SEED Magazine has a new article online by Laura McNeil about the Discovery Channel’s famed Planet Earth series, and I can’t say I particularly agree with it. I have yet to see the entire series (I’m waiting to get my hands on the David Attenborough-narrated DVD version), but although it was beautiful I don’t see it doing much good for conservation. Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing some of the few remaining Amur leopards captured on film, desert elephants, sweeping vistas, etc., but what impact is such programming going to have? Many people concerned with conservation in American and England can trace our own interests back to seeing episodes of Wild Kingdom, a David Attenborough-hosted documentary, a National Geographic special, or other such program, but such shows typically give us an appreciation for the wild. Nature is shown almost mystically, beyond the reach of human influence or habitation, almost like a grand playground for wildlife. I realize that this is a broad generalization and there have been efforts to show animal life in the city or the effect of hunters/poachers, but when I think of series like Blue Planet or Planet Earth I can’t help but wonder what viewers who are not so concerned with ecology or science will react.
In a way, a program like Planet Earth serves the same purpose as a zoo, only in your living room. Zoos are primarily places where people come to look (or perhaps a more appropriate term would be gawk) at various animals, and documentaries afford us experiences with animals in their habitats which are beyond the reach of most people. If anyone learns anything, it’s a bit of a bonus, but the primary focus is not education but eye-candy. I did see that Planet Earth attempted to tie global climate change in with the show by focusing on a polar bear that was unable to find food (and possibly died of starvation, I don’t remember if it was resolved), but it seemed that the rest of it was an attempt to show us various charismatic animals all over the world. A companion series, Planet Earth: The Future has hardly been mentioned at all and I am not sure if it ever aired here in the U.S. (it certainly wasn’t advertised). This series of 3 hour-long documentaries focused on conservation and ecological problems facing the world, but I have to wonder how many people watched this program? It seems to fall squarely in the realm of “supplemental material” and I imagine was overlooked by many. Why?
While some children who watched the Planet Earth series may someday become ecologists or (at least) informed members of the public, I don’t think this is enough. Planet Earth has its place, but if we’re to spur ecological concern we need to take an unflinching look at how we’re changing ecology during prime time, not relegate it to the background. Why not put just as much effort into a 11-part documentary about pollution, climate change, species extinction, wildlife reclaiming urban areas, etc.? If we continue to merely focus on how beautiful nature is, hoping that some will be inspired by its charms, we will ultimately fail; what is lacking from mass-media today is a long and hard look at just what we’re doing to the planet, and I don’t think we can afford to ignore the full depth of our impact anymore. I want to see a BBC crew catch a Japanese whaling ship red handed, I want people to be able to watch as a fisherman cuts the fins off a shark and dump the still-living animal back into the ocean, I want someone to film the ecology of landfills, and I believe that we need to be exposed to how climate change is transforming animals all over the world (spurring both evolution and extinction). Let’s stop vomiting up endless platitudes about “saving the planet” and “going green” and actually confront people with the damage we are wreaking on our one and only home in the universe. There are more stories about species becoming imperiled or habitats being destroyed than I can keep up with, so there is no shortage of material for a frank and up-front discussion of ecological destruction, and I hope the BBC has the guts to produce such a show.