s face became a jarring reminder that many of the animals I love may soon be gone. At one point, a giant picture of Cecil the Lion lit up the entire building. Looking at the crowd’s faces, I noticed a mixture of excitement and bitterness. They were happy to raise awareness for the protection of these creatures, but sad that it was necessary in the first place.
The Empire State Building became the world’s largest tombstone
The production was the collaborative effort of the Oceanic Preservation Society and the filmmakers of Racing Extinction, an upcoming documentary film that highlights humanity's role in the loss of the world's endangered species. Helmed by Louie Psihoyos — the director of The Cove — Racing Extinction follows a team of activists on a mission to expose the two largest threats to biodiversity — the international wildlife trade and society's growing carbon footprint. Rising carbon emissions have led to the acidification of Earth's oceans, causing the widespread deaths of many shelled sea creatures. And effects from climate change have led to the habitat loss of threatened species across the globe.
I spoke with Psihoyos about this massive undertaking and what encouraged him to do it. "Film can change the world," he said. "I call it a weapon of mass construction. I'm hoping with this film and this event, we can raise awareness and start a movement." He told me that we’ve entered into the next major extinction event in Earth's history, and if we don't adjust our way of living, we may lose half of the planet's species by the end of the century. "If you look back at the human experience, from 2100 back to the coal era, World War II will be a footnote in comparison to what we're causing in the decimation of biodiversity."
"Film can change the world. I call it a weapon of mass construction."
Saturday's show, titled "Projecting Change: The Empire State Building," served as the climax to the film's efforts. Although the building is often seen lit in various colors throughout the evening hours, Empire State Realty Trust has never allowed video projections on the building before. Psihoyos plans to use footage of the show to end his new documentary.
The filmmaker hopes that despite the grim tone, people will be inspired after witnessing the projections to make changes and demand new carbon-reducing policies from politicians. He suggests the best way to make a difference is by upgrading buildings to harness green energy whenever possible. He also argues that people should strive to eat less meat, due to the massive carbon footprint left behind by the meat industry. Otherwise, the animal world is headed toward a disturbing future.
The show definitely did its job; I wasn’t aware of just how many species were on the verge of collapse, and after seeing the images I felt a renewed desire to help. But the rooftop became too crowded for my taste, and I left early. It’s too bad the endangered animals I saw last night don’t have the same luxury.