Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’: ‘Planet Earth’ revisited, but with a stronger, clearer eco-voice.

Politics is inescapable these days, it seems. Take something as seemingly benevolent and benign — and beautiful to behold — as Our Planet, the new, eye-filling nature series from Netflix, narrated by the ubiquitous Sir David Attenborough.

At the time of Netflix’s original announcement, Our Planet was to be similar and yet different to such distinctive, ground-breaking natural history programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. And, as the great unwashed are about to learn Friday, it has largely succeeded. There are moments of real, eye-filling majesty and genuine grandeur, backed by the swelling symphonic score of film composer Steven Price. Overbearing, yes, but it fits this kind of program. It’s easy to forget now but when the original Planet Earth came out, the loud, overblown music was by George Fenton, fresh off an Academy Award for Gandhi and its follow-up Cry Freedom, both films directed by Attenborough’s brother, the late Sir Richard “Dickie” Attenborough.

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

The familiar visual paean to nature and the natural world that made Planet Earth and Blue Planet must-see viewing in countless households around the world is there for all to see in Our Planet, and on a Netflix budget to boot.

This time, though, there’s a noticeable difference, and not just the subtle shift in tone. Our Planet, eight episodes in all, is more eco-aware and socially conscious. It strikes a cautionary tone  — a warning. Not alarm, exactly, but still. Our Planet is no longer nature programming that focuses on nature-for-nature’s-sake, to the exclusion of any environmental message beyond a polite, almost apologetic request that we be more careful with the Earth’s dwindling natural resources. Please remember to turn off the lights on your way out, and try not to wreck the climate during your drive home.
There’s a sadness, a feeling of regret tinged with genuine fear of an uncertain future as we’re reminded, time and time again, that polar bears and elephants might not be with us much longer.

And not just polar bears and elephants, either, but bees, hummingbirds, ocean-going reef sharks and everything in-between.

Our Planet opens with a close-up view from space — reminders of 2001: A Space Odyssey —  of the moon, with the Earth rising gradually behind it. Since Neil Armstrong made his first step for man and giant leap for mankind, on July 20, 1969, Attenborough tells us, the human population has doubled, while wildlife numbers have dwindled some 60 percent during the same time. 

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

Our Planet isn’t strident. It doesn’t harangue us with a lecture from the bully pulpit, though there are certainly those eco-crusaders out there who would prefer to shake every last one of us — not without reason — into waking up.

Attenborough has not left BBC for Netflix, as some in the media suggested at the time. (Looking at it from both sides of the media divide, these things are easy to misreport, especially given today’s frantic get-it-first-before-you-get-it-right climate of competition in information.)

Attenborough may be 92 (he turns 93 next month) but he’s committed to several more big projects for BBC, including Frozen Planet II, Blue Planet III and Planet Earth III.

Similarly, he has left the door open at Netflix. He was signed after-the-fact to narrate Our Planet as a one-off, to give the expensive — even by Netflix standards — program instant gravitas and global credibility. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the current TV landscape is such that Netflix can reach more viewers in a single week than BBC can over the course of an entire year.

That instant access to the global village is one reason Attenborough needed no convincing to exchange Broadcasting House in London for Netflix in Los Gatos, Calif.

In his later years, he has readily admitted to anyone who’ll listen that his raison d’être in later life is to convince anyone and everyone he can that our home world is in trouble and needs our help.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Netflix’s reach doesn’t exactly exceed its grasp, either: Our Planet could conceivably reach one billion people, something not even BBC can do.

Attenborough is the face and voice behind Our Planet, but not its primary inspiration and directing force. That would be veteran British producer Alastair Fothergill, who made Blue Planet and Planet Earth for BBC and has recently divided his time between BBC, Disney’s Disneynature film division (African Cats, Chimpanzee and the soon-to-be released Penguins, in theatres April 17) and now Netflix.

Fothergill, a Fellow of the British Royal Television Society and recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Keaton Medal, has been at the vanguard of socially conscious, environmentally aware nature filmmaking that seeks to be both entertaining and informative. Unlike Blue Planet, which touched only briefly on plastic’s effect on the world’s oceans, Our Planet’s entire focus is on the man-made threat to the natural world.

Early reviews in the UK — in the Daily Telegraph and Independent, for example — have grumbled that, beautiful as Our Planet is to watch, the overall effect is scattered and unfocused as a result. Fothergill would argue that, unlike Dynasties with its Shakespearean tales of kings and matriarchs facing rebellion and revenge from within, Our Planet is unified by a single, overpowering message: that everything is connected, that what affects the ice fields in Canada’s frozen north also affects the semi-arid deserts in Africa’s sun-parched south, not just Arctic bears and savannah elephants myriad microorganisms, smaller animals and pollinating insects that lie between.

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

“From every region of the world there are stories that reveal nature’s resilience and show how restoration is possible,” Attenborough says in his voice-over — a reminder once again how, over time, his soothing, reverential tones have a calming effect on this crazy world we live in.

There’s something joyful — and joyous — in the way Attenborough reads out loud. It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, why Blue Planet and Planet Earth have reached such a wide audience. He’s a born storyteller. It’s not hard to imagine that programs like Blue Planet and now Our Planet wouldn’t reach nearly as many people without Attenborough as their verbal guide and shepherd.

Our Planet is important because, while it doesn’t harangue and harass us at home the way a TED Talk might, it focuses on the most important threat to humanity — arguably the most important threat of our generation — in ways that both move and inspire.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Attenborough is the star but the last word, by rights, belongs to Fothergill.

“When Huw (Cordrey) and I both made Planet Earth, that series was about amazing scenery,” Fothergill recalled a number of years back at a Television Critics Association press session in Pasadena, Calif. for the then new BBC nature program The Hunt. “It was about taking the audience on a journey around the planet that they could never do in their lifetime.”

What he’s tried to do with Our Planet is combine that epic cinematic poetry with a potent, topical message about climate change, species diversity and the perilous balance of nature, and why all those things matter to our collective future on planet Earth, and to the planet itself.

Only time will tell if Our Planet — and we ourselves — succeed.



Akashinga, ‘The Braves Ones,’ the women saving Africa’s wildlife — and now finalists for the World Press Photo of the Year.

Judging from the social-media nontroversies over judging faux pas at past World Press Photo Awards, one could be forgiven for thinking the prestigious photo contest,now in its 62nd year, must have an enemies list to rival that at any MAGA rally.

There were the concerns over “post-processing” in 2013; the staged photos and subsequent disqualification of a WPPA-winning photographer in 2015; the cancellation of the WPP exhibition at Visa Pour L’image (also in 2015); the creation of a new category, for “creative documentary photography” in 2016 (a competition that, in the words of contest organizers, “not have rules limiting how images are produced,” that would allow staged and manipulated images); questions about the authenticity of the 2nd-place long-term projects winner (‘An Iranian Journey’) in 2017; and the fracas over 2017’s World Press Photo of the Year, of which jury chair Stuart Franklin said at the time, “I didn’t think, if I’m honest with you, that (this) should be World Press Photo of the Year.”

One photographer’s controversy is another’s nontroversy.

If I’m honest with you — speaking strictly for myself — the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards aside, the World Press Photo awards is the one I pay closest attention to.

And that’s why I was gratified to see that, this year, for the second year in a row, an environmental conservation photographer has been nominated for World Press Photo of the Year.

New York-based, South African-born war photographer Brent Stirton — whose controversial (hard to avoid that word, where high-profile photojournalism awards are concerned) image of a dead rhino slaughtered for its horn won the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award — has made the shortlist of six images for this year’s World Press Photo of the Year, for his image Akashinga — the Brave Ones.

The Akashinga are an all-female anti-poaching unit in Zimbabwe, not the most stable country on earth, nor the easiest for women to take up arms against poachers — all men — willing to kill anyone who stands between them and the booming market in illegal ivory and rhino horn.

©Brent Stirton/Getty Images

©Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The World Press Photo Awards are top-shelf in my view because, unlike, say, the Pulitzers, they reflect the world’s best, not just America. The other nominees for Photo of the Year, for example, hail from Italy (Marco Gualazzini, Almajiri Boy); Syria (Mohammed Badra, Victims of an Alleged Gas Attack Receive Treatment in Eastern Ghouta); France-Spain (Catalina Martin-Chico, Being Pregnant after FARC Child-Bearing Ban); Australia (Chris McGrath, The Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi); and the U.S. (John Moore, Crying Girl on the Border).

Shortlisted candidates in other categories include photojournalists from Venezuela, Mexico, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In all, 43 photographers from 25 countries have been nominated for this year’s awards, the 62nd edition in the organization’s history. A new category, World Press Story of the Year, should prove less controversial than 2016’s “Photoshop is OK” category — fake news! — but recent history cautions that wherever there is a high-profile photo contest with the profile of the WPOTY or WPP awards, controversy inevitably follows.

The World Press Photos are a lightning rod for debate because they’re now the world’s most high-profile competition in a field of photography that’s all about competition. Winning can lead to paid work in what’s an ever-shrinking pool of full-time staff jobs with credible, reputable media organizations.

Different juries judge the awards each year, which lessens the chance of an institutional bias — or laziness — setting in.

Stirton knows that a great story lies at the heart of any great photograph. He got his start as a war photographer, covering conflict on his home continent of Africa. In his later years — he’s now repped by Getty Images in New York — his photojournalism has taken on more of an environmental angle, the result of his witnessing, and photographing, a mountain gorilla slaughtered for its body parts in a war-torn corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC), more than a decade ago now, in 2007.

©Brent Stirton /

©Brent Stirton /

An all-female army of wildlife rangers sounds like a gimmick, but as a BBC story by correspondent Rachel Nuwer last September showed, it isn’t. The project is the brainchild of Australian Defence Force special-operations sniper Damien Mander, who had been hired to stem a wave of poaching in Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Park, a 115-square-mile former trophy-hunting area, ground zero in a larger ecosystem that’s home to some 11,000 elephants. The women, 16 in all, come from backgrounds of abuse and deprivation, and so are motivated to prove what they can do. The women feel empowered, and are more likely to improve their communities in the process. They chose the  name “Akashinga” themselves, after Mander asked them to come up with a name for their unit. Akashinga means “the Brave Ones,” in the local Shona language.

“There’s a saying in Africa,” Mander told BBC. “‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”

The situation is serious. In just seven years, Africa’s elephant populations have crashed by 30%, largely due to poaching.

Stirton’s World Press Photo nominated image is a portrait of Petronella Chigumbura, age 30, in the field, where her specialty is in military stealth and concealment. Akashinga’s stated aim is to work with  rather than against local communities, Stirton explained in his submission. This is especially relevant today, as a renewed debate over whether trophy hunting can help fund conservation efforts, in wilderness areas where elephant populations have grown to the point where an ever-shrinking ecosystem can no longer sustain herd animals that eat up to 500 kgs. of trees and agricultural crops a day. Unlike trophy hunting, conservationists argue, finding ways to get local communities involved in serving and protecting wild animals is a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.

For his part, Stirton understands that a single powerful image is worth a thousand words — at least — if, at the end of the day, the idea is to galvanize people to act.

The same could be said of any of this year’s six finalists of course. A single image can indeed change the world. And that, controversies aside, is what the World Press Photo Awards are all about.

The 62nd Annual World Press Photo Awards will be handed out April 11 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

©John Moore/Getty Images

©John Moore/Getty Images

©Chris McGrath/Getty Images

©Chris McGrath/Getty Images

©Marco Gualazzini/Contrasto

©Marco Gualazzini/Contrasto

©Mohammed Badra/European PressPhoto Agency

©Mohammed Badra/European PressPhoto Agency

©Catalina Martin-Chico/Panos

©Catalina Martin-Chico/Panos

Ni! He’s a lumberjack — and now a knight — so he’s OK.

It was his presidency of the Royal Geographic Society what done it, as the English say.

That, and the James Joyce Award, bestowed by Dublin, Ireland’s Literary and Historical Society, not to mention the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and — just so the (ex) colonies aren’t shut out entirely — a gold medal for achievement(s) in geography from the Royal Canadian  Geographical Society.

Also, by all accounts he’s a swell guy, judging from his self-description as being a man of “amenable, conciliatory character.”

Perhaps this charter member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe can wear the mantle of “Sir Michael” after all, despite being a willing participant in some of Monty Python’s most irreverent — and anti-establishment — sketches, including the Lumberjack song (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK; I sleep all night and I work all day” / [chorus] “He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK; he sleeps all night and he works all day”) and the Parrot sketch, arguably Monty Python’s most famous — certainly the most readily quoted — sketch, inspired by Michael Palin’s trip to an auto mechanic who refused to accept there was a problem with his car.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

In my previous life as an entertainment-industry reporter, I talked to Palin a couple of times — most notably when he was promoting Sahara, his 2002 BBC docuseries account (film and book, both) of his transect of the Sahara Desert, “meeting people and visiting places.” There was the pink touring bus in Libya, his remark on revisiting Tunisia that this is where he was crucified (in Life of Brian, filmed in part in Tunisia 12 years earlier), and his sheepish admission that his Sahara expedition almost ended before it began, when he twisted his ankle while playing a pick-up game of beach soccer with street urchins in Morocco. When I asked him about possible future expeditions, in 2003, he seemed ready to admit that, at age 58 and with considerable prodding from his wife of 37 years and growing objections from BBC’s in-house travel insurance advisor, it was perhaps not a good idea to keep returning to war zones for the sake of a TV show. 

(How to stay married for 49 years, Palin told The Telegraph in 2015: “Sex has nothing to do with it.” How English!)

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

Why not follow in the footsteps of the early English explorers’ search for the source of the Nile, I suggested. I’m sure Sudan is a safe place to travel, BBC camera crew in tow, I told him. As for Uganda, how bad can the Lord’s Resistance Army be? They’re with the Lord! They’re doing the Lord’s work, where it’s most needed — in the wetlands of northern Uganda and South Sudan. Your wife would be thrilled. I suggested.

Once a Python, always a Python: He laughed.

He never did do Search for the Nile, but he still racked up the travel miles, camera crew in tow: the Himalayas in 2004, “new Europe” in 2007, Brazil in 2012, and this past year, North Korea.

He admitted his fellow ex-Pythons were somewhat mystified by his sudden post-Python wanderlust: In their eyes, truth be told, it was kind of weird.

No matter. Fast-forward to the New Years Honours list, the 2019 edition, when Palin, already made a CBE in the year 2000 (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), became the first member of the Monty Python comedy troupe to be given the full knighthood. Sir Michael it is, then. Palin, now 75, was knighted for his services to travel, culture and geography, and for being a global “Ambassador for Britain.”

©BBC/Michael Palin

©BBC/Michael Palin

Palin took the honour with characteristic British understatement. What, you were expecting him to go the full Mick Jagger? (When the Mick became Sir Michael Phillip Jagger, knighted for his 40 years of service to popular music at Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday bash at Buckingham Palace in 2002, Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman sniffed, “Jagger does not deserve a knighthood.”)

The Queen personally avoided bestowing Sir Mick with the honour, because she believed him an inappropriate candidate for the honour, owing to his anti-establishment views — or so it was said at the time.

The Monty Python comedy troupe wasn’t exactly pro-establishment in its day, but that geography thing — Pole to Pole in 1992, Around the World in 80 Days in 1992, going Full Circle around the Pacific in 1997, following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway Adventure in 1999 — helped tip the scales of atonement for his sins of irreverence during the Python years.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

After learning that he had made the Queen’s New Year Honours list, Sir Michael hinted to the BBC that he’s getting a little old to trash a hotel room, Mick-style.

Instead, he told the Beeb, he may “just have a quiet celebration, just myself and a glass of Horlicks, and then go to bed.”

Horlicks, for those not in the know, is a malted hot drink developed in the early 20th century by founders James & William Horlick and sold as “Horlick’s Infant and Invalids Food,” with “Aged and Travellers” added to the label later. 

Don’t buy this “Ready for Retirement” act for a second, though. Sir Michael always knew the value of a good sound bite.

Instead, look to an admission made earlier in his career — but not so long ago that it’s forgotten by now — when he said, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”

There are some miles to go yet on that particular road. Think of it as a road less travelled.

“I enjoy writing, “ he wrote in Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. “I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end.”

David Attenborough's ‘Dynasties’ — a betrayal of the natural world he loves, or a celebration. You decide

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

“Against stupidity, the Gods themselves battle in vain.”

I stumbled across that epigraph quite by accident  recently, during my online travels through social media. I liked it enough that I made it the introductory inscription on my Facebook page — no, I’m not above stealing — and I’ve seen nothing since to suggest the inscription is in vain.

One of the unintended consequences of growing old, the novelist and raconteur Paul Theroux wrote in his Siberian travelogue Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, is being confronted by the same old arguments, made time and time again, often by younger people who carry on as though they’ve thought of that argument for the first time.

And so, with Dynasties, a new BBC natural history program about to make its debut on BBC (Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One and Nov, 17 on BBC Earth; Jan. 19 in the US, on AMC Networks’ BBC America), presenter David Attenborough is once again having to defend his approach to wildlife documentary filmmaking against environmental activists who insist that, by focusing on nature’s wonder and deliberately side-stepping the human-made catastrophe facing the world’s last wild places, Attenborough is being part of the problem, not the solution.

At age 92, Sir David is more easily irked than he was at, say, 32, when his early BBC effort Zoo Quest, a studio-bound program featuring animals from the London Zoo, let alone at 52, when his landmark, career-defining series Life on Earth changed the way many TV viewers viewed the natural world.

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough has devoted the final episode of virtually every nature program he’s ever made to climate change, the environmental crisis and the looming mass extinction, he recently pointed out in a pithy exchange in The Guardian, a fortnight before Dynasties’ BBC debut. This didn’t start with this year’s Blue Planet II, he said testily, even though few programs he’s made have had the real-world impact of that series’ final episode, in which he focused on how our careless use of plastics is killing the world’s oceans — and getting into our food chain, whether we like it or not. Science and technology can only do so much to counter humankind’s consumerism, rampant greed and penchant for excess.

That said, he added, turning to one of his most deeply held beliefs — that too much pessimism is a turn-off. Viewers overwhelmed into thinking the situation is hopeless, that the time to do something has long since passed, are tempted to give up. “There’s nothing I, one person can do, so why bother?”

That’s the real danger, Attenborough insists. The issue is not whether he fails to constantly remind you that virtually every wondrous, living breathing wild being you see in one of his eye-filling nature programs is staring extinction square-in-the-face. The worse danger, he argues, is that by being constantly told that the problem is so big it’s insurmountable, it becomes all too easy for the viewer at home to toss the remote aside and go back to noshing on Chilean sea bass and farmed salmon, chowing down on hamburgers and steaks made from soybean-fed cattle, and wrapping everything in plastic, all the while filling the gas tank to the brim, keeping the lights on all night and cranking up the air conditioning and/or central heating to the max, and leaving it there until winter or the spring thaw. 

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Regardless of what you think of him, Attenborough’s touch with ordinary, everyday people was apparent following the airing of Blue Planet II, perhaps proving his point: Millions of people around the planet tuned in, and his efforts — in the final episode especially — was credited with pushing the issue of plastic waste in the world’s oceans higher up on the political agenda.

Attenborough might argue, too, that had he pushed industrial fishing and overconsumption into Blue Planet’s agenda, as some environmental activists demanded he do, he might well have lost viewers rather than gained them.

Dynasties was filmed over two years in five locations, including Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, famous for its lion prides and the setting for one of BBC’s more popular natural history programs from the 1990s, Big Cat Diary, a precursor — stylistically and from a storytelling point of view — of Meerkat Manor: The focus is on individual family groups, filmed over a period of time (in Dynasties’ case, day in and day out, over two years).

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Dynasties’ producers have promised a grittier journey into the natural world with this new series, grittier anyway than anything in Planet Earth.

“The animals are extraordinary creatures in their own right and they live amazing lives,” Gunton said in a just-posted interview with BBC Earth’s online media service. “But they're also animals that have to share the world and compete with humanity. They are in trouble. There is an environmental subtext to this; all these animals are in decline because there isn't enough space for them. We tell incredibly dramatic stories of these animals living really difficult lives against their rivals, their enemies and each other, and that's hard enough. But when you superimpose them also having their space taken from them by humanity, which adds to the pressure, it almost feels unfair.

“Hopefully, I think it's going to make people think about our relationship with nature and also what goes on in nature in a way we very rarely see. The realities of these animal’s lives. Sir David Attenborough says these are important films, they're real documentaries. They tell a truth not often told.

“Every film has very moving moments, where you see heroic struggles against the odds. There are also extraordinary moments of connectivity where you absolutely empathize with the animals.”

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough himself defended his approach in an interview just days ago with BBC News.

“We all have responsibilities as citizens, but our primary job is to make a series of programmes which are gripping, truthful, and speak about something quite important,” Attenborough said.

“These aren't ecological programmes. They're not proselytizing programmes. They're not alarmist programmes. What they are is a new form of filmmaking, and a new form of wildlife filmmaking.

“What we have said is, we will show what happens. We are not going to tart this up, we're not going to distort it in any way. If it's a triumph, fine, if it's a tragedy, that too we will show.

“This series is about the problem, for a lot of these creatures, that there just isn't enough space for them to survive. Space is not as sexy as plastic, it's a harder thing to get your head around, it's a much bigger issue, so [with] the individual struggles in these creatures lives, that's a very good way of bringing it to attention.”

As a counter-view, the respected environmentalist and Guardian editorial-page columnist George Monbiot penned a furious denunciation of Attenborough’s approach earlier this week (links to both articles below), and more-or-less accused Attenborough of betraying the living world he professes to love so much. By knowingly creating a false impression of that world, Monbiot argues, Attenborough is unwittingly playing into the hands of the planet’s destroyers, not its defenders.

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Monbiot argues that since just one scene in Blue Planet II’s final episode caused a sea change in the way millions of BBC viewers in the UK view disposable plastic in today's oceans, he could have done so much more if the entire series were rooted in environmental message-making.

Just as compelling an argument could be made that, had Blue Planet II been an environmental screed,  millions of viewers would have given up on the series long before that point in the program.

Who believe? Who is right, and who is wrong.

I can see the strength of both arguments. Based on my 25-plus years of experience covering the TV industry in my previous incarnation as a media journalist and critic, I lean toward Attenborough and his understanding of the way TV audiences think.

That’s not to say the question of environmental ruin and degradation should be overlooked entirely. Attenborough doesn’t do that anyway, regardless of what some of his more ardent critics say.

Es nidditmir de neshuma, as they say in Yiddish.

“My soul is vexed.”

Dynasties premieres Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One at 20:30 GMT, and Nov. 17 on BBC Earth in Canada. Americans will have to wait until Jan. 19, 2019, when it finally makes its debut on BBC America.

Of angels and demons: How humankind changed the planet and created the Anthropocene epoch.

Humankind’s footprint on planet Earth is now so deep that scientists argue we need to have our own epoch named after us: the Anthropocene.

Epochs are traditionally measured in terms of millions of years — longer than an age, but shorter than a period. Since humankind has been living on the planet for little more than a blink-of-an-eye in geologic time, that’s saying a lot. According to the Cosmic Calendar, an eye-opening chart that distills the 13.8 billion year history of the universe down to a single year, humankind’s early ancestors first walked upright at 10:30pm on the final day of December. Modern humans evolved at 11:52pm; the early human migrations out of Africa happened some time between 11:56pm and 11:59pm.

anthro1 Cosmic_Calendar.png

Everything we know and have achieved — from the early cave paintings to the beginnings of agriculture, permanent settlements and so on, to reading, writing, art, music, the Industrial Revolution and the age of the Internet, has happened in the final minute of the last day of the 12th month of the Cosmic Calendar year.

That’s a pretty sobering thought when you consider that roughly 1.2 seconds ago in geologic time, Columbus arrived in America; everything from overpopulation and human-influenced climate change to the despoiling of the rain forest, fouling of the oceans and mass extinctions has unfolded since then.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Geologists don’t just identify epochs out of thin air. An epoch has to leave a geological imprint in solid rock — in sediments buried below the ground, in ice glaciers (now melting) or on canyon walls, if you like. The Anthropocene epoch, many of these geologists now argue, is an actual thing because evidence of human activity is now being imprinted in geological formations. “We are mining the planet’s surface, acidifying our oceans, creating new rock layers laced with plastic, and exterminating many species,” science editor Robin McKie wrote this past weekend in London’s Sunday Observer. “The consequences of these actions will be detectable in rocks for millions of years.”

A new study by University College of London researchers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin identifies colonialism — the way guns, germs and steel shaped the New World — as the prime mover behind the tectonic shift on the geologic timescale; other scientists cite the detonation of the first atomic bomb as the moment when the Anthropocene epoch dawned (their argument being that the earliest atomic bombs left a radioactive record in Earth’s rocks), while still others point to the proliferation of plastics, which are forming their own geological layers by becoming embedded in rocks.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The real question, of course — and the great unanswerable — is how the Anthropocene epoch will shape and change planet Earth, and whether our home world can survive it, or whether, as geological time has shown over the ages, epochs and periods, nothing is forever and all life changes eventually, even life itself.

“We have become a new force of nature, dictating what lives and what goes extinct,” Maslin told the Sunday Observer. “Although, in one crucial respect, we are unlike any other force of nature: Our power, unlike plate tectonics or volcanic eruptions, is reflexive. It can be used, modified or even withdrawn.”

“It would be wise,” Maslin and Lewis wrote later on the BBC’s website, “to use this immense power to give the best chance for people, and the rest of life, all to flourish.”

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Celebrity nature shows can no longer save the planet on their own.

A day late and a dollar short — much like recent US action on the Paris Climate Accord— Blue Planet II makes its North American debut Saturday next.

That might seem like old news, and it is. We’re living in a global village, after all. It’s a measure, though, of how far-reaching and long-lasting Blue Planet II was for its originating broadcaster that, this past week, BBC announced that it’s commissioned a pair of new documentaries about the challenges facing the environment, along with a new Planet Earth-style nature series, Dynasty, which will follow several groups of animals — lions, African hunting dogs, chimpanzees, tigers and penguins — over a two-year period.

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

Why does this matter?

It matters because, in spite of strong reviews and stellar ratings in the UK — more than 14 million viewers tuned in to see the debut episode of Blue Planet II in the UK, making it the third most-watched program on UK TV in five years — the program’s overarching message of environmental degradation drew criticism in some quarters for preaching. 

Some of the more unforgettable images in entire series, especially in the later episodes, were hard to watch, including heartbreaking footage of albatrosses unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic.

Blue Planet II: aesthetically inspiring, but sobering, too. And thought-provoking — whether we want to be provoked or not.

BPII straw.png

One of BBC’s newly commissioned documentaries, the self-explanatory Drowning in Plastic, will show in stark, simple terms exactly what our disposable culture is doing to the world’s oceans. A second documentary, The Truth About What You Wear, will explain exactly that.

David Attenborough once said that no one wants to be lectured at home about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket and how it’s their fault, but that was in simpler, less dangerous times.
BBC executive Tom McDonald, head of the Beeb’s Natural History Unit — effectively, Sir David’s employer — has told anyone who’ll who’ll listen that, the BBC’s critics aside, it’s not as if BBC1 hasn’t tackled these issue before. It’s just that, thanks to the heady reception accorded Blue Planet II, more people are listening.

“We’re not here to campaign,” McDonald told The Guardian, earlier this month. “We’re not here to lobby. But there is a consensus among scientists that the world is changing. I don’t think there’s anything contentious about what’s happening in the world.”

The reasons why what’s happening is happening could be very contentious, however. No one in a position of authority at the publicly-funded BBC is going to say anything too controversial, but more and more of those same viewers and listeners who help pay the BBC’s bills are having their say, and it’s not always what other people want to hear.

©Audun Rikardsen for The Guardian

©Audun Rikardsen for The Guardian

“The real solution to saving our planet is population control,” one reader posted on The Guardian’s message board. More mouths to feed, more land razed for livestock, more fossil fuels to drive ever-growing industry, more desire and need to boost quarterly profits.

“We are outgrowing the Earth and stripping it bare. Recycling your Starbucks coffee cup and buying loose vegetables just won’t cut it (anymore).”

Famine, flooding, landslides, forest fires and tectonic upheaval — everything from earthquakes generated by fracking and unchecked nuclear testing — are subjecting the Earth to a slow, lingering death.

“We’ve . . . recognized an uncomfortable fact,” Attenborough says in Blue Planet’s closing moments. “[The oceans are] changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history.”

Not preaching. Just fact.

Another fact: Sadly, we can no longer save the world just by watching celebrity nature shows. Activism involves more than simply staring in wonder at an endangered animal on TV. Increasingly, people — some people, anyway — are realizing that humanity must find a quicker, cleaner way to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and do away with conspicuous consumption altogether. It’s a Manhattan Project for the 21st century.



Rediscovered Royal Geographical Society films bring history back to life.

Vintage film reels still have the power to evoke awe, even in a digital age when CGI can virtually create any world the human mind cares to imagine.

That's especially pertinent now, as the Royal Geographical Society is releasing films of scientific explorations it originally sponsored in the early 20th century — the early days of film.

©Royal Geographical Society

©Royal Geographical Society

And while these grainy, scratchy films of old — now available online — may lack the polish and eye-filling spectacle of a 21st-century IMAX production, there’s something undeniably compelling about seeing theactual expeditions, as they happened.

The footage, some of which hasn’t been seen since the days of the Wright Brothers, is being digitized for posterity, so future generations can access them with a single click of a computer keyboard or iPad.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

The footage, much of which was thought to be lost to history, ranges from the first-known aerial footage of Mount Everest — shot by one-time fighter pilot Maj. Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker in 1933, some 20 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain — to British army officer Ralph Bagnold’s crossing thousands of miles of Saharan sands in a town car though Libya in 1932.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

Bagnold wasn’t entirely a wacko suffering the effects of heatstroke; his son Stephen told BBC World News late last week that his father took careful measurements along the way to understand how sand is moved by the wind, and later published several research papers on the subject.

History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it does have a way of foreshadowing the future, often in unexpected and hard-to-predict ways.

Bagnold’s findings in the Libyan Desert would be used by the American and European space agencies in their early explorations of Mars, principally in the design of rovers that can cross Mars’ sands without becoming stuck.

There’s something awe-inspiring about seeing old aerial footage, shot by adventurer Aubery Rickards, of Hadhramaut, dubbed “the Manhattan of the desert,” a region in Yemen home to an civilization of skyscrapers, 10 to 12 stories high, constructed almost entirely of mud,  that date back to the late 15th century and remain inhabited to this day.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

The Royal Geographical Society films are especially compelling today because they shed light on a simpler time, when there were still places to be explored, and existential threats like climate change and mass extinctions were largely unknown.

The earlier films in the RGS collection reflect a brighter, more hopeful world at the time, Nottingham University professor Mike Heffernan told BBC World’s Pallab Ghosh this past weekend. The heady optimism and spirit of adventure shown in the films would prove a marked contrast to the desolation of Europe after the two world wars.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG     

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG


Explorers Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff first journeyed through Bhutan and Tibet in 1933, Heffernan noted, the same year James Hilton wrote his book The Lost Horizon.
Lost Horizon introduced the concept of ‘Shangri-La,’ Heffernan told BBC News, “this perfect place . . . a mountain kingdom, a vestigial world of peace and harmony, the world so obviously left behind by the industrial warfare they’d gone through.”

Past is not always perfect, but it can sometimes point to a better future. If only by reminding us of what could’ve been.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

What if Indiana Jones was wrong? Scientists debate recent fossil findings.

Two recent fossil discoveries have prompted a radical change of thinking in scientific circles. That’s the fast headline, anyway. A closer examination of subsequent controversies — not every scientist holds the findings in the same esteem — suggests that, unlike say mathematics or physics, palaeontology is open to different interpretations. Nothing is exact. And that opens a whole other can of worms, metaphorically speaking: We may never know the answer to the big questions.

This past week, the journal Nature reported that a cat-sized fossil discovered in Scotland  ( could be the prime candidateas our common dinosaur ancestor. If true, that would fly in the face of a century of dinosaur classification.

Weeks earlier, fossilized remains discovered on the Hudson Bay coast of Quebec were judged to be the earliest findings of their kind ever found — proof, in other words, that life on Earth has been around a lot longer than anyone realized and that, furthermore, evolution happened in the blink of an eye.

A blink of an eye is about as long as it took for the doubters to weigh in — in part because no one, not the least palaeontologists who’ve devoted their entire careers to studying dinosaurs’ family tree, wants to be told that some of their most cherished beliefs about evolutionary history are dead wrong.

Huge plant-eating sauropods like the Brontosaurus have traditionally been classified with meat-eating theropods like the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex, even though there are key skeletal differences between the two groups — itself a sign that the entire classification system may be flawed.

©Field Museum, Chicago

©Field Museum, Chicago

The doubters are determined to have their say, though. The experts are divided, as the old expression goes.

The Scottish findings, these doubters say, amount to little more than fake news — at best an overreaction motivated by good but wrong-headed intentions, at worst a thinly disguised ploy to grab easy headlines and boost burgeoning careers.

The latest findings that the Scottish big-cat-sized creature, Saltopus, is the closest to what our hypothetical common ancestor might have looked like, are themselves little more than hypothesis, according to Max Langer, a palaeontologist at the University of Säo Paulo in Brazil who is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on dinosaur research.

At stake is the traditionally accepted notion that the oldest, most revealing fossils are to be found in the Southern Hemisphere, not the the Northern.

Matt Baron, a graduate student at Cambridge University who led the three-year dino project in the UK, said that while it will never be possible to pinpoint the origin of dinosaurs with any degree of certainty, his findings have raised new questions about the Northern Hemisphere possibly being the origin of humankind’s dinosaur ancestors.

“It may just be that dinosaurs originated in Scotland,” he told The Guardian newspaper.

Without getting too complicated about it — the earlier Quebec findings, for example, hint that life may have originated long before the break-up of the continents into northern and southern hemispheres, as depicted in Scottish geologist Iain Stewart’s 2011 BBC documentary series Rise of the Continents

(Recommended viewing, by the way; Stewart is the David Attenborough of geological filmmaking and a respected evolutionary thinker in his own right.)

For many palaeontologists, the idea that dinosaurs may have originated in Scotland has about as much veracity as the notion that Nessie is out their in Loch Ness somewhere, still terrorizing locals in small boats. 

Baron’s findings, coupled with similar studies sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, suggests that scientists’ classification of dinosaur ancestors into two specific groups — a belief held since the 1880s — may need a major rethink. There are also suggestions that many of the earliest dinosaurs may have had feathers as well as scales, and that the original precursor of today’s mammals may have been an omnivore, not a carnivore.

©Iain Stewart, BBC

©Iain Stewart, BBC

Baron told The Guardian that he did not come by his conclusions lightly.

“We didn’t want to be these palaeontologists who told the world that Diplodocus and Brontosaurus weren’t dinosaurs,” he said. “We’d be like the guys who said Pluto isn’t a planet.”

For a more clinical take, follow the link to an informative piece by science writer Evan Gough at Universe Today:

Planet Earth II: A clarion call to action, or a threat to wildlife in its own right? You decide.

By most accounts, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II was 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 prsitine, untamed wilderness few will hve 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 revent 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, veteran BBC Springwatch presenter 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, in other words.

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 actually 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 Zoologicial Society of London and the World Wide Fund for Nature’s 2016 Living Wildlife Report found that there was a 60 percent decline in veterbrate 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 glace, 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 veterbrates is due to ourinsatiable 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 conciously avoids lectures in his films because, “no one wants to be told the natural world is going to hell in a hand basket, 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 dosereality, 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 isshowing 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.


Photography: People's Choice Award finalists

In the beginning, some 50 years ago, the inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards featured just three categories and 500 entries. BBC Wildlife Magazine was known simply as Animals, and a young David Attenborough was on hand to present the first award, to C.V.R. Dowdeswell, for a portrait of an owl.

C.V.R. Dowdeswell (right) accepts inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award from David Attenborough in 1965.

C.V.R. Dowdeswell (right) accepts inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award from David Attenborough in 1965.

London’s Natural History Museum signed on in 1984, and that’s where the competition stands today — just 10 days before the entry deadline expires for the 2017 edition.

The winning photographers — plural — are awarded pride of place in a museum exhibition. Perhaps more important, the museum sponsors a travelling exhibition that tours the world throughout the year, providing the kind of exposure most nature photographers can only dream about.

Today, there are tens of thousands of entries in numerous categories, submitted from some 95 countries worldwide.

Judging is subjective, of course, which is why one of the most high-profile, sought-after categories is the self-explanatory People’s Choice Award, in which everyday shutterbugs and nature buffs — you, for example — have a say.

The London Natural History Museum recently shortlisted 25 finalists from some 50,000 entries.  The winning image will appear on BBC’s web site, and in an upcoming issue of BBC Wildlife.

Here are a handful that jumped out at me — my personal Top 10, if you will.

Your choices may be quite different, of course — that’s why they call it the People’s Choice Award — but these are the ones that touched me personally. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of these takes the top award  when voting closes in January.

A Mother’s Hand

Alain Mafart Renodier, France

©Alain Mafart Renodier

Mafart Renodier was on a winter visit to Japan's Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park when he took this photograph of a sleeping baby Japanese macaque, its mother's hand covering its head protectively. (BBC)


Hitching a Ride

Daisy Gilardini, Canada-Switzerland

©Daisy Gillardini

Gilardini took this image of a polar bear cub escaping deep snow by hitching a ride on its mother’s back in Manitboa’s Wapusk National Park, last March, during the early spring thaw — if minus 50 can be called a thaw.


Opportunistic Croc

Bence Mate, Hungary

©Bence Mate

Though this image was taken from the relative safety of a hide, Mate told BBC it was chilling to see the deadly focused eyes of this four metre (13 foot) Nile crocodile. This croc image was captured in the Zimanga Private Game Reserve, South Africa.


The Stare of Death

Johan Kloppers, South Africa

©Johan Kloppers

Kloppers spotted a wildebeest calf shortly after it was born in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. He did not known it then but he would witness its death later that same day, after the wildebeest herd walked past a pride of lions and was taken unawares.


Monkey Ball

Thomas Kokta, Germany

©Thomas Kokta

Cold temperatures on Shodoshima Island, Japan, can prompt snow monkeys to gather together in balls, for warmth. Kokta snapped this image from a tree.



Bernd Wasiolka, Germany

©Bernd Wasiolka

Wasiolka encountered a large lion pride at a waterhole in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. One of the two males spray-marked the branches of a nearby tree. Later, Wasiolka told BBC, two females sniffed the markings and for a brief moment adopted a near identical posture.


Colorado Red

Annie Katz, United States

©Annie Katz

Katz spotted this Colorado red fox in her neighbour's field on a clear January day in Aspen, Colorado. The light was perfect, she recalled. She took the photo as the fox approached her, seemingly looking right into her camera.



Rudi Hulshof, South Africa

©Rudi Hulshof

Hulshof wanted a way capture the uncertain future of the southern white rhino, due to poaching. He anticipated this moment, he told BBC, when two rhinos would walk past each other in Welgevonden Game Reserve, South Africa. Their passing close together in opposite directions created this silhouette effect and the illusion of a two-headed rhino.


Breakfast Time

Cari Hill, New Zealand

©Cari Hill

Shortly after purchasing the Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya, the owners learned the only remaining Rothschild's giraffes in the country were at risk, as their sole habitat was being subdivided into smallholdings. Thery established a breeding programme to reintroduce the Rothschild's giraffe back into the wild. Today, guests can enjoy visits from resident giraffes in search of a breakfast treat.


Rainbow Wings

Victor Tyakht, Russia

©Victor Tyakht

From the museum notes: The bird's wing acts as a diffraction grating — a surface structure with a repeating pattern of ridges or slits. The structure causes the incoming light rays to spread out, bend and split into spectral colours, producing this shimmering rainbow effect.


The Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards are co-sponsored and produced by the Natural History Museum, in London. 

Voting for the People's Choice Award closes Jan. 10. You can cast your own vote here, by following this link:

An exhibition of this year’s winners will be on display at London's Natural History Museum until Sept. 10.