Netflix has a new compelling and urgent documentary series called “Our Planet”. It’s filled with beautiful visuals, amazing cinematography, and a desperate message that highlights the impact of humans on our surrounding ecosystems.
Articles have been circulating that showcase the anxiety people feel while watching the series. It has even undergone criticism for it’s graphic and often jarring scenes of baby animal death, brutal falls or accidents, and the stunning loss of life.
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We often see solitary articles or news stories that decry the loss of the rainforest. We read op-eds that gives us data on how rapidly our coral reefs are bleaching and dying. But there is something about putting all of those issues together, in one hard-hitting series that fills you with an existential dread almost impossible to shake.
Orangutans are dying, coral reefs are haunting the ocean like white ghosts, walruses are falling to their deaths, and the biodiversity of our planet is in pressing peril. As the last episode fades to the WWF logo and resources to learn more, there’s no denying the issues.
Sir David Attenborough – who was knighted in 1985 – narrates, and he does the series justice (if only for how he pronounces ‘boobies’). Attenborough started being involved with nature documentaries in 1979 with “Life on Earth” and has held the torch for the genre since. His evolution from smooth British naturalist to the near-political narrator we see in ‘Our Planet’ is a reflection of the times. He seen the devastation humans have wreaked on animals and their ecosystems and he wants us to see it too.
Rachel Riederer, a contributor at the New Yorker, spoke with Sir Attenborough recently. He has this to say about a famous incident when filming ‘Life on Earth’:
In an especially famous moment during an episode filmed in the Rwandan rain forest where Dian Fossey was studying mountain gorillas, he came face to face with a family of gorillas including an adult alpha male, a silverback, and abandoned his scripted speech about opposable thumbs to whisper, ad lib, about how unfair it was that humans had used gorillas as symbols of violence and aggression—“when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not—and that we are.” In his decades of travelling to the world’s wildest places, he has seen firsthand the evidence of human influence on climate. He told me about travelling up and down the rivers of Borneo; as recently as twenty years ago, those forested river banks were “rich with birds and all sorts of wonderful creatures.” No longer. “You go down now and the trees are still there, but there aren’t the monkeys that there were, there aren’t the birds that there were. And you wonder why, until you go up in the helicopter and you see that the band of forest along the riverbanks only extends inland by a mile. Beyond, there is nothing but oil palm.”
Our Planet is special in that it’s entire organization, its ‘meat and potatoes’, is centered around these animals in comparison to what relies on them. Sharks are important to coral reefs – they eat the larger fish that feed on the smaller fish. Those smaller fish keep the coral clear of debris and parasites.
Otters are important because they eat sea urchins, and those sea urchins eat kelp forests. If the sea urchin population grows out of control, they eat all the kelp, and kelp sequesters more carbon that even our rainforests. So therefore, otters have a critical role in combating climate change.
The whole series is set up as a call to action. But some are criticizing the show for being ‘too brutal’. One such scene is highlighted by VT:
The smallest species of flamingo primarily feed on a form of algae which only grows in very alkaline lakes, making the country’s salt-filled shallow lakes, lagoons and wetlands, hotspots.
However, the high temperatures from the scorching sun have dried up the acidic water on the plains and the flock are forced to flee across the vast salt plains.
With hundreds of babies who can’t fly, they must walk up to 50km to locate fresh water – but if the flamingos don’t move fast, the salt will solidify around their legs.
With the salt dragging it back, one tiny baby is seen failing to keep up, with its whole family speeding ahead.
As the salt pulls on its legs, the chick stumbles, before hitting the ground. It picks itself up, but it is not known if it managed to survive and reunite with its family.
Hopefully, that’s a sufficient warning. You can watch the scene here:
This scene is just 15 minutes into the first episode and really sets the tone.
Another hard to watch scene involves walruses. Thousands crowd together on tiny beaches because the ice that they usually chill out on has all but evaporated. So many are lumped together that many babies get trampled in confusion.
Astonishingly, it gets worse. Many walruses climb rocky cliffs to get some space and a moment’s peace. Their poor eyesight, coupled with their need to get back to the sea, sends them plummeting to rocky ground beneath. The episode shows bloodied walrus bodies strewn across the beach, with hungry and skinny polar bears scavenging their beaten bodies.
This docuseries is hard to watch, but complaining about how sad it is or being mad at the creators is insane. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand. It is easy to go about our comfortable lives and forget what havoc we’re putting these ecosystems through. We need to see the consequences of our actions and try to right them before it’s too late.
There are moments of hope sprinkled throughout, though. Attenborough takes us to Southeast Asia, to a place called Raja Ampat. Before 2007, they had very reduced populations of fish and virtually no sharks due to overfishing.
They enacted laws that banned commercial fishing in certain areas and within the decade, they have nearly 25 times the fish, sharks, and turtles that they used to. They have so many species that they spill over into the area where commercial fishing is allowed, and that in turn benefits the fishers. They can catch fish easier and no longer have to hunt and scour the seas.
The episode ends by telling us that we can rehabilitate our seas and bring back biodiversity by turning 1/3 of our coastal seas into protected areas.
Without hard-hitting pieces like Our Planet, stirring people to action, we could never accomplish it.
If you decide not to watch this docuseries, do yourself and favor and at least watch the scenes with the dancing birds. They help us laugh after we cry.
— frankie (@frankie_vickers) April 12, 2019
— World Wildlife Fund (@World_Wildlife) April 12, 2019