[Editor's Note, 01/27/17: Planet Earth II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, will premiere Saturday, February 18 at 9/8c on BBC America, the US home of the BBC's landmark natural history series. The previous air date was changed after this article by Alex Strachan was posted.]
By most accounts, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II is a resounding success. Viewers watched in droves. The critics hailed the program’s never-before-seen footage of animals in the wild and wrote rapturously of Planet Earth’s depiction of a pristine, untamed wilderness few will have the privilege of actually seeing with their own eyes.
Despite that — and not for the first time — a handful of ardent conservationists have sounded a note of alarm. Anger, even. Planet Earth and programs like it — Blue Planet, Life on Earth, The Hunt and others — do little to help the natural world, these detractors say, because they breed a sense of complacency about the ongoing destruction of our planet. If Attenborough’s filmmakers can capture such beauty, the argument goes, it implies there’s nothing wrong with planet Earth, when the truth is that the natural world has never been more in trouble.
Even as Planet Earth aired in the UK, a survey found that the world’s remaining population of giraffes has crashed, this on the heels of similar surveys that found that elephants, rhinos, and lions face an ever-increasing threat. As Planet Earth prepares to premiere in the US (BBC America, starting Jan. 28), a recent survey has found that the world’s remaining cheetahs now number no more than 7,000, despite efforts to save them. Less than a decade ago, there were thought to be 10,000 wild cheetahs remaining.
You won’t see anything about that in Planet Earth, though, BBC Springwatch producer Martin Hughes-Games wrote in an op-ed piece this past weekend in The Guardian.
“No hint of the ongoing disaster is ever allowed to shatter the illusion,” Hughes-Games wrote. The pretty pictures are there just for pretty pictures’ sake.
Attenborough himself has faced these criticisms before, and at age 90 he’s probably grown a tad tired of constantly having to face them down.
By showing the natural world as it is, Attenborough argues, the audience will become interested in the natural world. If viewers are interested enough, they will eventually care enough to do something about it.
There’s little proof to show that’s what happens, though, Hughes-Games insists.
Actually, he put it a little more harshly than that. “Unfortunately,” he wrote in The Guardian, “the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense.”
Planet Earth and programs like it are entertainment, pure and simple, he says.
Meanwhile, even as Planet Earth was airing in the UK, the Zoological Society of London and the World Wide Fund for Nature’s 2016 Living Wildlife Report found that there was a 60 percent decline in vertebrate population abundance from 1970 to 2012, roughly encompassing the time Attenborough’s natural history programs have been on the air. (Life on Earth bowed in 1979.)
That alone suggests Attenborough’s programs have done little to stem the tide, Hughes-Games insists.
At first glance, it looks as if he has a point — though probably no one was churlish enough to point out that while Jacques Cousteau was encouraging a worldwide fascination with sea life with his nature programs, the world’s oceans were taking a battering.
No one questions that the decline in the world’s vertebrates is due to our insatiable need for space, humankind’s habit of destroying and degrading wilderness at a perilous pace, not to mention the threats posed by over-exploitation, climate change, pollution, invasive species and illegal hunting and trafficking of wild animals — none of which is mentioned in Planet Earth.
Attenborough himself, though, has said this is by design.
In a feature interview several years ago for 60 Minutes, Attenborough said he consciously avoids lectures in his films because, “no one wants to be told the natural world is going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s all your fault.”
Far better, he said, to show the natural world as it is, and still remains, in some untouched pockets of the world, untouched and unaffected by human hands. His idea, he said, is to show viewers the bigger picture and let them decide on their own what, if anything, they want to do about it. If they don’t care enough to do anything, Attenborough said, then he judges that his life’s work has failed.
Hughes-Games argues that programs like Planet Earth reflect a deceptively simplistic view of nature. They’re filmed in rapidly shrinking parks and game reserves, isolated green spots that don’t reflect the planet as it really is in the 21st century. The result is a portrait of a beautiful, beguiling fantasy world, “a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.”
Hughes-Games is not arguing that these programs shouldn’t be made, he says, but rather that their fantasy should be balanced with a healthy dose of reality, as hard as that may be to take.
Attenborough argues — and I happen to think he’s right — that we already know the natural world is in trouble. We don’t need to be constantly reminded, not if we have eyes to see with and brains to think with. By showing the natural world in its original, idealized state, Attenborough is showing us not just the present, but a possible future — what the future could be. He’s challenging us to do what we can to ensure that what little remains of the natural world stays that way. He says as much, in the closing moments of Planet’s Earth’s final episode, “Cities,” imploring viewers to be vigilant, to be aware, to plug in and get actively involved.
Attenborough is doing what few other program producers have even tried, by creating a visual record that may one day be all we have to remember earth’s heavenly creatures by.
There are many Racing Extinctions out there, after all, but there is only one Planet Earth.