In his speech at the Natural History Museum, in front of the Prince of Wales and Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex, for the launch event of Our Planet David Attenborough had a strong message for us all. We are living through what can only be described as our planet’s 6th mass extinction event. 160 years after Darwin first published The Origin of Species, in which he gave us not only the concept of evolution but the survival of the fittest, we are only still discovering the scale and importance of the book’s other great concept: that key to this evolution is the way all living things interact with each other and their surroundings. When these connections break, the ecosystems are no more and the life they supported disappears; this is extinction. 96% of the mass of mammals on our planet today are us, and the livestock we’ve domesticated to sustain us. That means only 4% is everything else. 70% of all birds are domesticated, mostly chickens, again for our sustenance. It’s clear that, when Attenborough says ‘nature once determined how we survive, now we determine how nature survives’, he couldn’t be more correct, and this is not something for us to celebrate. We break ecosystems at ever growing speed and in ever growing numbers, putting the global ecosystem at risk and with it our own survival. Something can and must be done, but most of us don’t realise it. It is, as Attenborough points out, a huge ‘communication challenge as much as it is a scientific one’.
This is where Our Planet aims to step in to educate us, not just on the wildlife that inhabits our world, but the ecosystems they are part of and how they are dying, and what this means on a global level. The hope is for Our Planet to have the same impact on viewers, politicians, governments and corporations as Blue Planet II did 18 months ago. Sadly it fails. The medium of a nature documentary has been proved an effective messaging tool, but Our Planet fails due to its woolliness.
It’s not that it isn’t all there in this documentary or that it fails totally, but one can’t help but feel that it would have been more hard hitting if each episode was divided in two or into two programmes, one part exclusively on the wildlife and the other on the wider truth of its collapsing eco system. Give us the wonder of nature, then show us it collapsing. That was the reason Blue Planet II was so powerful. After 6 weeks of our marveling at the sea life and being shown its magnificent beauty, the effect of the last episode was all the more powerful, like a left hook out of nowhere.
It laid bare how this beauty that we’d been amazed by was being destroyed by humanity and even small everyday acts that we think nothing of. The beautiful picture isn’t as rosy as it looks. That’s why it shook us so much and, in the UK and elsewhere, has led to people waking up, legislation being brought and individual consumer habits consciously being changed on such a scale that many multinationals changed their policies and goods of their own volition. Almost over night in the UK every plastic straw was replaced with paper ones; even McDonalds took action after years of campaigners trying to get them to do so.
Our Planet fails to achieve this as the messaging runs alongside the beauty of nature and what’s going on, mostly distracting us from it and making it seem less real. That’s not to say there aren’t some shocking images. The sight of walruses tumbling to their death, having been forced higher up cliffs due to the retreat of the ice shelves, will affect everyone. But sadly, to a viewer of Attenborough’s other nature programmes, much of the footage will seem familiar; at times you even wonder if it’s been used before. Indeed, the viewer can be excused for thinking that the producers had less time to obtain the footage than is often the case and may have resorted to B footage from previous productions. There is at times a distinct sense of deja vu about the images and the script and, the less said about the music from the closing credits, the better.
This ‘labour of love’ fails to hit the mark, and that is nothing but a shame for the viewer and the planet. The ability for it to reach 1 billion people simultaneously via Netflix creates the opportunity for an ‘unprecedented global understanding’and reaction. Sadly it has been wasted. That Netflix has got behind the programme and has done so with David Attenborough is no bad thing; the more production companies that make these programmes and the more people who get to see them, the better. But, as when Sky started making them with Attenborough, the effect is not the same as when the BBC has done so, simply because Attenborough and the BBC pioneered this style of programming and are peerless at it.
There is a reason it is the BBC series that have sold across the world, have an international impact like no other, and have global production companies and networks falling over themselves to support them. Hopefully Netflix will continue with this type of programming, but if they want to have the impact that Attenborough’s BBC work does, they have a way to go – or, better yet, they may do well to join forces with the BBC on such work. The message of this series is too important to be lost within it in the way that it is. A great shame, and one that potentially impacts us all.
Feature Image –Netflix’s Our Planet Royal World Premiere, London, April 2019. (C) Sir David Attenborough