Trust & Responsibility

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Sir David Attenborough on location for the new series. Photograph: Nick Lyons/BBC NHU

There are few people featured as frequently in our pages since 2011. His documentation of the wonders of nature surely qualifies as a major contribution to humanity. He has a new series and as always we link out to it here. But with it, some questions arise based on an interview he recently gave to Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s Global Environment Editor, to promote the series:

David Attenborough: too much alarmism on environment a turn-off

Veteran broadcaster says Dynasties, his new BBC wildlife series, will be gripping, truthful and entertaining but not overtly campaigning

I am susceptible to those questions, especially after reading Guardian columnist (another frequent subject in our pages) George Monbiot’s editorial below. Just because David Attenborough is a hero does not mean he is always right. These two items are both worth a read and further consideration about the responsibility that comes with trust, well-earned, but whose value perhaps should be employed for campaigning considering what is at stake. I find myself surprised to reflexively lean in to this editorial argument, because the mission of our platform here is to emphasize creative, entrepreneurial approaches to conservation. While we chose at the outset to not focus exclusively on feel-good stories, we also do not serve up excessive doom and gloom because there is plenty of reporting on that for anyone paying attention. Maybe my surprise is more that a hero of nature-lovers reveals himself to explicitly avoid campaigning when he knows better than most from decades of close observation what the planet has been losing during his lifetime.

David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves

By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance

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David Attenborough filming the BBC series Africa in the Suguta Valley, northern Kenya. Photograph: David Chancellor/BBC

Knowingly creating a false impression of the world: this is a serious matter. It is more serious still when the BBC does it, and yet worse when the presenter is “the most trusted man in Britain”. But, as his latest interview with the Observer reveals, David Attenborough sticks to his line that fully representing environmental issues is a “turn-off”.

His new series, Dynasties, will mention the pressures affecting wildlife, but Attenborough makes it clear that it will play them down. To do otherwise, he suggests, would be “proselytising” and “alarmist”. His series will be “a great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts”. In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features, alongside most of the rest of the world’s living systems – and when broadcasting as a whole has disgracefully failed to represent such truths – I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable.

It is not proselytising or alarmist to tell us the raw truth about what is happening to the world, however much it might discomfit us. Nor do I believe that revealing the marvels of nature automatically translates into environmental action, as the executive producer of Dynasties claims. I’ve come to believe it can have the opposite effect.

For many years, wildlife film-making has presented a pristine living world. It has created an impression of security and abundance, even in places afflicted by cascading ecological collapse. The cameras reassure us that there are vast tracts of wilderness in which wildlife continues to thrive. They cultivate complacency, not action.

You cannot do such a thing passively. Wildlife film-makers I know tell me that the effort to portray what looks like an untouched ecosystem becomes harder every year. They have to choose their camera angles ever more carefully to exclude the evidence of destruction, travel further to find the Edens they depict. They know – and many feel deeply uncomfortable about it – that they are telling a false story, creating a fairytale world that persuades us all is well, in the midst of an existential crisis. While many people, thanks in large part to David Attenborough, are now quite well informed about wildlife, we remain astonishingly ignorant about what is happening to it.

What makes Attenborough’s comments particularly odd is that they come just a year after the final episode of his Blue Planet II series triggered a massive effort to reduce plastic pollution. Though the programme made a complete dog’s breakfast of the issue, the response demonstrated a vast public appetite for information about the environmental crisis, and an urgent desire to act on it…

Read the whole op-ed here.

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