It’s Finally Sinking In

Our Planet is unwatchable. The latest U.N. climate change report is unreadable. We’re slowly getting it anyway.

A scene from Our Planet.
A scene from Our Planet. Netflix

Netflix recently released a new nature documentary series, Our Planet, and its bland title is only the first indication that it is attempting to compete with the BBC’s popular Planet Earth and Blue Planet series. As with those shows, it too has soothing narration by David Attenborough, and it likewise involves the editing down of unimaginable hours of nature footage into narratives neat enough for humans to consume. The producers of all three series also seem to have concluded that the easiest way to make plants and particularly fungus compelling is to present them in a very fast time lapse. (They’re right!)

The biggest difference between the shows is that Our Planet is unnervingly explicit about humans’ impact on Earth and its creatures. While the BBC series tend to save any discussion of climate change and human devastation for the end of episodes or, more often, the last episode of each season, in Our Planet, the narrative beat “ … and we’re destroying them” seems to recur in every segment. This makes for a dramatically different viewing experience—a profoundly uncomfortable one—and since “profoundly uncomfortable” isn’t really what most people are going for when they watch TV, it’s not surprising to me that a bunch of people I know who have started the series have ended up abandoning it midway through. It’s easy to lap up Planet Earth’s servings of wonder. Our Planet is asking us to do something tougher: stare at destruction, and reckon with our share of the blame.

In different circumstances, I might be inclined to be slightly judgmental of the choice to turn Our Planet off—we should all look more directly at the consequences of our actions. But it’s hard to argue that Our Planet is the best way to do that. On Monday, the United Nations released the first iteration of its latest report on how human beings are screwing up the planet, taking an expansive view of all types of human-driven harms, from land use to pollution to climate change, and concluding, as the New York Times summarized in its headline, that “humans are speeding extinction and altering the natural world at an ‘unprecedented’ pace.” This follows October’s terrifying report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the one that teens have been using as their evidence that we have just 12 years to turn this ship around before things get really bad. (This is not exactly accurate—we both have less and more than 12 years to act, as one of that report’s authors recently clarified in a smart essay.) But either way, the broad takeaway is basically that the world’s scientists are banding together to issue extreme warnings that our current course of action is unsustainable. They’re deploying increasingly hyperbolic language in the hopes of jolting governing bodies and regular people into action, because they think that it’s warranted given the size of the threat.

The question is whether their alarm-ringing is working. Given the sheer scale of the warning and the apparently insufficient response, it seems like the answer is “nope.” (The fact that lots of people can’t even get through Our Planet is maybe another indication of this disconnect.)

But one thing that struck me while reading the valiant efforts of journalists attempting to convey the gravity of the scale of the U.N. report (a 1,500-page document that its authors distilled into a 40-page summary, which reporters had to distill into a normal-size news story), is the sheer impossibility of that task. “Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded,” Brad Plumer’s Times story begins. Where do you even go from there?

Where Plumer goes from there is an attempt to explain the massive scale of the problem in a way that might allow us to see the full, devastating picture. He attempts to demonstrate the utility of a functioning planet by summarizing the assumed monetary value it currently provides (“in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year”). He explains how individual problems cascade into bigger problems, noting how the degradation of bees ends up hurting the food supply, and how the loss of coral reefs and mangroves eliminates a natural buffer against flooding. He summarizes the sheer volume of species in danger—we’re risking “the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals” along with 500,000 land species—while still zooming in on the plight of some crowd favorites, like the orangutan, whose habitat has been devastated by palm oil farming. Like most of the stories out there on the report, it was a valiant effort to economically convey the scale of the problem.

The attempt reminds me of Our Planet, and not just because the show features a particularly devastating sequence on the orangutan’s plight. Rather, both the U.N. report and Our Planet perfectly highlight the futility of any endeavor of “getting people to care about nature.” The sheer numbers are too overwhelming for most of us to internalize. The individual stories are too depressing for most of us to keep watching or reading. If you can neither zoom in nor zoom out, what else can you do?

One answer, maybe, can be found in a subtler argument put forth by the U.N. report. Despite its endless recitations of how many types of species are being harmed and how much abundance we have already lost, the crux of the report’s urgency is derived from its acknowledgement that the degradation of nature is not simply a problem of nature—though it certainly is that—but a problem of ours. Our impact on the planet quite literally threatens our ability to survive and prosper. That’s why, as Plumer summarizes, “the authors note that the devastation of nature has become so severe that piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient.” This is correct, though I would go further—piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to conserve swaths of land have never been enough. Conceiving of nature as something separate that ought to be preserved, rather than the foundation of our lives, is how we got here. For far too long, we’ve operated under a misguided assumption that the responsibility to care for nature can be cordoned off under the header of “environmentalism,” a good thing to do if we can manage it. But this isn’t about altruism. It’s about necessity.

I think that we are starting to understand this, sort of. The idea of necessity is what provides the clear and easy justification for the climate strikes. It’s why we’re starting to see economic stakeholders become more and more upfront about the importance of taking action on emissions. It’s also the argument behind the Green New Deal—that not taking action is hurting us, and we need to do something about it for our own good. It’s true that, in the story of climate change, we are the villain. But we’re also the victim. The first fact helps explain why watching a show like Our Planet sucks. The second fact helps explain why, even if we haven’t figured out exactly how to convey the scale, or how to tell this story in a way that doesn’t prompt some of us to turn away, the message is finally starting to sink in.