Our Planet: Under Threat

A few weeks ago, I started watching the eight-part series Our Planet with my daughter. I thought it would be a good alternative to cartoons. “Ahh, a nature documentary,” I thought. “She gets to watch TV. I get to feel like she’s learning something. Win-win.”

I was so wrong. The show delivers spectacular footage and animal antics, sure, but the content is hard to stomach. Even the soothing sound of David Attenborough’s voice can’t soften the main message: climate change is profoundly affecting all life on this planet and, unless we do something fast, we’re all screwed.

How do you explain this to a three-year-old? Mostly I don’t.

When a polar bear killed a baby seal, we both cried. She was crying for the seal. I was crying for the seal too, but also for the polar bear and for us. I was crying for everything.

I don’t need a nature documentary to tell me that it’s time to panic. I think about climate change almost constantly. Even when I’m not consciously thinking about it, I still experience low-level dread. It’s hard to imagine how the news could be worse, yet somehow it always is. On Monday, the United Nations released findings from its first report on biodiversity. Because of human activities, as many as a million species face extinction. Their loss would be a tragedy, but also a crisis for humanity.

In a Slate essay published this week, Susan Matthews calls Our Planet “unwatchable” because it makes viewers “profoundly uncomfortable.” And while I’ve managed to watch three episodes, I can’t disagree. One particularly grisly scene shows walruses, desperate for somewhere to rest as the sea ice disappears, humping their massive bodies up rocky cliffs in Russia and then plummeting to their deaths when they try to return to the sea. The footage made me more than “profoundly uncomfortable.” It made me feel sick, and angry, and utterly helpless.

That last feeling is problematic. The goal of Our Planet is to inspire action. But who should act and how? Can my Energy Star refrigerator give the walruses back their sea ice? Will forgoing meat every Monday prevent a mass extinction?

Of course not. Individual actions aren’t enough. The sweeping solutions we need — new legislation and innovative technologies — are not solutions I can provide.

Doomsayer David Wallace Wells agrees. “… the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve,” he writes. “Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply.”

Politics, he continues, offers “an exit from the personal, emotional burden of climate change and from what can feel like hypocrisy about living in the world as it is and simultaneously worrying about its future. That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.”

In some ways, this feels like a cop out. If I’m talking the talk, shouldn’t I be walking the walk? But maybe I need an out. If I can set aside the crushing guilt of my Western lifestyle and accept my carbon footprint, I just might be able to find a way to cross the vast chasm between terror and action.

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Image courtesy of Curt Carnemark / World Bank via Flickr

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