Planet Earth

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.



So you want to be a wildlife filmmaker? These are the stories of the people who made ‘Dynasties.’

A change of pace doesn’t always mean faster. Dynasties’ five hour-long life stories of five individual animals have now aired in the US, following their BBC One debut late last year, and it was evident from the start — each hour-long episode was filmed in a single location over a two- to four-year period — would have a different rhythm and pace than traditional nature programs.

Dynasties was always going to be different from earlier David Attenborough spectacles like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. By focusing on a single family group of animals over an extended period of time, Dynasties would bend and twist to the rhythms of life, and pack a real emotional punch. Survival of the fittest is never more urgent than when it affects individual animals viewers have grown to know and care about, even if only for a moment. There were times when Dynasties was both profound and poignant, and hard to watch. Life in the wild is a struggle, and there are never any guarantees that the noble — whether lion or penguin — will win out of the ignoble in the end.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

(New editions of Planet Earth and Blue Planet are on the drawing board, by the way, following the next in the BBC-Attenborough canon, One Planet: Seven Worlds. Film composer Hans Zimmer confirmed earlier this week that he’ll be composing the theme for One Planet, as he did for Planet Earth II; no word yet if Radiohead will follow, as they did on Blue Planet II).

If any of Dynasties was hard to watch for the viewer, imagine what it must’ve been like for the cameramen — and women — sound technicians, location managers and field producers who followed each family group for months and years at a time, for the sense of achievement, if not the pay exactly.

Their stories, and the rollercoaster of emotions that rocketed them from highs to lows with an almost capricious regularity, form the core of The Making of Dynasties, which will air this weekend exclusively on BBC America (Sat., 9E/8C).

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the original program itself, The Making of Dynasties’ doesn’t dwell on the obvious — the bugs, the heat or, in the case of Antarctica, the cold — but rather the emotional, inner story of what it’s like to, say,  witness an African wild dog grow from infancy to become a strapping, adolescent would-be hunter and clan leader, only to stand by helplessly while it’s snatched, screaming, by a gargantuan, Antediluvian crocodile after pausing at a riverbank to drink.

It’s hard not to admire the physical and mental toughness of these filmmakers as they spend long days and nights outdoors in places that haven’t changed in millions of years in some cases — there’s no room service on the ice sheets of the Antarctic Peninsular, or in Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, for that matter.

There’s Will Lawson, field producer of the Antarctic episode about penguins, rocked to his core at the sheer power and rugged beauty of the Earth’s most remote region, admitting softly to the camera, “I am absolutely speechless,” and 10,000 kilometre away, in Senegal on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Rosie Thomas, producer-director of the episode about chimpanzees, struggling with her emotions as she admits. “It’s heartbreaking to see this chimp that was so powerful has just become so weak.”

Many nature programs, even those that claim to take themselves seriously, make the mistake of anthropomorphizing their subjects — deliberately giving animals human characteristics — in the belief that will make the program an easier sell with viewers.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As this hour of Dynasties shows, for the filmmakers themselves, these animals proved relatable in their own right, on their own terms. It’s easy to relate to any living creature when their very lives are at stake. There’s no need to Disney-fy the story. When the aging leader of a chimpanzee clan vanishes for several days after being badly injured in a fight with a younger, would-be alpha male, cameraman John Brown is shaken to his core.“We saw him not only nearly lose his position in the hierarchy but we saw him nearly lose his life,” he says to the camera. “The injuries he sustained in the last coup would have been enough to kill me. . . . 

“We’re still looking.”

The confessional to the camera, a type of aside used as a stylistic, storytelling device, is a tried and true staple of reality TV. Watching Dynasties, though — not just The Making of Dynasties — but the entire series, is a reminder of how much more trenchant and relevant documentary is than reality-TV. Here, the personal confessionals really mean something.

Seeing these cameramen and women in isolation, sharing their innermost thoughts, creates a sense of intimacy, emotions close to the surface for all to see. The Making of Dynasties provides depth and added  perspective to what was already a rich and deeply textured series.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“It’s tough, actually,” Nick Lyon, director of the African painted wolves episode, admits. “Because you spend day in and day out with these animals, for months and months and months, and their lives become very important to you. The stories can be incredible but it’s actually an emotional rollercoaster to see what’s happening with them.”

There are many moments in The Making of Dynasties that will surprise even those viewers who hung onto every word of every episode. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most dramatic revelations of life behind the scenes emerge in the Antarctica episode, where three intrepid filmmakers, Lawson and camera operators Stefan Christmann and Lindsay McCrae,  spent an entire Antarctic winter — in months of round-the-clock outdoor darkness — hunkered down inside an isolated German research station, Neumayer Station III, with just half a dozen German researchers to keep them company. A violent polar storm descends on them, on a scale witnessed by few human beings. Antarctic storms are more violent and powerful than any hurricane. There were times, Lawson admitted, when the sheer noise and violent stresses against a German-made structure designed to withstand just about anything, made him think the entire research station was about to come apart at the seams, taking them with it.

“We were told the likelihood of us being evacuated [in the event of an emergency] was less than 10 percent,” Lawson told the BBC’s RadioTimes. “So, yes, that massive level of isolation was very apparent.”

The best nature programs give voice to endangered animals that can’t speak for themselves. As The Making of Dynasties shows, the conservationists and filmmakers  behind the camera have some interesting stories of their own. The Making of Dynasties ends, not with the Northern Lights but the Southern Lights, as seen from Antarctica.

“That is absolutely amazing,” Will Lawson says, nearly overcome by emotion in the black pitch of the Antarctic night, as clouds of green and amber light play overhead. “Oh my God.”

And how.

Lawson’s choice: On penguins and filming ‘Dynasties,’ when is there a right time to intervene?

Not so long ago, I asked the producer of a prestigious,  award-winning series of wildlife programs if he was ever tempted to intervene if he and his camera crew witnessed a tragedy unfolding that they could somehow stop.

It’s the first law of journalism that the reporter must never become part of the story. Objectivity counts for everything. No professional, self-respecting journalist can allow themselves to be seen taking one side over the other.

The wildlife filmmaker faces a similar if not identical dilemma. They’re there to capture nature at its most raw and untouched, and ideally the film crew is meant to be invisible, as if not there at all.

His answer surprised me.

“Yes,” he said.

For the simple reason that, by their mere presence, a camera crew has already intruded on a natural situation. So it’s their responsibility — an obligation, some might say — to help solve a crisis if it was of their making.

This is not a question of semantics. It comes up with wildlife filmmakers all the time. (In this case, I had asked about a nature film I had seen recently, in which a lioness with newborn cubs suddenly moves her litter to a new den she presumes to be safer, despite the presence of a cobra at the den she’s moving into. The producer worried she may have been spooked into moving her cubs to a less safe den by the presence of a camera crew. They had no way of knowing.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The more prestigious production houses, like BBC’s Natural History Unit — makers of the David Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, Planet Earth and Blue Planet — have a strict code of ethics, which is rooted in non-interference.

The intention, always, is to let nature take its course.

That directive was sorely tested in Emperor, the climactic episode of the Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, which makes its US debut this weekend on BBC America (Sat. 9E/P, 8C). Filmmaker Will Lawson pulled off a first, following a  colony of emperor penguins for an entire year, including — obviously — the bitter, cold, dark Antarctic winter.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

At one point during filming, Lawson discovered a small group of penguins they had been following, chicks in tow, had inadvertently stranded themselves in an ice gully. The filmmakers realized that if they did not intervene, the penguins — every single one of them — would die. Intervention in this case was to dig a gully and ice ramp, providing a way for the penguins could escape inevitable death that, rather than being a case of nature taking its course, seemed more like a capricious twist of fate — not nature at all but rather simple bad luck.

Lawson chose as my producer friend had chosen: He knowingly broke the “cardinal rule” of non-interference, rationalizing that the penguins would find the exit ramp on their own, and if they didn’t … well.

It was not a straightforward decision, “by any stretch of the imagination,” he admitted in an interview with ITV’s Lorraine Kelly on the breakfast program Lorraine! last November, shortly after the episode first aired in the UK on BBC One.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

In a situation like that, he said, you have to look at the facts in front of you. Which is what he did. Attenborough himself would have done the same, BBC insiders have since said. The penguin episode makes its US debut this weekend, and will arguably reach the largest audience Dynasties has yet seen.

“Film crews have to capture events as they unfold, whatever their feelings,” Attenborough himself noted. (Programming alert: A special hour-long “Making of” program, hosted by Attenborough, will air exclusively on BBC America in 10 days time, on Feb. 23, and will feature behind-the-scenes moments from all five Dynasties programs, including the penguins in Antarctica.)

“I know it’s natural,” Lawson said of his to-do-or-not-to-do dilemma, “but it’s bloody hard to watch.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Decisions are never easy, and there will always be those who disagree, no matter how one decides. An informal poll on YouTube found that while 700 viewers agreed with Lawson’s choice, 40 disagreed. (“You’re not intervening, guys,” one assenting viewer posted. “You’re doing a very humane thing. You’re helping poor creatures get a second chance in life.”)

It’s contrary to the better angels of our nature to allow animals to die needlessly. And that’s as true of penguins in Antarctica as it is of any living creature anywhere else. Our job as a species should be to act as stewards for the planet. After all, as more than a few viewers have noted on various Dynasties message boards, we have caused so much death and destruction — inadvertent or otherwise — that helping the inhabitants of this planet, even if unnatural, seems the least we can do.

Of painted wolves and African wild dogs: ‘Dynasties’ most emotionally wrenching hour yet.

Life in the wild is hard. We know this.

From the first hour, the David Attenborough-narrated nature program Dynasties has been unflinching in its depiction of survival.

Even so, the fourth episode in this exquisite — and intensely personal — series, airing this weekend in the US for the first time (BBC America, AMC Networks, Sat. 9E/P, 8C), is harrowing and emotionally wrenching. The episode Painted Wolf, filmed along the banks of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park, a remote, relatively untrammelled region of wilderness area in Zimbabwe, made director and cameraman Nick Lyon physically ill at one point, as he stood by helplessly as a painted wolf pup, part of a family group the filmmaking team had followed for two years, was grabbed by a crocodile from a riverbank.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Painted wolves — once known as African wild dogs, before conservation groups decided that the name “wild dogs” was unhelpful in raising awareness of the plight of one of Africa’s most rare and critically endangered predators — are social animals. For the purposes of storytelling, the filmmakers followed two groups in rival territories. As the program begins, one of the competing groups is led by a wise but aging matriarch, nicknamed Tait; the other group is led by her estranged daughter Blacktip, who is young and healthy and looking to stake out her own territory. Murder and mayhem ensue, in arguably the most bloody and brutal hour in Dynasties’ entire run.

Complicating the already complicated family entanglements are other predators — lions, hyenas and the prehistoric, monstrously sized crocodile that caused filmmaker Lyon such distress. Predators are conditioned by nature to kill other predators when and where they can, in part to alleviate competition for a limited and often dwindling food supply.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The wrenching scene, in which one of the pups is snatched unsuspecting by the paw and dragged into the water, flailing helplessly, made Lyon, a veteran cameraman and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, sick.

“When you follow animals as long as we did,” he told The Telegraph, via BBC, “you get to know them and care what happens to them.

“It becomes an emotional experience when you see one of the characters having a bad time, or having real success. I loved the puppies. I remember when they were out of the den for the first time at just three weeks old. They were so tiny, with oversized heads, that would overbalance on their front legs.”

Lyon described the rivalry between mother and estranged daughter as Shakespearian, both in scale and in the intensity of its rivalry.

From a natural history point-of-view — and from the perspective of the casual viewer who watches nature programs from time to time — the hour is a reminder of just how challenging life in the wild really is, even in the most ideal of climatic and environmental conditions, and the fine margins between life and death. It’s hard enough to survive, let alone thrive. It’s impossible to watch Painted Wolf and not be moved by what’s unfolding on the screen.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Away from the screen, if real life, painted wolves, African wild dogs, Cape hunting dogs or whatever you care to call them, face an uncertain future. As a nation, Zimbabwe is beset by genuine real-world problems that involve real-world hardship for countless people, problems that range from poverty, drought and hunger to corruption, bad governance and a failing economy. As pristine as the Mana Pools wilderness appears to the outside eye, the entire ecosystem is in peril, besieged on all sides. It’s hard to imagine how even an adaptable charismatic animal like the painted wolf can cope, and yet cope they must if they are to survive as a species.

Lyon estimates he and his camera crew drove through some 82,000 kms — 51,000 miles — of miombo woodlands while tracking Tait, Blacktip and their respective aunts, uncles, offspring and more distant relatives. The insights they gleaned along the way were extraordinary.

In its three outings so far during its US debut, Dynasties  has established itself as a unique, compelling and hypnotic document of natural history, even by the lofty standards of other such BBC Attenborough programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. Tough to watch, yes, but unforgettable at times.

Small is good: How community-based micro-efforts give the environment reason for hope.

So much for digital detox. I return from the tropics — just in time for CoP24 — and find little has changed. Climate change is now a full-on climate emergency, but then if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve known that for some time now — long before Mango Circus Freak was elected Leader of the Free World by 63 million low-information voters and climate deniers.

It’s hard to find light in all this darkness — Sir David Attenborough has certainly done his part, even at age 92, with his stirring Planet Earth and Blue Planet films — but as Jane Goodall reminds us in her self-reflective book Reason for Hope, there are always glimmers. We just have to look for them.

And behind every glimmer of light, there’s invariably a small group of committed difference makers who swim against the tide of apathy and willful ignorance, working their hardest to preserve, protect and restore their own small corner of planet Earth.

One such glimmer of hope exists in Mumbai, India — one of the most benighted, overcrowded and polluted metropolises on the entire planet — where, three years ago, activist lawyer Afroz Shah convinced Mumbai residents to clean up pollution-choked Versova Beach. The cynics said he was a fool, a latter-day hippy and would-be cult leader looking to take advantage of gullible locals and convince well-to-do, guilt-laden outsiders to part with their donor money.

He proved the cynics wrong.

versova tweet.jpg

Versova Beach remains a success story today, three years later, albeit the success is mixed. Versova is perhaps not the Utopian ideal and semi-permanent breeding colony for sea turtles some hoped for in the campaign’s early days, but despite the return of some garbage — owing to dumping in surrounding creeks around Mumbai that feed into the sea, Versova today is nowhere near the environmental calamity it was in 2015. (Nature has shown over and again that it doesn’t take much for an ecosystem to recover, given enough time and the concerted efforts of ordinary, everyday people to clean up their act, but many activist organizations prefer not to accentuate that fact, fearing — perhaps quite rightly — that misleading information coupled with willful misinterpretation will lead to complacency and the wrong-headed idea that, no matter what we do to the environment, it will always find a way to recover.)

Versova Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.10.51 PM.png

Shah has been in the news again lately, in part because he’s turned his attention to a 17-km stretch of Mumbai’s Mithi River. As the activist who led the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) campaign to remove more than 5.7 million kg. of waste over 90 weeks starting in 2015, he notes that some two million Mumbai residents live along the banks of the Mithi River, choking the river with everything from human waste to everyday household trash. 

Shah has been involved in three previous river rejuvenation projects and has been a featured speaker at NGO environmental conferences in Washington DC, and other cities around the world. He estimates that cleaning even that relatively short stretch of the Mithi River will take five years, but it can be done. Of that,  he’s certain.

“The water at all these places is clean,” he told the Times of India this past week. “But (it’s) full of solid waste like plastic, that ultimately floats down to the beaches and oceans.”

In an echo of Attenborough’s series-defining caution in Blue Planet II, Shah says plastic is the real problem.

Versova Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.11.10 PM.png

If we can somehow find a way to wean ourselves off plastic, planet Earth might have a chance.

In the meantime, it’s the small, grassroots community organizations working at the local, grassroots level — not the bureaucracy-heavy NGO multinationals with their high media profiles and slick advertising campaigns — that seem to be making the most difference. Micro is often better than macro, where environmental programs are concerned. It’s those small, community organized efforts that, time and time again, provide tiny glimmers of light that give the wild world reason for hope.

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.

2018 Bird Photographer of the Year winners: More than just pretty pictures of our feathered friends.

Not all flamingos were created pink. Nature photographer Pedro Jarque Krebs, from Peru, won the 2018 Bird Photographer of the Year award — the ornithological equivalent of Best-in-Show — this past weekend for his colourful image of American flamingos preening in a lake mist. Yes, there were splashes of pink, but the predominant colour was a rich, vibrant red. Pink flamingos may still be a thing, but in Krebs’ image,  flamingos were allowed to show off their richer, more vibrant shades of vermillion.

Admittedly, Krebs’ work has relied heavily on digital manipulation and Photoshop in the past, but it’s the final image that counts. At least, in this case, the contest judges thought so.

Also, Krebs has had a reputation in the past for using captive animals in his portraits, often under less-than-ideal conditions. (Not all nature-photography award contests are so forgiving; judging committees at many of the top, prestigious awards value authenticity — wild is wild — over the final image, any day of the week.)

All this aside, Krebs’ winning image is certainly arresting.

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru


The Czech Republic’s Petr Bambousek was cited for Outstanding Portfolio, based in large part on his capture of a roseate spoonbill — genuinely wild —  preening its feathers in a pool of standing water.

Young Bird Photographer of the Year — an award of increasing significance, given the precarious state of the environment in these present, turbulent times — was awarded to Johan Carlberg of Sweden, for his stylistically fetching composition of a great crested grebe — also preening! — during golden hour.

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

Best Portrait awards went to nature photographers from Italy (Saverio Gatti, with the gold medal), the Netherlands (Roelof Molenaar, silver) and Sweden again (Ivan Sjogren, bronze).

Other category winners hailed from France, Greece, Spain, Kuwait and Singapore — proving, if nothing else, that bird photography is a global pastime, and not just the private hobby of a handful of well-to-do bird enthusiasts and world travellers from North America and the UK.

The Bird Photographer of the Year awards are managed by the UK-based peer group Nature Photographers Ltd. and the British Trust for Ornithology, a spiritual cousin of the US’s National Audubon Society.

More and more, as Canadian polar explorer, trained biologist and 2012 Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Paul Nicklen told The Sunday Observer this past weekend, nature photography — or conservation photography, as some prefer to call it — is on the front line in the social-media battle for hearts and minds.

It will be hard if not impossible for humanity to survive, let alone thrive, on a desolate, despoiled planet — that seems obvious — but the present-day toxic mix of greed, denial, militant ignorance and an almost wilful disregard of basic facts means the argument has to be made over and over again.

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

David Attenborough can’t get the message out on his own — not at his age, and not with so many deep-pocketed, big-money interests arrayed against him. Big Oil, the Koch brothers, Fox News and others still perpetuate the belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax, intended to bring western economies to their knees, even as he evidence suggests otherwise and entire ecosystems collapse around us.

That’s why my favourite category in every nature/conservation photography contest award I can think of is that which celebrates wild animals in their natural  environment.

And so it is with this year’s Bird Photographer of the Year awards.

Salvador Colvée, from Spain, won the Birds in the Environment category for his striking image of an ostrich wandering the crest of a sand dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert — the world’s oldest, in geological terms — not far from the aptly named Skeleton Coast. The cold-water Benguela Current from Antarctica follows the Atlantic coast from from South Africa to Angola, creating early-morning sea mists that stretch as far as 500 kms. inland across an arid, deceptively barren desert landscape, nurturing mosses and lichens that in turn feed a surprisingly complex ecosystem that includes, yes, ostriches, as well as large mammals like oryx, desert-adapted elephants and even the increasingly rare, hard-to-spot desert lion.

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

This is what the award-winning images in the  Bird Photographer of the Year contest are all about: showing nature in all its beauty, but also showing its hardiness and resilience in the face of existential threats. After all, threats don’t get much more existential than climate change and species extinction.

Another wildlife-in-its-natural-habitat image: Nature photographer Richard Shucksmith, from the UK, won a pair of awards, including the popular People’s Choice award, for his over- and underwater image of a northern gannet, the same kind of image that propelled Nicklen’s early career as a photographer, while at the same boosting his profile and spreading the wider message about the need to preserve what remains of  the world’s embattled polar regions.

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

Nicklen’s above- and below-water split-screen images from Antarctica remain the gold standard against which all similar images are judged today.

Despite some 22 assignments for National Geographic and a new book (Born to Ice, published by the high-end, German-based specialty publisher teNeues,, Nicklen would prefer to be known for his on-the-ground conservation efforts and his co-founding of the ocean conservation group SeaLegacy with his partner, conservation photographer, environmentalist and frequent National Geographic speaker Cristina Mittermeier, than as an accomplished photographer. One is a calling; the other, a life’s mission. SeaLegacy is dedicated to the idea that future generations won’t have to know the world’s wild wonders solely through photographic images from a distant, fading past.

That’s why these contests — and the positive image they present — are critical to our understanding of Planet Earth and what’s at stake.

These aren’t just pretty pictures of birds. They’re a reflection of life itself.



Aug. 1, 2018: This year’s ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ earliest date on record.

As of Wednesday, we good people of Planet Earth will have burned through our annual budget of natural resources earlier than in any of the 48 years the environmental research group Global Footprint Network has kept records.

“Earth Overshoot Day” is the day on which human beings’ yearly demand on natural resources exceeds that which the planet environment can renew on its own.

To put that date — Aug. 1 — in perspective, Earth Overshoot Day fell on Dec. 29th in 1970, the first year researchers began keeping track.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Earth’s growing — and increasingly unsustainable — population is part of the problem. But not the only problem. Growing birthrates in the developing world, where the population of people under 30 exceeds 65% in many sub-Saharan countries across Africa, for example, are not the key factor some might think.

The real culprit is consumption, in particular consumption in the developed world. Especially the Northern Hemisphere. Researchers determined that if the entire world’s population consumed resources at the rate as people who live in the U.K. do, Earth Overshoot Day would actually fall on May 8, three months earlier.

Consumption is only part of the story. The Earth’s ability to renew natural resources is affected not just by how quickly we use the resources we have, but by the Earth’s ability to replace those resources.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

The global equation also has to take into consideration such factors as soil erosion, water shortages and that oft-mentioned bugaboo climate change, which some prominent thinkers — if “think” is the right word here— and national leaders continue to insist is a Chinese hoax.

(Ironically, China has been one of the leaders of late in battling climate change and renewing the environment, in part because China’s environmental record of the 1990s’ period of economic growth has proven to be catastrophic, as well as unsustainable, from the air people breath to the soil they use to grow food, to the rivers and waterways that irrigate those agricultural fields.)

China today is doing its level best to prove that no problem is insurmountable, not even  environmental destruction.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Of course, having an obstreperous, obstructionist, militantly ignorant political administration in charge of the U.S., by far the world’s most voracious consumer of natural resources, isn’t going to help the big picture, but it’s interesting that China is among the players looking to lead rather than follow on climate change. It can’t all be left to Denmark, Sweden and the E.U.

Our carbon footprint is inextricably tied to energy efficiency. Clean energy is not the solution, the experts say, but it’s a start. (Tearing up the Paris Agreement and doubling down on fossil fuel is just nuts, of course, but there you have it: We live in the world, and Trump’s world is thus.)

One of the problems in getting climate deniers to see the big picture is our political leaders’ seeming inability to think in terms of the long-range future. Perhaps it’s something hard-wired into our DNA since the time of the caver, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of the post-industrial age of computers and artificial intelligence, but as human beings we seem to have a fundamental inability to recognize incremental changes. Last year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on Aug. 2nd; this year it is just one day earlier. What difference, a doubter might well ask, does a single day make in the grand scheme of things?

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

It’s the same argument — used by many, including people who should know better — that asks how a worldwide temperature change of just one or two degrees Celsius could possibly make a difference to the world’s climate — but that’s not how science, or compound interest for that matter, works.

Hundreds of people may have died in wildfires this summer all the way from Greece to Northern California, and countless more may have perished in catastrophic floods in Japan and Laos, or died of heat exhaustion in southern Quebec, but as long as we still have food in the refrigerator, how can there possibly be a looming food crisis?

The Global Footprint Network equates the situation to planning the family budget. We’re leveraging the Earth’s future resources — putting it on the credit card, in other words — to live well in the present, all the while digging a deeper hole of ecological debt.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Planet Earth isn’t the World Bank, though. Resources are finite. Tapping into an imaginary overdraft, based on human ingenuity and creative ideas — “scientists will get us out of it somehow; they always do” — is a hell of a gamble to take when the very future of humanity is at stake.

We’re gobbling up our natural resources at a faster rate than the Earth can replenish them, and that is a problem not even one of David Attenborough’s soul-stirring nature programs will be able to fix.

There are things we can do on a micro, small-picture level. Eat less beef. Reduce what we throw away. Find alternatives for plastic. Go all in on recycling, no matter what the complainers and detractors say. Use less energy. Cycle, don’t drive. Consume less, think more.

Don’t just think local — think global as well.


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.



‘You don’t have to work hard for the beauty:’ Sir David Attenborough on filming ‘Blue Planet II.’

A metre-long worm with dagger-like teeth rising from the coral reef. A cuttlefish hypnotizing its prey by turning itself into an underwater lava lamp. Dead-eyed sharks gorging on spawning grouper fish, like an undersea adaptation of The Walking Dead. Just another night for Blue Planet II — in the U.K., that is.

Blue Planet II won’t bow in Canada and the U.S. until spring, 2018. BBC America won’t be more specific than that, at least for the time being. BBC Earth, the tepid Canadian version at any rate, will follow suit.

Even though it hasn’t aired yet in North America, the David Attenborough-narrated follow-up to 2001’s The Blue Planet is already making waves, so to speak.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

And not just in the UK, where the first episode went into the record books as the most watched program of 2017 so far, when it debuted on Oct. 29. 

BBC’s marquee wildlife series was seen by more than 14.1 million viewers the week it aired, according to UK media reports. That’s including repeats, streaming and PVR viewing in the week following the initial broadcast, but still, that’s a telling number.

The UK Daily Mail reported this past weekend that Blue Planet is such a hit in China that it slowed that country’s Internet.

Yes, consider the source — the Daily Mail is the UK intellectual equivalent of the New York Post, but still: Even the idea that Sir David Attenborough, who the Daily Mail described tongue-in-cheek as “the most viewed creature on Earth,” could slow China’s internet service — owing to all those downloads, see — is a conversation starter in itself. Blue Planet II has already had a profound effect, in other words, even if it has yet to air in the land of The Walking Dead and NBC Sunday Night Football.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The world’s oceans — one of planet Earth’s last enduring natural resources — are in serious trouble,  environmentally and climate-wise, and yet they remain home to many of Earth’s most enduring, eye-opening mysteries.

Judging from comments on Weibo, a Chinese social media site modelled after Twitter, Blue Planet is having a profound effect in China, where comments range from, “I watched with my mouth hanging open,” and, “it’s a profound humanistic appeal to protect our environment,” to, “I’ve been crying all the time … it’s just so beautiful.”

Writing in the Guardian this past weekend, media critic Stuart Heritage wrote that BBC’s wildlife sequel has it all — profundity, wonder and trippy visuals. Crucially, he added, it transports viewers to a tranquil place, “untouched by the awfulness above the ocean.”

There’s something more at play, too.

“I can remember with uncharacteristic clarity watching the first episode of The Blue Planet,” Heritage added, “thanks to its context. BBC One broadcast the first episode at 9pm on September 12th, 2001, and it felt . . . necessary. Graphic images of the Twin Towers in flames were on the front of every newspaper. Television schedules were shoved to the wall in favour of rolling news coverage. It was the topic of every conversation, no matter where you went. The anxiety of the moment was suffocating.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“And then the clouds broke. At roughly the same time that most broadcasters were overcooking 9/11 coverage, setting clips of the attack to a Gounod oratorio, BBC One treated us to the most soothing thing imaginable. The Blue Planet, with its whispered narration, gently pulsating light and quiet wub-wub noises, was a screensaver. It was a lava lamp. It was the closest that television had ever got to letting you crawl back into the womb, right at a moment when everyone wanted nothing more than to ball themselves up in a duvet and shut the world out.”

We are living in disquieting times once again, even if these times lack the immediacy and emotional hot button of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Blue Planet II, from what I’ve seen of it so far, is unlike anything else on TV. The second episode —  called, appropriately enough, “The Deep” — ventures to the bottom of the ocean, an area we know less about than we do the surface of Mars, and explores where life may have started.

Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor — including a vent in the Atlantic Ocean dubbed “The Lost City” — contain as much life as a tropical rainforest. “Something truly extraordinary is taking place,” Attenborough narrates. “Under extremes of pressure and temperatures, hydrocarbons — the molecules that are the basic component of all living things — are being created spontaneously.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Indeed, Attenborough adds, “many scientists now believe life on Earth may have begun around a vent like this four billion years ago.”

Filming was dangerous — life-threatening, even — on several occasions. In one instance, a  submersible deep dive in Antarctic waters nearly ended in disaster when a leak sprang a less than hour after submerging. Cameraman and producer managed to avert catastrophe by first finding and then plugging the leak with whatever they had at hand.

Then there was the producer who, while swimming in deep waters off South Africa, found himself within arm’s length of a rarely seen species of  octopus, only to be attacked — cameraman and octopus together — by a marauding shark.

Then there gnarly critters like the colourfully named fang tooth fish, which roams the depths, “snapping at anything that moves or glows,” and the sea toad fish, an ocean predator which can transform its fins into feet, like some kind of marine, sub-aquarian superhero villain.

Blue Planet II was four years in the making. It was filmed virtually wherever there are oceans, from Mexico to Japan and New Zealand, with stops at Hornoya Island, Norway; Sipadan, Borneo; Monterey, Calif.; the Sea of Cortez off Mexico; and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef along the way.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit


“The wonder, the knockout quality that you get from the natural world is infinite and never ending,” Attenborough told a gathering of reporters at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association, in Beverly Hills, Calif., back when his Planet Earth was about to change the way many people look at the world. “When you see something for the first time, you are knocked out. It’s extraordinary. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. But when you see it for the second time, you are beginning to understand more about the way (it) works.”

If programs like Blue Planet II have anything more to offer than the original, it has to do both with the increase of scientific knowledge over time and rapid advances in camera technology, Attenborough explained.

“The technology today is amazing. I started in 1954. My first animal, I was then using a clockwork camera, which ran for 90 seconds, and a hundred-foot roll of film, in black-and-white, which we tried to run for two minutes 40 afterwards. You had to change it. We were using lenses that couldn’t give you a closeup of anything beyond about 10 yards away. And, of course, the results were terrible. Thank goodness no one looks at them anymore. But, in 1954, people hadn’t seen giraffes or even heard of giraffes. Even if they were just a herd on the skyline, or a far distance away, people said, ‘Wow, a herd of giraffes, and they are fantastic.  Which, of course, they were. But now, with the increasing complexity and sophistication of the gear we have, we can do anything. We can put a tiny camera down the burrow of an armadillo or in the nest of a bird. We can slow down a hummingbird’s wings so you can see how they move. You can speed up how plants develop. You can film at night. You can film at the bottom of the sea. The range of images you can bring back is simply breathtaking. Year after year, my breath is taken away more and more.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit


There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden. Attenborough would agree.

“The beauty is there,” Attenborough said. “You don’t have to work hard for the beauty, really. Ugly is . . . what is ugly? It’s very odd. You can’t say necessarily an amoeba or a trilobite is beautiful or ugly. I happen to think it’s beautiful, but, in fact, that’s what it is, and that’s what you are dealing with. You are dealing with that funny animal with those eyes, multiple eyes, and a tower on either side. Is it beautiful? I think it’s  absolutely knockout, but it’s up to the viewer to make up their own mind whether it’s beautiful or whether it’s ugly.”

Blue Planet ©James Honeyborne:BBC Natural HIstory UNit.png

Sir David Attenborough on the reason for hope.

He’s been a voice in the wilderness — literally — for six decades.

So it should have been a surprise to no one, detractors and supporters alike, that when David Attenborough faced the room at last weekend’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, he would strike a discordant note.

There is reason for hope, Attenborough told a room more used to hearing how humankind has already passed the the turning point of global destruction.

Planet Earth has never faced so many crises, everything from pollution and overpopulation to wholesale global climate change and the imminent threat of a new mass extinction — which will be planet’s sixth, if the scientists are to be believed.

So it was a shock for many environmentalists to hear the man who has chronicled the lives of Earth’s most remarkable creatures for the better part of a century to sound a note of optimism.

Nearly 20 years ago, primatologist Jane Goodall wrote the book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, an autobiographical odyssey that covered much of the same emotional terrain. Goodall argued in Reason for Hope that young people are more attuned to the natural world than their forebears, and will fight hard to preserve what remains of the natural world.

©Middlesborough Gazette

©Middlesborough Gazette

Attenborough’s argument is much the same — the future of planet Earth lies with its young people, who have the most to lose from a ruined environment — but given how much the planet’s ecosystems have suffered in just the past two decades, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Attenborough is knowingly putting a positive spin on an otherwise hopeless situation. No one wants top fight a battle that’s already lost, after all, and environmental news in 2017is a seemingly relentless parade of horror stories.

Attenborough, 91, told the Edinburgh Festival that he’s detected a “worldwide shift” — his words — in attitudes toward conservation, with voters and leaders in previously skeptical nations seeing the light of day.

The current state of politics in the U.S. is a temporary aberration, he insisted, and flies in the face of what’s happening across Europe, Asia, and Latin and South America. Attenborough likened the emerging consensus in favour of protecting what’s left of the natural world, to the awakening of anti-communist sentiment in eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

©Huffington Post UK

©Huffington Post UK

That consensus, he argued, was reflected in last year’s Paris deal on greenhouse gases. As of now, 195 countries have signed the Paris accord; 160 of those countries have taken the extra step of ratifying the agreement.

The U.S. has signalled its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but anything the U.S. does or does not do is outweighed by signatories like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Canada, Germany and other members of the G20, as well as countless emerging nations around the world.

Attenborough returns to TV screens this fall with Blue Planet II, which those who’ve seen it say will do forBlue Planet, the acclaimed program Attenborough made in 2001, what Planet Earth II did for the originalPlanet Earth.

Programs such as Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and Life on Earth have played a crucial role in raising public awareness, Attenborough told the room, without a hint of self-aggrandizement.

Optimism doesn’t mean the world’s environmental problems are solved, Attenborough noted. Changing attitudes is a good start, though.

@BBC Earth

@BBC Earth

Attenborough’s detractors note that words come easily, and that the world’s largest polluters — the U.S., China, India and Russia — have done little in terms of concrete action to reduce greenhouse gases and our over-reliance on fossil fuel, not to mention the growing stress on the world’s remaining rivers, forests, lakes and oceans. Some ecologists argue that by 2050 — within 35 years — the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans will outweigh the weight of fish. Human beings produce some 500 billion plastic bags and half a trillion plastic bottles each year, some argue, most of which will end up in a landfill and take 400 years to biodegrade.

Coupled with steadily rising population growth — which Attenborough himself has campaigned against — the future looks bleak.

That’s why this may be as good a place as any to end with Attenborough’s own words. (A video link to the full interview follows below.)

©BBC Earth

©BBC Earth

There are indeed signs of hope, Attenborough insisted, much as Jane Goodall argued 20 years ago.

As for whether the turning point has already been crossed, that is something only time itself can judge.

“I spend a lot of time wringing my hands and saying how dreadful it is, that this forest has been obliterated and that sea has been polluted, and whatever,” Attenborough told his audience in Edinburgh. “But there are signs of hope. It’s almost like the way suddenly — to me at any rate — the knocking-over of the Berlin Wall was a surprise. I had no idea that there was this (political) build-up and that suddenly it was going to be the end of an era, politically.

“I have a sense that worldwide — certainly in Europe and certainly China, which we would never have thought before — people are concerned about this. And perhaps, if I may say this, there are people in America, parté Mr. Trump, who don’t accept that human beings can do no wrong and you can simply exterminate the wilderness. There are people who care about the wilderness, in the United States.

©BBC Earth

©BBC Earth

“There has been a worldwide shift, I think, amongst people in general about the concern that there should be for the natural world. I am encouraged more than I have been for quite some time.”

Attenborough has no doubt about the effect natural-history programming such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet have had on popular opinion — not just on BBC in the UK, but globally, around the entire world.

“We have to be careful that not every program that we put out is grinding an axe. We have to also remember that there is joy and delight and beauty and pleasure and excitement in the natural world. This is our bread-and-butter. That’s what it’s about.

“If there was no need to talk about conservation, the happier I would be. We could just relish (the natural world) and enjoy it. But that isn’t the case. If we are responsible, we have to take on this responsibility.”

Reason for hope: Time to celebrate conservation’s successes, as well as challenges.

I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid stories of environmental woe and sturm und drang since starting this blog late last year. There’s enough of that going around.

Besides, those contrarians who don’t believe humans are affecting the environment — the small but noisy and politically influential minority who insist climate change is a fabrication intended to deep-six the coal and fossil fuel industry — are unlikely to change their minds now.

As for the rest, as Sir David Attenborough so aptly put it when defending his sunny-skies view in Planet Earth, no one sitting at home at the end of a long, hard day wants to be told the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that it’s all their fault.

Pessimists often depict conservation efforts — underfunded for the most part, and stretched thin — as a cry in the wilderness, and about as effective.

There are success stories, though.



And the Attenboroughs of the world — not to mention the conservationists themselves — prefer to focus on those stories, rather than warning yet again of imminent threat of a mass extinction. The planet has lost 58% of its birds, mammals, fish and reptiles since 1970 — this, according to a recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and London Zoological Society, but virtually anyone who can read already knows that.

The same survey found that the average yearly decrease in animal biodiversity is now 2%, “with no sign yet that this rate will slow down,” but again, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone watching the nightly news.

The success stories, rare as they might appear at times, are in the news now, though, thanks to a specially arranged meeting of conservationists, the Conservation Optimism Summit, later this month in London, with gatherings in other cities around the world, including Washington, DC and Hong Kong.

The summit is timed at least in part to Earth Day, which falls on April 22.



The implications extend beyond one day in April, though. People need to hear that all is not lost, that there’s reason for hope. One of the surprising conclusions to be drawn from the past 25 years of conservation is that it’s the smaller, grassroots efforts that have a more pronounced effect on the ground than the efforts of big, bloated conservation organizations that are often weighted down by their own bureaucracy and burgeoning operating costs.

Some of the more radical environmental activists say people ought to be told what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear.

The truth is that there’s room for both.

Polar bears are in serious trouble — the bears need pack ice on which to hunt and sustain themselves throughout winter hibernation, and the ice is melting across the Arctic — but the panda bear, the iconic symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, has recovered significantly throughout its former range.

Rhinos are facing a devastating surge in poaching throughout their range in Africa, but the saiga antelope, an oddly shaped grazing antelope endemic to the Eurasian steppe, has survived not one but two population crashes in recent years. The Siberian tiger has made a comeback in Russia, and a new population of rare Indonesian tigers was discovered in a national park in eastern Thailand just last month, even as conservationists warn that the lion — one of the most iconic, most easily recognized animals on the planet — faces a population crash throughout much of its range in Africa, due to habitat destruction, human population growth and the inevitable animal-human conflict that results.

©University of Oxford

©University of Oxford

Despite its Pollyannaish and easy-to-ridicule name, the Conservation Optimism Summit has an important purpose, as Oxford University zoologist E.J. MIlner-Gulland, a summit cofounder, and Oxford professor of biodiversity, told the Sunday Observer this past weekend.

“We have to change our ways and celebrate our successes if we’re going to protect endangered species,” she told the newspaper. “If we’re too gloomy about saving wildlife, you people will think there’s nothing they can do and that would be tragic. And wrong.”

How wild animals adapt to the big city, as told in Planet Earth’s stirring series finale.

Of all the hours that went into making Planet Earth II, it is the final episode “Cities” — which makes its North American debut this weekend on BBC America — which drew the most attention when it aired in the UK last December, and small wonder.

The finale is not just a summing-up of all that has come before. It takes on the thorny issue of where the planet goes from here, as wild animals evolve and adapt — with varying degrees of success — to the world’s sprawling and ever-growing urban areas.

No spoilers here. One of the special joys in watching Planet Earth is being surprised by those unexpected moments that evoke awe, majesty and, in many cases, an almost childlike sense of wonder. Nature is full of mysteries, after all. For every answer, new questions are almost certain to emerge.

©Steve Winter, National Geographic/NatGeo Wild

©Steve Winter, National Geographic/NatGeo Wild

The issue of how wildlife can adapt to big cities has been tackled before, most notably in National Geographic’s 2015 documentary program Urban Jungle. This is the first time the Planet Earth team have tackled it head-on, though, after almost 20 hours of often breath-taking filmmaking.

That’s worth noting because if Sir David Attenborough and his team of filmmakers have faced one criticism over the years, it’s that, for all Planet Earth’s celebration of nature at its most pure and pristine, it has pointedly avoided the ways in which human beings have affected what remains of the natural world, whether through climate change or unchecked population growth and our increasingly unsustainable lifestyles.

Evolution is not so much about survival of the fittest as it is about adaptability to ever-changing surroundings, so a close-up look at how wild animals find new ways to survive when living in close proximity to large numbers of people is ideally suited to a program with the ambition and scope of Planet Earth, and a fitting way to end the series.

©BBC Planet Earth II

©BBC Planet Earth II

Veteran National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, who followed leopards hunting by night in the centre of Mumbai and who has just concluded a multi-year photographic survey of wild jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal region (a National Geographic magazine feature and feature-length nature documentary are in the works), shared his experience of photographing leopards — an unpredictable and potentially deadly predator — withjournalists from the Television Critics Association at a gathering in Beverly Hills, Calif. several years ago, while promoting Urban Jungle.

Coincidentally, one of Winter’s most famous photographs — of a wild mountain lion, dubbed “P22” by local biologists, living in the Hollywood Hills, the giant “Hollywood” sign lit up in the background — was taken at night using a trap camera, just a short drive from the very Beverly Hills hotel where Winter was meeting journalists.

©Steve Winter

©Steve Winter

“The leopards in Mumbai are absolutely incredible,” Winter recalled. “They come out when it gets dark. People live right on the edge of the park. I was there, and saw it with my own eyes. People would do their walking, exercising, walk their dogs like we do in parks, and, boom, the sun goes down, and the habitat changes. It's then the leopards' area, and they co-exist without really any major problems.

“The ecosystem changes once the sun goes down. People came up to us, wanted to know, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told them and showed them some of the footage and images we were getting. They had lived there for ten years and didn’t even know the leopards were there, as close as from me to you, and yet have zero problems with them. A guy got up in the middle of the night one night, looked out his windows, and for the first time in ten years, he sees this leopard on a bridge. They are happy about it, too.They want to live with these animals because they don’t find that there’s any conflict.”

©National Geographic/Steve Wimter

©National Geographic/Steve Wimter

There are more mountain lions in the coastal Los Angeles area than people might suppose, Winter added. “There’s a healthy population of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Recreational Area, between, like, Sunset and a little further north. There are probably 15 or 20 cats in all.”

Mountain lions are just as secretive around people as leopards. P22 is native to Griffith Park, site of the famous Griffith Observatory.

©Steve Wimter/National Geographic

©Steve Wimter/National Geographic


“In all the months I spent in Griffith Park, I never met anybody who saw the mountain lion,” Winter said. “I never saw the mountain lion there. They don’t want to be seen, and they have plenty to eat there. So they’re comfortable.”

Wild animals getting along with people pre-supposes there aren’t any idiots — of the human kind — who will mess things up, Winter admitted.

“The mountain lion doesn’t want to be seen. That’s the bottom line. The leopard is the most adaptable cat in the world, as far as I’m concerned. They are secretive, and they don’t want any interaction. But as far as the idiot part goes, that’s, well . . . who knows?”

Making Planet Earth II, by the numbers.

Mike Gunton might not be the household name David Attenborough is but if there is to be a third series of Planet Earth, Gunton is likely the person who will sign off on it — just as Alastair Fothergill, a former director of the BBC’s Natural HIstory Unit, signed off on the original Planet Earth in 2003.

Gunton, the Natural History Unit’s present-day creative director and a co-producer of Planet Earth II, told UK media last December that while they would be crazy to rule out a third series, the decision is not as easy as, say, greenlightinga new sitcom or shoot-‘em-up police procedural.

Planet Earth II was timed to coincide with the original Planet Earth’s 10th anniversary, but as Gunton conceded, it was five years in the making.

©BBC One

©BBC One

If there is to be a Planet Earth III, in other words, the decision will need to be made soon. Even with new camera technology that would’ve proved impossible in 2006, filming wild animals in their natural habitat and — more importantly,  from the BBC’s point of view — capturing behaviour never seen on camera before, takes time.

Planet Earth II makes its North American debut on Feb. 18, after a successful run in the UK.

ildlife documentaries are a dime a dozen; the whole point of Planet Earth is that it be seen to be unique, something special, to stand out from the crowd.

©BBC One

©BBC One

Few wildlife programs come under such scrutiny, from casual viewers aksing themselves, ‘How did they do that?’ to dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists and animal-rights campaigners keen to spot any potential abuses and audience manipulation.

Making Planet Earth II wasn’t easy, no matter how spiffy new camera technology has become. As North American audiences prepare to see what all the fuss is about, here are half-a-dozen gee-whiz facts about the making of a documentary series some are calling the finest of its kind ever made.

1. David Attenborough doesn’t venture to far-flung locations that much anymore — he’s 90, after all — but he’s not just a mouthpiece. He phoned field producers on a regular basis throughout filming and insisted they prove his narration to be accurate, while also telling a good story.

©BBC One

©BBC One

2. Planet Earth II employed 42 camera operators, and is the first series BBC produced in ultra high-definition 4K. Filming crews had to lug 30 to 40 cases of equipment halfway around the world, but were allowed just one personal bag each.

©BBC One

©BBC One

3. Shades of Steve Irwin: During the filming of the episode “Islands,” one crew member was stung by a stingray. The team was stranded two hours from the mainland and sorequired on-site medical attention before getting the crew member to safety. On the episode “Mountains,” another crew member narrowly avoided falling into a rock crevasse while filming in the Himalayas.

4. Misadventure dogged the “Islands” team from the outset. Returning to camp after one shoot, the crew found a boa constrictor eating their supply of eggs.

5. The “Islands” episode alone was three and a half years in the making; it required 12 separate location shoots, which ranged from two to six weeks at a time. Planning and preparation alone took a full year, before a single camera was powered up.

6. Although crews filming in the tropics were bitten by mosquitoes by day and centipedes by night, they were restricted from using insect repellent as animals might smell it and avoid the camera positions. One producer of the “Islands” episode lived in the same clothes for two weeks, despite being pooped on by one penguin and vomited on by another.

©BBC One

©BBC One

7. The new series’ signature theme was composed by noted film composer Hans Zimmer. That fact is well known. Less well known is that the Icelandic alt-rock band Sigur Ros recorded a new version of their single Hoppipolla, which was first used in the original Planet Earth. It took some doing but after rummaging through their old recordings, Sigur Ros managed to find the original track stems and crafted a new version for Planet Earth II.

8. In all, Planet Earth II took six years to film. The trap cameras used to capture rare footage of snow leopards in the wild in the Himalayas were set up for a year before they achieved the desired result. The lions-vs.-buffalo sequence in the episode “Grasslands” took three months to achieve.

Attaining a legal permit for the peregrine falcon sequence in New York City, for the final episode “Cities,” alone took nine months.

9. The widely seen — and much talked-about —  iguana-vs.-snakes sequence, which took two weeks of sunrise-to-sunset monitoring of a tropical beach, has clocked more than seven million views on YouTube.

©BBC One

©BBC One

10. Planet Earth II filmed in 40 countries, and required 117 separate filming expeditions. In all, the production recorded 400 terabytes of material, enough to fill 82,000 DVDs. Now you know.

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.