Life on the edge of a perfect planet
Sir David Attenborough’s latest series, ‘A Perfect Planet’, explores how the forces of nature work in synergy to make our planet just right for us
Sir David Attenborough spent the better part of last year in lockdown doing the narration of BBC Earth’s latest offering, A Perfect Planet. Being 94, he did so hunkering down between duvets hung from his dining room walls. The result? The impeccable narration fans have come to expect.
A Perfect Planet explores how the forces of nature work in synergy to make our planet just perfect: how volcanoes, solar energy, the weather and ocean currents shape and support life on Earth to make it the only planet — to our knowledge — that can support life.
“I don’t know how long we can go on finding new things to say and new ways to say them but throughout my last sixty years, every year there has been a major technical improvement which has made us able to tell stories in new ways,” Attenborough tells me over a Zoom call.
One such story, told in the first episode, Volcanoes, is the filming of 2-million lesser flamingos that flock to Lake Natron once every few years to breed when the conditions are just right.
Sitting at the foot of Ol Donyo Lengai, one of Africa’s most active volcanoes in Tanzania, the water of Lake Natron is so alkaline in some places that it can burn the human skin. But the algae, which grows in the volcanic water, serves as a vital food source for these flamingos. It’s also the source of their distinctive pink feathers and luminous orange eyes.
This footage has been filmed before, but never with a drone. This technological innovation has enabled the crew to capture a view of the giant crèche of flaminglets making a mad dash across the sunbaked salt lake to a fresh water source, capturing stunning reflections dancing off the water-covered salt surface in some places.
Projects such as these in which Attenborough blends natural history and earth science I feel are among his best — if not most important — work. The days of making nature documentaries without touching on the ever-present human threat to the planet are over.
Last year Attenborough released one of his most moving documentary films yet, A Life on Our Planet. Calling it his “witness statement”, it painted a very emotive picture of where the world is heading if humans don’t literally clean up their act. Recently he also worked on Climate Change: The Facts, Extinction: The Facts and Our Planet.
This series does not depart from Attenborough’s previous messages. Each episode touches on what’s at stake in these perfect systems if humans do not change their ways, and the final episode considers the impact of the world’s newest force of nature — humans.
The urgency of the series doesn’t quite come to fruition in the first episode of A Perfect Planet. We learn that the giant Aldabra tortoises that live on the Outer Islands of the Seychelles may soon have to find a new refuge or face death by drowning if sea levels continue to rise.
Attenborough tries to drive home the fact that each year humans release 100 times more carbon into the earth’s atmosphere than all of the earth’s volcanoes combined and suggests that an alternative form of energy may be the volcanoes themselves.
Viewed independently, these episodes won’t have much of an impact apart from the beautiful cinematography and interesting — and at times somewhat macabre — animal species that fill the frames.
It won’t be until the fifth episode, Humans, that Attenborough drives his message home. It is hard to watch a baby orphaned elephant dying of thirst, koalas fleeing the flames of wildfires, flesh half-burned, or the plight of endangered sharks succumbing to commercial fishing.
Amidst the tragedy of it all, one can’t help but wonder: is this not too little too late? Humans have been destroying the world for far too long — and getting away with it unscathed. Where was the outcry at the start of the devastation?
Alastair Fothergill, the executive producer of the series, concedes: “We used to just make celebratory programmes and gradually we’ve tried to talk more about the environmental issues. It’s surprising how recent there has been a global understanding of these issues. In the early days it was quite challenging to get environmental programming into prime time — certainly on the BBC, but anywhere actually, globally.”
The hard-hitting reality of human destruction is as difficult to watch as the episode is hopeful. It details beautiful conservation initiatives, making it both sobering and optimistic.
“It’s been very important to us that we give people solutions as well because I think if you don’t talk about the solutions people will just stick their heads in the sand and say there’s nothing I can do about it,” Fothergill adds. “What’s really satisfying for those of us who have a passion for nature is that the science has shown that the solutions to the issues we have are actually within the natural world.”
Attenborough’s message rings out clear: “We have the capacity and knowledge to stop the damage we’re doing. What we don’t have is time.”
And as long as there’s still a glimmer of hope, it’s a story worth telling. If not now, then when?
• A Perfect Planet airs on Sundays at 4pm on BBC Earth (DStv channel 184). If you missed it, Climate Change: The Facts and Extinction: The Facts will be broadcast on BBC Earth in March as part of the channel’s Eco season of programming content.
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