Last week, Guardian columnist, author and nowadays (it seems) chief spokesperson for a large number of people with environmental leanings George Monbiot wrote an article which garnered quite a lot of attention. In it, he outlined how arguably one of the world’s most renowned naturalists and presenters Sir David Attenborough had ‘betrayed the living world he loves’. This was in response to comments Sir David had given in an interview with the Observer, where he had said that too much alarmism on environmental issues could be a ‘turn off’ for viewers.
The article set me thinking, was this going to be yet another thing ruined for me?
“Don’t you dare sit there in wonder at the courtship displays of that bird of paradise! You’re a terrible person, in fact, the emissions from you having your TV on and watching this right now has probably raised temperatures enough to kill it.”
Now before I go any further, I would like to highlight that this isn’t meant as a personal attack on George Monbiot. I like a lot of what he says and he has built himself a platform for getting his various messages out there. We now live in a time where individuals such as him can gather enough of a following to start making real change and that is quite exciting. But it does feel like sometimes in the ‘environmental community’ that this man’s word is taken as some sort of green gospel, as if he’s an environmental cyborg from an apocalyptic future sent back to warn us how shit we all are. I hope that even he agrees there is still time left before the impending end of the world to have debate and discussion on these issues.
There’s always a little bit of debate around what he says, from conservationists and scientists, but this recent article really got some quite passionate responses. My twitter feed was filled with scientists who cited Attenborough and the BBC’s work over the past decades as one of the key things that started them on their current career trajectory. These were not just conservation scientists but scientists from all manner of disciplines. People could recall specific episodes or series which had them watching for hours in fascination and wonder.
Once this inspirational seed had been planted in the mind of these youngsters, over time they would have found out about the threats to these magnificent creatures and habitats, from other sources. A compassion and desire to protect the natural world can be a more gradual progression, like with anything the more you fall in love with it initially, the more daunting the possibility of somebody taking it away.
These scientists that filled the comments section of George’s article are some of the ones who now make it their daily business to tackle some of the big environmental challenges we now face. Whether that be through gathering important data, working on ways we can better live alongside wildlife (because unfortunately, humans are here to stay), coming up with new sustainable solutions to old environmental problems and much more. The fact that so many of them attribute the start of their desire to work in these areas to Sir David and the shows the BBC have put together over the years should not be dismissed.
This ‘attacking’ language of the article is similar to other language that has recently become louder and more noticable from many environmentalists. The idea that it is now too late to simply inspire and to have more subtle approaches. No room for gentle nudges anymore it should be “sit down children, watch this animal eat a plastic bottle and cry yourselves to sleep.”
Of course, I do think we need to take action and move with more urgency to save the planet we love but does that mean we have to get rid of media that is to entertain and inspire? The world is arguably more polarised than ever, are we not in danger of pushing ‘outsiders’ even further away? Studies have shown that we vastly underestimate levels of compassion in our fellow citizens and compassionate values are linked, help people care deeply about the natural world and this will filter into other lifestyle choices that will benefit society and the environment too.
The BBC and David, of course, haven’t completely ignored threats to the planet in the past (and not just the recent past) for example:
- 1996 Winners & Losers;
- 1999 Sharks, the Truth;
- 2000 State of the Planet;
- 2006 The Truth About Climate Change;
- 2007 CC: Britain Under Threat;
- 2010 Death of the Oceans;
- 2012 Attenborough’s Ark
And the episode of Blue Planet 2 (and arguably more the media that picked it up afterwards) where a segment at the end of the series helped show us the issues of plastic waste in the oceans.
But the reason this episode was so effective and so shocking to many, is precisely because of the contrast with the programme that had preceded it. The love and care that had been gently nurtured in viewers over many years was ripped apart right in front of them. And yes it was a ‘turn off’, but it was brief enough to inspire action and not to make viewers physically reach for the remote and turn off, which is unfortunately what an hour-long episode focussing on the issue might do. Simon Reeve and the BBC have been doing a good job of this recently too, balancing images of the world and stories of other cultures that fascinate us, with images such as the ones in this episode of Spanish fruit growers that shock us. Art (which is what these programmes are) can be direct, shocking and in your face, but it can also be more subtle.
Now I’m a fan of getting evidence to back up the speculation around these issues, so I had a look for papers that may shed some light on ‘the stats’ behind the effect of shows such as those hosted by David Attenborough.
I couldn’t find much…..
Studies such as McKnight (2010) recommended that environmental experiences for those in early childhood should build empathy for nature and only, later on, should environmental education focus on social action, to not do this risks young people developing ‘eco-phobia’. The opposition may argue these programmes aren’t for kids, but I think they very much are for families and I started watching them from a very young age. There is also plenty of research to show that ‘intentions’ rarely convert into lasting long-term behavioural changes; so is telling people over and over to change really going to help? This was documented after the release of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, behaviour changes occurred but they didn’t last. Environmental and conservation behaviours are complex, deeply embedded in our habits and within peer groups.
I’d love for someone to go out and do some research on this. Am I completely wrong, are these programmes doing more harm than good for the majority of people? David and I assume that people would find too much alarmism a bad thing and turn off, is this actually the case? We are told negative news sells so surely some people would love the chance to watch some more apocalyptic documentaries……but are these the kind of people that are going to take action afterwards or will it simply wash over them. Until we have actual data on this it is basically just me and George on our soapboxes.
The way we consume media is changing massively and the entry level for anyone wanting to produce content is getting lower all the time. Yes the BBC Natural History Unit have a head start, and a platform to quickly reach larger audiences, but it does mean that George doesn’t need to wait for their backing to go out and produce something himself these days. I’m sure he has enough followers to crowdfund a show, upload it to youtube and get it shared around the world instantly.
Another thing I would be interested to know is; for younger generations now growing up more cut off from ‘wilderness’ than ever before, are these programmes creating even more of a disconnect? Are animals now to be seen only behind a TV like a cinematic zoo? Or is it even more important to show young people what is out there, what needs saving and why we should be doing more? I still hope there is a place for the later because I know that is what happened to me and countless friends and colleagues.
As with all environmental questions, there seems to be no simple answer. It is going to take a balance of approaches and tactics if we are going to make lasting change. I think we can look back with fondness at these programmes and praise the BBC and David for what they have produced. But we should use this hindsight to make a difference going forward. Hopefully, the BBC will learn from the impact of Blue Planet 2 and include short sections at the end of future programmes highlighting the issues and then most importantly a ‘call to action’.
As a movement, we need the balance. George portrays the harsh realities very well indeed, I hope he continues as his stance is important in the overall spectrum.
George even says in his article that these shows have entranced him in the past and that Attenborough has done a great service. Is that not enough? In a world filled with all sorts of rivalry, doom and gloom and pessimism can we not be allowed to sit down for one Sunday a week and let Sir David’s comforting tone remind us that there is still beauty out there and there are things worth working hard to save.
McKnight D. M. (2010) Overcoming “ecophobia”: fostering environmental empathy through narrative in children’s science literature Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment