The Green Planet: Time is running out for David Attenborough to save the world

Analysis: Landmark documentary brings home the tragedy of the damage our species is doing

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Monday 10 January 2022 14:10
The Green Planet | Official Trailer | New Attenborough Series

We are systematically trashing our own planet, polluting it, bulldozing it, poisoning it, mining it, ruining its weather and otherwise abusing it in increasingly inventive evil ways, yet miraculously, some dwindling areas of natural splendour remain.

In the BBC’s new Green Planet series, presented by Sir David Attenborough, we see verdant rainforests shrouded in mist, wild tropical islands lapped by clear waters, hallucinatory timelapse sequences of plants growing, groping for light, breathing…

To watch this exquisite footage is to feel transported to another world – another planet – one filled with flourishing ecosystems teeming with life of every kind.

Almost. Forty five minutes into the first episode, the glowing green vision falters, and Attenborough reveals the twist: These are the last tiny pockets of wilderness which only exist because we haven’t got round to destroying them yet.

Standing between the trunks of mighty rainforest trees, and with birds chattering in the background, Attenborough quotes from Charles Darwin’s diary from almost 200 years ago:

"Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man."

With a grim countenance, Attenborough adds: "He would struggle to find such a place today".

In the 21st century, 70 per cent of all rainforest plants grow within a mile of a road or a human-made clearing, Attenborough says as the camera zooms out to reveal that he is in fact standing at a roadside.

We then see the landscape-scale level of destruction we are wreaking on tropical environments: palm plantations stretching off into infinity, bare hillsides where only minute islands of the original forests remain.

Forest fragment, Costa Rica. Half of the worlds remaining rainforest now exists as a forest fragment. When the fragment becomes too small the relationships between plants and animals begin to break down and species disappear

The first episode ends with a call to arms, albeit a gentle one, imploring viewers to connect our voracious appetites with the nightmarish destruction of our home planet.

Attenborough appears to be more present in this series than in his other recent BBC programmes – speaking to camera as he rides a chairlift through a jungle canopy, or standing what appears to be just inches from bats feeding from a rare "seven-hour flower", while delivering a virtuoso performance in concentration and timing.

You get a fresh sense of urgency from the 95-year-old naturalist, which in itself is remarkable.

But is it enough to convince people to work harder to protect the natural world? The programme has a shiny, almost consumable beauty – made for HD TVs. The emotionally manipulative music alongside the sumptuous high-tech camera work together take viewers on a journey in which narrative arc and reality become jumbled.

These are minor criticisms. It is majestic viewing, but ultimately and quite rightly leaves a hollow feeling, along with the bigger question of what must happen to save us from ourselves.

The Green Planet is on BBC One.

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