Knowingly creating a false impression of the world: this is a serious matter. It is more serious still when the BBC does it, and yet worse when the presenter is “the most trusted man in Britain”. But, as his latest interview with the Observer reveals, David Attenborough sticks to his line that fully representing environmental issues is a “turn-off”.
His new series, Dynasties, will mention the pressures affecting wildlife, but Attenborough makes it clear that it will play them down. To do otherwise, he suggests, would be “proselytising” and “alarmist”. His series will be “a great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts”. In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features, alongside most of the rest of the world’s living systems – and when broadcasting as a whole has disgracefully failed to represent such truths – I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable.
For many years, wildlife film-making has presented a pristine living world. It has created an impression of security and abundance, even in places afflicted by cascading ecological collapse. The cameras reassure us that there are vast tracts of wilderness in which wildlife continues to thrive. They cultivate complacency, not action.
You cannot do such a thing passively. Wildlife film-makers I know tell me that the effort to portray what looks like an untouched ecosystem becomes harder every year. They have to choose their camera angles ever more carefully to exclude the evidence of destruction, travel further to find the Edens they depict. They know – and many feel deeply uncomfortable about it – that they are telling a false story, creating a fairytale world that persuades us all is well, in the midst of an existential crisis. While many people, thanks in large part to David Attenborough, are now quite well informed about wildlife, we remain astonishingly ignorant about what is happening to it.
What makes Attenborough’s comments particularly odd is that they come just a year after the final episode of his Blue Planet II series triggered a massive effort to reduce plastic pollution. Though the programme made a complete dog’s breakfast of the issue, the response demonstrated a vast public appetite for information about the environmental crisis, and an urgent desire to act on it.
Since 1985, when I worked in the department that has made most of his programmes, I have pressed the BBC to reveal environmental realities, often with dismal results. In 1995 I spent several months with a producer, developing a novel and imaginative proposal for an environmental series. The producer returned from his meeting with the channel controller in a state of shock. “He just looked at the title and asked ‘Is this environment?’ I said yes. He said, ‘I’ve spent two years trying to get environment off this fucking channel. Why the fuck are you bringing me environment?’”
I later discovered that this response was typical. The controllers weren’t indifferent. They were actively hostile. If you ask me whether the BBC or ExxonMobil has done more to frustrate environmental action in this country, I would say the BBC.
We all knew that only one person had the power to break this dam. For decades David Attenborough, a former channel controller widely seen as the living embodiment of the BBC, has been able to make any programme he wants. So where, we kept asking, was he? At last, in 2000, he presented an environmental series: State of the Planet.
It was an interesting and watchable series, but it left us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Only in the last few seconds of the final episode was there a hint that structural forces might be at play: “Real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies, in our economics and in our politics.” But what change? What economics? What politics? He had given us no clues.
To make matters worse, it was sandwiched between further programmes of his about the wonders of nature, which created a strong impression of robust planetary health. He might have been describing two different worlds. Six years later he made another environmental series, The Truth About Climate Change. And this, in my view, was a total disaster.
It told us nothing about the driving forces behind climate breakdown. The only mention of fossil fuel companies was as part of the solution: “The people who extract fossil fuels like oil and gas have now come up with a way to put carbon dioxide back underground.” Apart from the general “we”, the only distinct force identified as responsible was the “1.3 billion Chinese”. That a large proportion of Chinese emissions are caused by manufacturing goods the west buys was not mentioned. The series immediately triggered a new form of climate denial: I was bombarded with people telling me there was no point in taking action in Britain because the Chinese were killing the planet.
If Attenborough’s environmentalism has a coherent theme, it is shifting the blame from powerful forces on to either society in general or the poor and weak. Sometimes it becomes pretty dark. In 2013 he told the Telegraph“What are all these famines in Ethiopia? What are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land … We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.”
There had not been a famine in Ethiopia for 28 years, and the last one was caused not by an absolute food shortage but by civil war and government policies. His suggestion that food relief is counter-productive suggests he has read nothing on the subject since Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798. But, cruel and ignorant as these comments were, they were more or less cost-free. By contrast, you do not remain a national treasure by upsetting powerful vested interests: look at the flak the outspoken wildlife and environmental presenter Chris Packham attracts for standing up to the hunting lobby.
I have always been entranced by Attenborough’s wildlife programmes, but astonished by his consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defence of the living world he loves. His revelation of the wonders of nature has been a great public service. But withholding the knowledge we need to defend it is, I believe, a grave disservice.
• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist
Since you’re here …
… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our reporting as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help.
The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important because it enables us to give a voice to the voiceless, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.
If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to support it, our future would be much more secure. For as little as $1, you can support the Guardian – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.
Climate change is real, and it will start damaging the planet in irreversible ways very, very soon. An October 2018 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that we have 12 years to keep the globe’s average temperature at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; even half a degree higher would greatly increase the risks for drought, poverty, and extreme weather.
If you’ve heard about the report, chances are it caused you to do one of two things: 1. Internally freak out about our impending doom and become so overwhelmed that you decided to not think about it and leave the unprecedented changes up to those in laboratories and the White House. 2. Internally freak out about our impending doom and then wonder what you can do to help.
For many women, that goes beyond recycling, switching to an electric car, or avoiding fast fashion. It also extends to the choices we make about family. According to a 2017 study, the number one thing people in industrialized countries can do to limit climate change is have fewer children; not having a baby could save as much carbon per year as 73 people going vegetarian. However, Kimberly Nicholas, who co-authored the report, told ELLE that the report wasn’t meant to make people feel guilty for having children. “If I had a burning hole in my heart to have a child and I knew that it would also be the biggest contribution to climate change that I would make, I think that I would do it anyway,” she said. Nicholas also said she believes lowering your own energy consumption is more important than deciding not to have children: “It’s not so much about whether you choose to have a child. It’s about what kind of lifestyle you choose to raise that child in.”
But still, other women are choosing not to have biological children for the sake of the planet. Below, five women sound off on their reasoning.
“If my hypothetical children were to ask me one day, ‘Why did you bring me onto the planet knowing what a dire situation it was in?’ there’s no reasonable answer I could give to justify my actions. There’s not much I can do as an individual to stop climate change, but I can do my part to not leave a future generation to suffer through global catastrophe.
I’ve never really wanted kids, but the recent announcement from scientists that we (humanity) have 12 years to stem the tide of catastrophic climate change validates and solidifies my decision.
It sounds defeatist, but when we have a White House administrations that’s unwilling to admit climate change is a problem, and the U.S., along with China, India, and Russia, producing astronomical amounts of greenhouse emissions, individual effort is a drop in the bucket without policy change.”
“Up until I was in my mid-twenties I had always viewed having kids not so much as something I really wanted, but something that was inevitable. It seemed like a natural path everyone around me took, and I assumed that at some point it would appeal to me. I’ve been with my partner for six years, and my biological clock never kicked in. Ultimately, we both agree that the environmental stakes are too high for something we feel ambivalent about at best.
Besides being vegetarian, I also try to make energy conscious choices when I can, like riding my bike to work instead of driving. My job at the Center for Biological Diversity is to help people make the connection between unsustainable population growth and its effects on endangered species and their habitat. As our population grows, we’re increasingly beating out wildlife for resources and space and none of the eco-conscious choices we make will matter if our population keeps growing at the current rate.
Population needs to become a bigger part of the environmental conversation, and we use our Endangered Species Condoms as a way to start that conversation and educate people about how safe sex can save the planet.
Many people don’t know that having one less child saves nearly 60 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. This is more than the emission savings from more commonly advertised ‘green’ actions like recycling, eating a plant-based diet, and living car-free combined. Educating people about this could help them rethink their family planning choices and what kind of world they want to leave their kids if they decide to have them.”
Asya Shein, 39, CEO of Fusicology
“I grew up in Toronto, and Canada was always quite progressive in discussing pollution [and] environmental issues like animal extinction.
When I was younger I thought I might want kids, but now that it seems like climate change is coming stronger and faster than previously assumed. I just don’t feel like it’s right to bring people who could have a much more difficult life onto this already very stressed-out planet.“
“My fourth grade teacher was and is a climate change activist and she drilled the importance of respecting the earth into us pretty early. So I always had that sense of environmental responsibility, but I’d say the real thrust of it hit me over the last few years.
I’ve always waffled about whether or not to have kids. I’ll go through phases where I’m convinced I want them and then phases when I’m convinced I don’t. I never really considered adopting until I started thinking seriously about climate change, but now when I think about having kids it makes more sense to me to adopt, because it’s like a win-win: Better for the environment by not contributing to overpopulation, and it helps a kid in need.
I do the usual [to combat climate change]: I’m a vegetarian, and I recycle and attend protests, etc. But honestly I’m doing what most of us with very little power to change things beyond an individual level are doing: the bare minimum.”
“I think I started to understand climate change after I graduated from college. I stopped eating meat for a while and even when I started eating meat again, I drastically cut back my consumption. I recycled everything that was recyclable and stopped drinking bottled water.
Growing up, I had always envisioned a family and having children, but as I have gotten older my views have changed. I believe that climate change is going to have a strong negative impact on future generations, and they are inheriting a bad situation.
Climate change is also going to have a huge impact on food production and the world is already becoming over-populated—another reason why I do not want to have children.
If [the effects of climate change] were really a priority, we would see change being made like no more coal and more solar power and renewable resources.”
Auditor General of : Demand cleanup of abandoned telegraph wire that is killing wildlife in Pacific Northwest
‘You could see that this truly epic battle between the wire and the moose had gone on,’ says Ken Knutson
CBC News Posted: Sep 15, 2015 6:30 AM CT Last Updated: Sep 15, 2015 6:30 AM CT
Something needs to be done about old telegraph wire left in the bush, says a Yukon conservation officer who had to kill a badly-entangled bull moose on Friday.
“Clearly it’s got to be cleaned up,” says Ken Knutson.
“It’s been known for a while that it’s a hazard. Something like this really brings it home where you’ve got an animal alive in front of you … and you’ve got to euthanize it.”
A dog musher called conservation officers after spotting the distressed bull moose caught in telegraph wire adjacent to the White Pass and Yukon Route railway, about three kilometres from the South Klondike Highway.
“You could see that this truly epic battle between the wire and the moose had gone on,” Knutson said.
“It was wrapped numerous times around pine trees that were five, six inches. It had mowed some of them down. On both sides of the track it was all churned up. So he’d put up quite a struggle.”
Knutson says there was no way the moose would have freed itself from the wire on its own.
“There were multiple wraps around its antlers,” he said. “It was around his neck, around its body and its hind legs — there was a big snarl.”
‘I could have literally gone up and touched him’
Knutson says the animal had likely been trapped for a day or two.
“He was worn out,” he says. “I could have literally gone up and touched him and he wouldn’t have done anything, which is clearly not normal behaviour.”
Had the situation been different, he says he might have been able to save the moose. But due to the weak physical condition of the animal and the lack of extra resources available to Knutson at midnight on Friday, he made the decision to shoot it.
Knuston says although the meat will be donated, it’s a waste of a healthy 500-kilogram bull.
“He was in the height of his glory; the kind you want out there breeding.”
Knuston says he thinks White Pass and Yukon Railway may own the old telegraph line. The railway company did not immediately return calls on Monday.
Plans are in the works to clean up similar abandoned wire that has been snagging caribou and moose for years along the Canol Trail in N.W.T.
Every social and environmental issue is exacerbated by overpopulation. Fifty years ago, there were 3.4 billion people living. Now that number is 7.6 billion. Human population has grown more in the last several decades than in the past three million years. We add 80 million mouths to feed every year. At that rate, world population will grow to 12 billion by 2050.
Five results from overpopulation are: 1) hunger and starvation; 2) squandering natural resources until we run out; 3) landscalping and the loss of land fertility; 4) cultural, economic, and political upheaval; and 5) harm to wild things.
In about 300 years, the acreage needed to feed humans has gone from less than 10 percent to nearly half of Earth’s land acres—more than a five-fold rise. Earth’s atmosphere, seas, and forests can’t soak up our industrial, transportation, and agricultural emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases.
Between 1990 and 2003, U.S. per capita greenhouse gas emissions went up by 3.2 percent. But overall U.S. emissions went up 20.2 percent! How can this be? Our population rose 16.1 percent. So, unless we get a handle on population, we’ll never succeed in reducing greenhouse gas production.
Economist Edwin S. Rubenstein recently wrote “The impact of U.S. population growth on global climate change.” He concludes that, “Over the long run, U.S. population growth is the most important factor in CO2 emissions emanating from this country.”
Experts writing in the Lancet say that “Prevention of unwanted births today by family planning might be one of the most cost-effective ways to preserve the planet’s environment for the future.”
Republicans say the act hinders drilling, logging and other activities
BILLINGS, Mont. — In control of Congress and soon the White House, Republicans are readying plans to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act, one of the government’s most powerful conservation tools, after decades of complaints that it hinders drilling, logging and other activities.
Over the past eight years, GOP lawmakers sponsored dozens of measures aimed at curtailing the landmark law or putting species such as gray wolves and sage grouse out of its reach. Almost all were blocked by Democrats and the White House or lawsuits from environmentalists.
Now, with the ascension of President-elect Donald Trump, Republicans see an opportunity to advance broad changes to a law they contend has been exploited by wildlife advocates to block economic development.
“It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop. “We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked.”
Bishop said he “would love to invalidate” the law and would need other lawmakers’ cooperation.
The 1973 act was ushered though Congress nearly unanimously, in part to stave off extinction of the national symbol, the bald eagle. Eagle populations have since rebounded, and the birds were taken off the threatened and endangered list in 2007.
In the eagles’ place, another emblematic species — the wolf — has emerged as a prime example of what critics say is wrong with the current law: seemingly endless litigation that offers federal protection for species long after government biologists conclude that they have recovered.
Wolf attacks on livestock have provoked hostility against the law, which keeps the animals off-limits to hunting in most states. Other species have attracted similar ire — Canada lynx for halting logging projects, the lesser prairie chicken for impeding oil and gas development and salmon for blocking efforts to reallocate water in California.
Reforms proposed by Republicans include placing limits on lawsuits that have been used to maintain protections for some species and force decisions on others, as well as adopting a cap on how many species can be protected and giving states a greater say in the process.
Wildlife advocates are bracing for changes that could make it harder to add species to the protected list and to usher them through to recovery. Dozens are due for decisions this year, including the Pacific walrus and the North American wolverine, two victims of potential habitat loss due to climate change.
“Any species that gets in the way of a congressional initiative or some kind of development will be clearly at risk,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former Fish and Wildlife Service director under President Bill Clinton. “The political lineup is as unfavorable to the Endangered Species Act as I can remember.”
More than 1,600 plants and animals in the U.S. are now shielded by the law. Hundreds more are under consideration for protections. Republicans complain that fewer than 70 have recovered and had protections lifted.
President-elect Trump has announced his pick for head for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. The twist? Pruitt is currently suing the agency he’ll soon lead. He has helped lead the battle against key climate-change initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, which 29 state attorneys-general are contesting. Pruitt and other attorneys-general are also suing the agency over a rule regulating methane emissions from oil and gas production, as well as over other rules meant to curb mercury and arsenic emissions, reduce smog, and protect streams and wetlands.
Pruitt joins Oklahoma GOP senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn in questioning the need to act on climate change. In an op-ed in The National Review earlier this year, Pruitt wrote that the debate is “far from settled” and called the Clean Power Plan an example of “advancing the climate-change agenda by any means necessary.” In 2014, he sent the EPA a letter claiming that the agency had greatly overestimated the air pollution produced by natural gas drilling in Oklahoma. The New York Times later reported that the letter was actually written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of the biggest energy companies in the state – and that Pruitt and a dozen other Republican attorneys general had teamed up with energy companies to push back against what they saw as regulatory excesses by Obama.
Pruitt’s pro-energy stance and aggressive fights against federal regulations helped him get the nod. “You are going to want to have someone who has had state experience, who really understands the issues and has had to deal with an overreaching EPA as a federal agency,” George “David” Banks, executive vice president of the American Council for Capital Formation, told E&E News in September.
Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife immediately denounced the “absolute wrong choice” of Pruitt to lead the 15,000-employee agency. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote in a press release that “he’s bragged about suing, trashing and manipulating the agency he’s now supposed to lead.” And the American Sustainable Business Councilstated in a press release that “Pruitt’s selection signals a rollback of policies that have stimulated innovation and progress. In addition to clean energy, clean water and chemical regulation are under threat as a result of preferential treatment these regulated industries are expected to receive.”