At­ten­bor­ough has be­trayed the liv­ing world that he loves

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Ge­orge Mon­biot

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 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 film­mak­ers 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 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 cost­free. 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.

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.


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