Two big announcements were made in the world of natural history over the past week. One will have barely registered while the other will be hyped for the next 2 months. One is a report. The other is a TV show. Guess which one is going to get the attention.
The TV show is, of course, the sequel of the ground breaking BBC natural history documentary series, Planet Earth, and is aptly called Planet Earth II.
Planet Earth was ground breaking both for the wildlife, landscapes, and behaviour that it documented, but also for the way in which it documented it – driven by narratives and sublimely filmed. It was mesmerising.
Planet Earth II promises to be spectacular, as the trailer shows. According to Sir David Attenborough, who narrates the second series, “the technology and the shots are unparalleled. You couldn’t do those shots 10 years ago.” Here’s the trailer.
Am I excited? Hell yes. Do I think this type of television is important or worthwhile? Yes I do. We need to encourage interest, appreciation, perhaps even awe in the other species that share our planet with us, and shows like this are perhaps the most readily available way to do that on a large scale. And we do need to talk to people on a large scale.
As the latest Living Planet Report tells us, we desperately need to get public opinion to shift if we’re going to avoid being the cause of the sixth mass extinction event on Planet Earth. Here’s a snippet from WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini in an introduction to that report:
“Lose biodiversity and the natural world including the life support systems as we know them will collapse. We depend on nature for the air we breathe, water we drink, the food and materials we use and the economy we rely on, and not least, for our health, inspiration and happiness.
For decades scientists have been warning that human actions are pushing life toward a sixth mass extinction. Evidence in this year’s Living Planet Report supports this. Wildlife populations have already shown a concerning decline, on average by 67 per cent by the end of the decade. While environmental degradation continues, there are also signs that we are beginning a transition towards an ecologically sustainable future.”
And this is where I get a little concerned. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll bet good money that Planet Earth II will not be a rallying cry to protect the wildlife that it documents. According to press releases and interviews, “David does a very poignant wrap-up to explain that for most animals, what we are doing to the planet is a bit of a tragedy”, but that will be a small moment in a grandiose piece of theatre. It will be make people feel a bit sad, for a moment, and then it will be forgotten. It will create zero change in peoples’ behaviour.
I would go further, in fact, and suggest that Planet Earth II may even encourage inaction. By showing off the remaining wonders of the natural world in such sumptuous detail the series may well end up accidentally being 360 glorious minutes of natural history propaganda on behalf of business as usual.
We need positive stories, but we also need balance. The BBC insists on balance in its news rooms to the point that only recently was human-induced climate change considered (by their editorial team at least) so unarguably a real thing that deniers were represented whenever the issues was discussed. Its Natural History Unit makes factual content, and yet there will be no balance in this show because it would make it less entertaining.
The balance ought to come from research such as the latest WWF Living Planet Report released last week. That report records a loss of 58% of the vertebrates on Planet Earth in the last 40 years, and a predicted loss of a further 8% by 2020. If that happens we’ll have destroyed two thirds of our planets vertebrate biomass in less time than my parents have been alive. Here’s what’s causing the devastation:
In human terms, it’s equivalent to a virus killing 4.92 billion people over the next 50 years. Or almost 100 million people every year. Or 269,817 people every single day for the next five decades. Can you imagine that, as an ongoing thing, every single day, for 50 years? Can you imagine the effort that would be made to find a cure? That’s the scale of the devastation in human terms, but of course it’s actually much, much worse than this. The scale is much greater to begin with, plus we’re talking about the extinction of large numbers of entire species, the disruption of whole ecosystems, and ultimately the destabilisation of our global biosphere. All of this is already biting us on the backside.
I think that it ought to be headline news almost daily, but even this report barely registered a blip in the news cycle. Meanwhile Planet Earth II will be on peoples screens and in the headlines for the next couple of months, making a lot of people feel OK about the present situation and their contribution to it.
Is it not as though our grandparents simply sat at home and watched beautiful films about Jewish culture while the Nazis quietly went on with their business of genocide? I know I’ve fallen foul of Godwin’s Law but is that really too strong a comparison?
I’m going to watch Planet Earth II, and I’m going to marvel at what I’m seeing and wonder at how the camera crews managed to film the sequences that will make up the show, and it’s going to fire me up to keep working to protect our natural world and to stay hopeful and positive. But I work in conservation. I’ve dedicated my life to this cause. I don’t need to be shown the balance because I read the reports and I see it with my own eyes.
What about everyone else?