How programs like ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Blue Planet’ can distract from the issues at hand
By Jacey Gibb, Distribution Manager
In 2016, the gorgeous and traversing Planet Earth II was released by the BBC. The six-episode series took almost six years to complete, and required a menagerie of technology and filming techniques to capture different habitats, from deserts to islands. This is nature like you’ve never experienced it before; the kind of program that makes going outside and standing in the forest feel subpar by comparison.
However, some critics warn there are unexpected consequences from seeing these wonderful, unique creatures on our television screens.
In its final episode, “Cities,” Planet Earth II looks at how growing urban communities affect animal populations—with some species actually thriving because of human development.
The number of leopards in Indian cities has grown, with readily available prey such as dogs and pigs. Gray langur monkeys in Jodhpur are seen as descendants of a god, so residents regularly bring offerings of flowers and fruits. With protection from humans and without natural predators, there have even been documented cases of langurs successfully raising twins, a rarity in the wild due to the impracticality of raising more than one offspring at a time.
However, “Cities” also explores the grimmer impacts of human development. Light pollution from coastal cities confuses baby sea turtle populations, with newborns mistaking streetlamps for moonlight reflecting off the water. Instead of crawling towards the ocean, nearly half of newborn sea turtles crawl towards the city, where they fall into storm drains, are picked off by predators, or are crushed under passing traffic.
Critics of Planet Earth II and similar programs claim that by spotlighting unique species from around the world, attention is being taken away from the very real crises facing animal populations. Last year, a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded, “from a quantitative viewpoint, that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than perceived when looking exclusively at species extinctions.” Even species that are considered to be “low concern,” as opposed to endangered or worse, experienced significant drops in population sizes and number of geographic areas where the species is found.
These types of reports and conclusions aren’t new, though. Back in 2011, the UN Environment Programme reported that between 150 to 200 different species of plants or animals go extinct everyday, from a combination of habitat loss, pollution, over- or illegal hunting, or climate change.
The creative minds behind documentary series like Planet Earth II say that exposure to the natural world will help foster more environmentally-conscious citizens, who will see these animals and want to protect them. Often, though, the impending dangers and struggles of these animals appear as mere footnotes at the end of a segment, mentioning how habitats are shrinking or how a diminishing food supply is putting a strain on the population.
However, if these series reveal too much of a bias, they run the risk of losing credibility. For example, in the “Big Blue” episode of Blue Planet II, narrator David Attenborough describes how a female pilot whale refuses to abandon her now-deceased calf; Attenborough then quickly leads into how, “In top predators like these, industrial chemicals can build up to lethal levels, and plastic could be part of the problem.” Plastics, either in larger form or on a micro level, are absolutely a threat to marine life, but viewers picked up on how unsubstantiated Attenborough’s conclusion was that the calf died from a chemical build-up, and there was a fair amount of backlash against what was otherwise a heartbreaking scene.
In theory, nature documentaries like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II can be powerful agents of conservation, inspiring generations to adopt a more environmentalist mindset. At the same time, the series need to better balance the wonderful and awe-inspiring with the bleak reality that our planet’s biodiversity is facing.