There’s not a lot of genres that I can categorize as “this genre always makes me feel this.” Comedies and dramas obviously are too large to be all encompassing – they make me feel all sorts of ways. Documentaries as a whole are in the same camp. But I’ve written before about my specific relationship with HGTV and it’s ilk (I’d even sort of include Queer Eye in that bunch). Nature documentaries are another genre that can counted upon to make me feel a particular way: I feel awe-inspired, and frankly frequently romantic, or in love. Nature, life, is absolutely incredible. Birds and fish are beautiful. They inspire a love not of anyone or anything in particular but for everything. We live on this massive rock teeming with things that down right amaze me. Nature documentaries also, always, make me so afraid. Because climate change is coming, or, is already here, and it is an existential threat to not just humanity but to all life. When I watch nature documentaries there is always a feeling in the back of my mind of: how did we mess this up?
One of the things that always bothers me when we discuss climate change is the amount of focus leveled on humans, and the human cost. It’s important, absolutely and positively. People are dying right now. That’s unequivocal. But humans aren’t going to be the only victims of climate change. We’re just the ones driving it. We are falling victim to our own follies, whereas the rest of life on Earth are victims while not being a cause. That’s almost more unacceptable (of note too: most of the humans currently affected by climate change are actually not the people driving it, since in general most of the current burden of climate change falls to nations who aren’t industrialized to a harmful level). These incredible creatures are victim to our follies. Period.
For all these reasons, it’s refreshing to have a show like Our Planet, which makes the implicit explicit. Normally, that’s not a good story-telling technique, but when it comes to climate change bashing people over the head with the obvious is nearly the only thing that makes sense. From climate deniers (which… come on) to climate delayers people should be continuously confronted with this reality. It feels almost unethical to make art that doesn’t actively comment on our current predicament. In fairness, it’s working it’s way into popular culture a bit – look at this weekend, with Thanos, a (radical) climate change activist, and The Night King and the White Walkers, climate change personified (it’s why they don’t really have a “mission” – they’re more a force of nature and are punishment for former negligence and responsibility) both dominating the big and small screen. Still, they too could use more consideration. Climate change is a serious problem that can’t be snapped with a snap of our finger or valyrian steel. Mostly I would say our anxiety about climate change has crept into the media, but not the stark reality of climate change itself.
Which is why, again, Our Planet is much needed. It’s premise is simple. Take the normal nature documentary format (David Attenborough included, of course) of highlighting strange and wonderful life all around our planet, and then add a little something else: this is disappearing, fast. It’s one thing to hear statistics, but hearing statistics about whale populations plummeting while watching a mother and baby blue whale wander the oceans is another experience entirely. Watching coral reefs bleach is an experience. Watching land (ice) scarcity lead to walruses cruelly tumbling to their death is an experience. We can’t help but feel for these creatures, these many wonderful weirdos, and being told they are disappearing and we are the cause is heartbreaking on a visceral level that is different than the terror the actual statistics might inspire on an intellectual level.
Life has only developed once (as far as we know) in the entirety of the universe. Once. We share a common ancestor with everything – germs, octopuses, ostriches, trees, ants, flowers, gorillas, sea urchins… everything. We share approximately 50% of our DNA with a banana. Life has developed once, and we can protect it or we can destroy it, and if we destroy it there is no promise it will develop ever again. I can’t make the appeal that the image of majestic animals can make, of the footage of animals behaving smartly, in communities, or alien-like, all alone. I can only suggest everyone go check out Our Planet. Because it actually has three steps: nature documentary (which, again, is just always worthwhile), stark confrontation with climate change, and finally some hope. It’s not “hopeful” hope, per say. It’s realistic hope. We can still save the planet, because the planet is strong, but we need to act seriously, and now. Do it for the Birds of Paradise. They’re such strange critters. They need help.