Wildlife documentaries: Filmmakers dodge the hard truths

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, from 1949, may not be the precise catalyst for the sharpened awareness of our impact on the natural world, but it is as good a point as any to recognise as a kernel moment.

Wildlife documentaries: Filmmakers dodge the hard truths

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, from 1949, may not be the precise catalyst for the sharpened awareness of our impact on the natural world, but it is as good a point as any to recognise as a kernel moment. His gentle insights into how excess has skewered this planet found empathy among those with an alert conscience.

Walt Disney continued that pioneering work, albeit at a very different pitch. James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margulis’ 1970s Gaia hypothesis encouraged that awakening, too. When he made his wildlife documentary on New Guinea’s birds of paradise, 64 years ago — his first — David Attenborough began a career that now looks more like missionary work than TV production.

Anyone with the perception of the Easter Island statues, remnants of a lost civilisation he spoke about so challengingly, cannot but be moved by his work. He brought long-ignored responsibilities into the public forum and made many of us, but not enough, better custodians of our world. He was the first to politicise nature programming. He matched unprecedented film footage with unprecedented scripts that demanded more of us. That work continued with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, in 2006.

Nature programmes had become television gold. We followed the fate of Yellowstone wolf packs or Antarctic emperor penguins, as once we followed The Riordans or the Ewing family’s Dallas adventures. Seal pups became babies. We adopted snow leopards. Species were reintroduced to ranges where they had become extinct and the inevitable documentary followed. Wildlife was box office and very many, hugely positive developments followed from this parity of esteem.

Despite that, scientists have warned that we face “biological annihilation” and that a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway. Human overpopulation and over-consumption are at the root of this crisis, one that scientists have warned threatens the survival of human civilisation.

Is it possible that this dangerous contradiction stands because of what might be termed coffee-table nature documentaries? Is it possible that an idiom established to show the beauty and centrality of nature, and the threat it faces, has been transformed into another vapid entertainment? A kind of exploitative celebrity charade in wellingtons? Are apolitical, non-judgemental, green-washing nature documentaries a part of the problem, rather than part of the solution? Do they create a false impression of robust abundance? Is a programme that touched on, say, curlew or corncrake collapse, without pointing out that habitat destruction is the root cause, culpable in the kind of apathy that allows Food Harvest 2025 to stand? Is a beautifully-filmed piece on a gannet colony that does not mention sea-bird population collapse caused by over-fishing a kind of fake news? Are these evasions the reason we still think these programmes are about the birds and the bees, rather than our future?

Climate change and population are our defining issues and we have yet to confront them in a way that might avert chaos. Any process, any contribution that delays urgent action borders on betrayal. Unfortunately, far too may of today’s wildlife and country lifestyle programmes can be so accused.

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