In the opening episode of Our Planet, Netflix’s new nature documentary, there’s a scene where a glacier tumbling down from the Greenland ice sheet begins to cough up chunks of ice. Zoomed in aerial footage, overhead shots, and a water-level view all set against detonating cracks show cliffs collapse and shards of jagged white and blue ice breaking apart.
When I spoke with Adam Chapman, one of the show’s producers, he told me being present and shooting the scene felt like Inception, the Christopher Nolan movie where thieves invade people’s dreams and subconscious. Indeed, the vertiginous shots showing 75 million tons of ice fall into the ocean have a dream-like quality. But this nightmare is our reality, and while Our Planet has David Attenborough’s velvety smooth narration, swelling music, jaw dropping cinematography, and all the other trappings of a nature documentary, it unflinchingly tells the tale of a planet where humans are now the dominant force.
Our Planet is the first un-nature documentary, and its message is this: For the first time, one species living on Earth will choose what the future looks like. And that species is us. But while the show itself makes its case well , the actual steps it asks viewers to take are minor at a time when we need to completely (and rapidly) overhaul our relationship with the planet.
By the numbers alone, it’s clear Our Planet was a painstaking endeavor. The show took four years to shoot, involved 2,000 hours of dives, 400,000 hours of camera trap footage, and visits to 60 countries. The resulting eight-part series takes viewers on a journey around the world.
We’re treated to intimate scenes of a family of orangutans in Borneo, a shark feeding frenzy in French Polynesia, and a lone Siberian tiger stalking in the snowy forest, as well as vast landscapes from the Serengeti to the boreal forest. Humans appear in just one scene, casting fishing nets in Alaska to capture herring, which Attenborough notes have been “greatly reduced” due to overfishing. There are also a few satellite images of land use change over time, crumbling ice, and palm plantations rubbing against natural forest that hint at human influence, but it’s Attenborough’s narration that really drives home how we’ve altered many of the scenes on display.
The moment that shook me most was a walrus haul-out in the Arctic. Warming oceans have shrunk sea ice, forcing walruses to huddle on shore more often. In excruciating footage, Our Planet shows walruses scaling cliffs and then, sensing movement of the herd below, flinging themselves to their death on the rocks as the rest of huddle scatters into the water. Their bloated corpses in the shallows then became food for polar bears, which are also spending more time on land thanks to climate change.
“This is fucked up,” my wife said to me as we watched. I dreamed about dead walruses later that night.
The show isn’t a complete downer, though. It shows how marine protected areas have helped humpback whales rebound and restoring fisheries has led to a shorebird revitalization. The last segment of the final episode focuses on how wildlife have come back to Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. Mute the show and take in the drone shots of trees rising among the buildings and the scene could be from a science fiction movie where humans lives in harmony with nature.
All of this makes the eloquent case that humanity is not just the driving force on, well, our planet, but that the steps we collectively take next will decide the fate of the wildlife we share it with. Yet the biggest things that I got hung up on watching Our Planet were the incremental steps it advocates its viewers take and the general absence of humanity, which is so central to the narrative the show puts forward.
On some level, it makes sense: I mean, who wants to watch smokestacks belching carbon dioxide or farmers using slash and burn agriculture when you can watch a shrew poop on a pitcher plant and hear David Attenborough utter the phrase “shrew poo?” But at the same time, the show’s central premise that we have a choice and that we can fix the planet requires first knowing what the problem is. Our Planet talks about climate change without ever mentioning the industrial activity that’s led to it. The on-screen solutions are big picture conservation ones like protecting more of the oceans, which we should do, but neither the show nor the website explain how viewers can help ensure that happens. It doesn’t even get into the fact that oil companies, big agriculture, and other massive industries are driving climate change, let alone how to hold them accountable.
Instead, Attenborough intones at the end of each episode that you can visit a website to find out how to help. Yet said site offers only the most classic of neoliberal solutions. You, the consumer, can sign a pledge to consume responsibly once redirected to World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) website. Once you sign it, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the first fundraising email reaches your inbox. Which itself is hugely problematic given the recent bombshell BuzzFeed News investigation into how the WWF backs wildlife rangers that have engaged in serious human rights violations. The other option is adding your “voice to call for urgent action” on a cool-looking spinny globe on the website that also sends your email to WWF. These solutions have about as much to do with the solutions laid out on-screen in Our Planet as a walrus does with a deep sea oar fish.
I’m a firm believer in “doing your part,” but the solutions Our Planet offers are a sad coda after watching the show. The issues facing our world require require system change, not signing petitions. I definitely enjoyed the show for what it is, but if the intent is to mobilize the masses to stave off the sixth mass extinction, I don’t think it’ll serve as much of a course correction.
Update April 11, 2019: A producer with Our Planet reached out about the show’s website to note it has been updated dramatically from the holding page that was in place. While the pledges are still there, the site now includes videos that delve deeper into solutions and other solutions-oriented content that will continue to be rolled out through November. Jonnie Hughes, the producer who reached out, told Earther the crew made “over 100 original short films and built an interactive globe, which together walk visitors through a detailed exploration of the path we humans might take to reverse biodiversity loss and gain sustainability on Earth.
“I can honestly say, speaking as someone who has worked for the BBC for 15 years, that this is the most public service thing I’ve ever done. Netflix is doing something amazing here that may actually have a chance of moving the dial, and everyone should know about it.”