mass extinction

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.

A bolshie speaks! Save the planet first, then save the elephants.

Yes, yes, environment writer Lucy Siegle wrote this past weekend in the Sunday Observer: It’s all very chic to save the elephant — or the rhino or cheetah, for that matter — but what about the world?

In a heartfelt essay, Siegle singled out the likes of UK environment minister Michael Gove and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge — the créme de la créme of the chattering classes — as being little more than dilettantes, figurehead conservationists drawn to high-profile campaigns to save icon species like so many moths to the flame. 

©Adnan Abidi/AP

©Adnan Abidi/AP

Siegle admitted her stance will get her disinvited to any number of black-tie environmental soirées — no canapés at the Natural History Museum for you! — but the real world of conservation, she argued, is gritty, grimy and decidedly unglamourous.

It didn’t help the optics that last week’s announcement that Britain’s Conservative government is widening its ivory ban to include ivory carvings made prior to 1947 — dropped from the Tories’ recent election manifesto — kicked off a weekend of elephant celebrations that included “a copcktail and canapé send-off for a fleet of 50 Gujarati Chagda bikes under the Travels to My Elephant initiative, attended by the Duchess of Cambridge, and the Warrior Games promising (retired) Maasai spears and Maasai photographs taken by Jack Brockway (Richard Branson’s nephew) in the company of HRH Eugenie.”

Bolshie! Satisfying as it may be, though, to see the upper classes brought down a peg or two, there’s a sober point here. Framing the ecological debate through a single species can seem myopic when the future of the entire planet is at stake. Scientists warnthat we have already triggered the sixth great mass extinction. This one is different, too, because it’s the first mass extinction of our own making. There’s not much point in saving the elephant if there are no savannahs left in Africa or Asia for them to roam.

©Biplab Hazra-Nature InFocus

©Biplab Hazra-Nature InFocus

There’s more to saving the orangutan, in other words, than throwing a black-tie soirée or sponsoring a 10K run through the smog-choked streets of London. Environmental activism is messy, grubby and often nasty. 

“If your gateway to environmentalism is saving a big beast, great,” Siegle argued in the Sunday Observer. “But (your) next move needs to be switching your bank account so that your money is no longer funding the destroyers of Sumatran forests for palm oil.”

Whenever a nob, a royal or another standing member of posh society lectures the unwashed on the merits of saving elephants, or whatever the icon species-of-the-moment happens to be, Siegle says that, to her, the great unspoken question — the elephant in the room, if you will — is: “When did your family stop hunting big game and decide to save it?’

Bolshie! Sometimes, though, even bolshies have a point.

©Hilary O'Leary/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Hilary O'Leary/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year

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.”