David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves
George Monbiot, The Guardian
"By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance
Knowingly creating a false impression of the world: this is a serious matter. It is more serious still when the BBC does it, and yet worse when the presenter is “the most trusted man in Britain”. But, as his latest interview with the Observer reveals, David Attenborough sticks to his line that fully representing environmental issues is a “turn-off”.
His new series, Dynasties, will mention the pressures affecting wildlife, but Attenborough makes it clear that it will play them down. To do otherwise, he suggests, would be “proselytising” and “alarmist”. His series will be “a great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts”. In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features, alongside most of the rest of the world’s living systems – and when broadcasting as a whole has disgracefully failed to represent such truths – I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable.
It is not proselytising or alarmist to tell us the raw truth about what is happening to the world, however much it might discomfit us. Nor do I believe that revealing the marvels of nature automatically translates into environmental action, as the executive producer of Dynasties claims. I’ve come to believe it can have the opposite effect.
For many years, wildlife film-making has presented a pristine living world. It has created an impression of security and abundance, even in places afflicted by cascading ecological collapse. The cameras reassure us that there are vast tracts of wilderness in which wildlife continues to thrive. They cultivate complacency, not action.
You cannot do such a thing passively. Wildlife film-makers I know tell me that the effort to portray what looks like an untouched ecosystem becomes harder every year. They have to choose their camera angles ever more carefully to exclude the evidence of destruction, travel further to find the Edens they depict. They know – and many feel deeply uncomfortable about it – that they are telling a false story, creating a fairytale world that persuades us all is well, in the midst of an existential crisis. While many people, thanks in large part to David Attenborough, are now quite well informed about wildlife, we remain astonishingly ignorant about what is happening to it.
What makes Attenborough’s comments particularly odd is that they come just a year after the final episode of his Blue Planet II series triggered a massive effort to reduce plastic pollution. Though the programme made a complete dog’s breakfast of the issue, the response demonstrated a vast public appetite for information about the environmental crisis, and an urgent desire to act on it.
Since 1985, when I worked in the department that has made most of his programmes, I have pressed the BBC to reveal environmental realities, often with dismal results. In 1995 I spent several months with a producer, developing a novel and imaginative proposal for an environmental series. The producer returned from his meeting with the channel controller in a state of shock. “He just looked at the title and asked ‘Is this environment?’ I said yes. He said, ‘I’ve spent two years trying to get environment off this fucking channel. Why the fuck are you bringing me environment?’”
I later discovered that this response was typical. The controllers weren’t indifferent. They were actively hostile. If you ask me whether the BBC or ExxonMobil has done more to frustrate environmental action in this country, I would say the BBC
We all knew that only one person had the power to break this dam. For decades David Attenborough, a former channel controller widely seen as the living embodiment of the BBC, has been able to make any programme he wants. So where, we kept asking, was he? At last, in 2000, he presented an environmental series: State of the Planet.
It was an interesting and watchable series, but it left us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Only in the last few seconds of the final episode was there a hint that structural forces might be at play: “Real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies, in our economics and in our politics.” But what change? What economics? What politics? He had given us no clues.
To make matters worse, it was sandwiched between further programmes of his about the wonders of nature, which created a strong impression of robust planetary health. He might have been describing two different worlds. Six years later he made another environmental series, The Truth About Climate Change. And this, in my view, was a total disaster.
It told us nothing about the driving forces behind climate breakdown. The only mention of fossil fuel companies was as part of the solution: “The people who extract fossil fuels like oil and gas have now come up with a way to put carbon dioxide back underground.” Apart from the general “we”, the only distinct force identified as responsible was the “1.3 billion Chinese”. That a large proportion of Chinese emissions are caused by manufacturing goods the west buys was not mentioned. The series immediately triggered a new form of climate denial: I was bombarded with people telling me there was no point in taking action in Britain because the Chinese were killing the planet.
If Attenborough’s environmentalism has a coherent theme, it is shifting the blame from powerful forces on to either society in general or the poor and weak. Sometimes it becomes pretty dark. In 2013 he told the Telegraph“ What are all these famines in Ethiopia? What are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land … We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.”
There had not been a famine in Ethiopia for 28 years, and the last one was caused not by an absolute food shortage but by civil war and government policies. His suggestion that food relief is counter-productive suggests he has read nothing on the subject since Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798. But, cruel and ignorant as these comments were, they were more or less cost-free. By contrast, you do not remain a national treasure by upsetting powerful vested interests: look at the flak the outspoken wildlife and environmental presenter Chris Packham attracts for standing up to the hunting lobby.
I have always been entranced by Attenborough’s wildlife programmes, but astonished by his consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defence of the living world he loves. His revelation of the wonders of nature has been a great public service. But withholding the knowledge we need to defend it is, I believe, a grave disservice."
In 1979 I began making movies and today 42 hours of documentary film is complete.
My main objective when going into documentary film making was to show the destruction human beings were wreaking on the planet. I believed through film I could expose the damage done to the natural world by human beings. How wrong I was!
In the film Troubled Water we tracked the Mara River to its source. We documented the abuse of the river in its catchment. I predicted that one day the Mara River would dry up and the great spectacles of crocs taking down wildebeest and zebra would be no more.
The film Troubled Water is famous today for the sequence where 22 Thompson’s Gazelles come to the river and 18 perished in the jaws of the crocodiles. The footage that showed the damage to the catchment of the Mara River was never shown.
Horn and Claw is a film about the relationship between Lion and Buffalo. I looked at areas previously inhabited by buffalo which had been converted to cattle.
I travelled to the USA to Texas to the area were the America Buffalo had thrived. Some 62 million American Buffalo had roamed across the North American Prairies.
To starve the Plains Indians, the American Buffalo had been destroyed and replaced by cattle. To support the cattle, the ranchers used feedlots. I noticed that in the feedlots the food being fed to cattle left much to be desired. Often the carcasses of the dead cows was mulched into the food and given to the cattle. I predicted that a disease would break out from these feedlots.
In the final edit, all of the feedlots footage was rejected by the broadcaster, Discovery Channel. I was told that this footage could be seen on the news.
Two weeks after “Horn and Claw” was released, “Mad Cow Disease” broke across Europe. The source of the disease was traced back to the feedlots. Only after “Mad Cow Disease” broke, I was allowed to put a few minutes of footage in at the end of the show.
In 18 years of filming Tiger Conservation, I still have not been able to show the reasons for the decline of the wild tiger.
The award winning film “Living with Tigers” made for Discovery Channel and “Tiger Man of Africa” made for National Geographic Wild, do not show the reason for the demise of the wild tiger. Over population, destruction of habitat, poaching and the body parts trade are not even mentioned in these two films which showed in 165 and 180 countries respectively.
In India a wild tiger competes with over 300 people per square kilometre. A tiger a day is being lost to poaching and loss of home ranger. Tigers are trapped, poisoned, shot and electrocuted every day in India. A poacher can make 20,000 US dollars from a dead tiger from the body parts which he sells to China. I have never seen this in a documentary.
In this way I agree with George Monbiot. We are deceiving the public. We are depicting the beauty, power strength and speed of the Tiger while not showing that the future of the tiger is bleak.
Where I disagree with George Monbiot, is to lay the blame on Sir David Attenborough. Sir David is part of team, in fact the finest natural history film team in the world.
The executives of the BBC Natural History Unit and the BBC Sellers of the films, know what the public want and to secure the eyes balls on the Television sets they give them what they want because this is what scores them the ratings. Therefore tigers hunting, tigers fighting, tigers mating, lots and lots of cuddly cubs is what the film is all about.
Human overpopulation, deforestation, poaching, the body parts trade are not even mentioned. It’s a vicious circle so to speak, the public deceives itself because the public demands what the executives of the broadcasters give them. The real issues are swept under the carpet.
Today the old style film makers that took 3 years to make a documentary are gone. The wildlife documentaries have been replaced by programmes that bring quick and fast gratification. The Survivor Series, Fear Factor, Pimp My Ride, Big Brother have replaced the wild life documentary. They are a reflection of society. This is what society wants so this is what society gets.
Even if the BBC and Sir David Attenborough had made movies 20 years ago which showed the destruction of the planet, it would have made no difference.
Jane Goodall says “The most intelligent species to ever walk the planet is destroying its only home, planet earth”.
We are not that intelligent. We are promiscuous monkeys, nothing more and nothing less.
We are an overpopulated species destroying the very resources that sustain life. Our leadership is non-existent.
We have commoditised species where we slaughter rhino for their horn and shoot lions in enclosures where they can’t escape.
Gaia will deal with the human species like she deals with any species that threatens the Planet, ruthlessly!
Tread Lightly on the Earth John Varty www.johnvarty.com