David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg share the same goal but are treated very differently

Responses to both eco-activists are wildly different: one receives ugly, crass criticism, while the other is considered a national treasure

James Moore
Saturday 03 October 2020 13:53
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David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet - trailer

There are two eco-documentaries either in or about to enter cinemas with broadly similar messages: David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet and I am Greta, directed by Nathan Grossman.  

I was lucky enough to get a preview of the latter, which includes a montage featuring some of the ugly hatred its protagonist has been subjected to, notably from world leaders like US president Donald Trump, and Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro but also from media big mouths. And yes, one of Piers Morgan’s brainless rants is in there.

Unbidden, the thought that came to mind was: compare and contrast.

Attenborough enjoys national treasure status on these shores. Thanks to the BBC, and latterly Netflix, exporting the spectacularly vivid documentaries he has fronted around the world, his formidable personal brand has been exported with them.

He’s now putting that platform to work by telling us that we need to act fast to avoid losing it all because the natural world on which we rely is fast approaching a tipping point.

Now, could you imagine someone calling him “a turd” or “mentally ill”? Greta Thunberg is not that, by the way. She is on the autism spectrum. It shouldn’t be an insult even if she were but the current generation of world leaders and media personalities does rather make a virtue of ignorance.  

Could you imagine anyone daring to tell Attenborough to “shut up” to “go back to school” to “learn the facts” that both are well aware of?

Attenborough is a charismatic, softly spoken nonagenarian. Some people seem to find it an awful lot easier to hear an inconvenient truth from him than they do from someone like Thunberg.

Or could it be that they just find it easier to ignore him? To look at the pretty pictures of the natural world and say “aw”, to tut at the images of destruction that are juxtaposed with them, and then to whinge loudly when the idea of green levies is floated?

Perhaps it’s the feisty teenager, willing to stare down world leaders and tell them exactly what they don’t want but do need to hear in blunt, perfectly spoken English; that we need too, even if it does make some of us uncomfortable.

Part of the reason Thunberg provokes the ugly, crass, witless outbursts that she does is because the only way her critics can easily respond to the truth she speaks is to demean her personally (see above) or to deflect (wah, I don’t like the way she says it, she’s hysterical, she’s too negative, she never offers any answers).

Variations on those themes all feature in the doc. None of them stand up to cursory analysis because she does offer solutions – cut emissions, live up to the commitments you made when you signed the Paris accords, and go further.

She persuaded her “high consumption” family to green up. There was also that voyage across the Atlantic in a sailing boat to attend a UN summit because she wouldn’t fly. Footage from it is included in the documentary, in which she looks the picture of misery as the boat crashes up and down on a choppy sea and rain and spray slap against the tarpaulin she sits under.

“A stunt”, said her critics, “why didn’t she just take a plane?” And of course, if she had they’d just have shot at her for that. Insult, deflect, attack the messenger, because the message is based on disturbing, frightening, scientific fact.

I liked I am Greta a lot. It neatly weaves the personal in with the political and, in so doing, shows how baseless some of the criticisms levelled at her are (the go back to school and get your education brigade are, for example, answered at a graduation ceremony where she is among the top performers at her school).  

As the parent of a near-teenager with a similar type of autism, there are also some scenes that I found particularly resonant. Other such parents might like to seek it out (several of the chains are showing it when it hits cinemas in a couple of weeks).

Her actor father comes across as maybe a bit overbearing at times. On the other hand, seeing him engage in variations of the same conversation I’ve had with my son, I was left wondering whether I mightn’t seem the same.

Exasperated, he asks why it matters if “gas station” has a hyphen in it or not as she puts the finishing touches to a speech, because she’s going to read it so no one will see it other than her.

To those not on the spectrum, and their loved ones, this sort of episode can be maddeningly frustrating. To those on the spectrum, that frustration can lead to great distress because to them, it does. The hyphen matters a lot.

The doc largely succeeds with its intention of putting a human face on a young woman who’s become an icon, one capable of inspiring both fierce devotion in her young supporters, and equally fierce opprobrium from the mostly older people who struggle to handle Attenborough’s truth let alone hers, and the fierce and uncompromising fashion in which she presents it.

And she should keep doing that. She and her generation will have to live in the godawful mess that’s being created when people like me and, yes, Attenborough, are gone.

So listen to him, if your stomach isn’t strong enough to listen to her. But for God’s sake listen. 

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