Why Nature Documentaries Are Essential In The Era Of Climate Change

Talking to a producer from ‘Planet Earth II’

When the first clips from Planet Earth II started appearing online, I—along with just about everyone on, like, the internet—eagerly devoured them all. After all, animal videos are the online world's prime currency; and a video of a baby iguana trying to outrun a horde of descending snakes? That's pure gold—and it was only the tip of the iceberg. (If, you know, icebergs were made out of precious metal, instead of... water.)

The complete Planet Earth II series was released on February 18th, and if you're into technically jaw-dropping cinematography and the extreme wonders intrinsic to the natural world (and who isn't?), not to mention the gruff, British voice-of-god narration provided by David Attenborough (again, who isn't?), then, you know, go stream and watch it now. I'll wait.

But so, now that you're back, I wonder if you're thinking the same thing that I thought after watching hour upon hour of nature-based beauty: Wow, isn't our world full of sublime moments—dizzying and ecstatic highs and dark, nihilistic lows! It's a shame all these ecosystems are being, you know, methodically destroyed thanks to climate change!

Yeah, so, perhaps I'm alone in this (I'm sure I'm not alone in this), but it's become somewhat hard for me to take pure, uncomplicated pleasure in things like nature shows when I am sitting and watching them on a February day in New York City that just so happens to be 70 degrees. What I'm trying to say is: It's hard not to wonder when my northern city habitat is going to look less like itself, and more like footage of the Galapagos Islands. And while I like penguins as much as the next person, I still can't help but get a wild bout of cognitive dissonance when thinking about all the ways in which we're destroying the only home we've got.

But is this just me? Am I just neurotic and hopelessly anxious? (Well, no; my anxiety does have hope!) How does someone who's actually on the ground when it comes to making something like Planet Earth II feel about the plight of our planet? In order to find out, I spoke with Planet Earth II producer Liz White about her experience filming in these potentially climate change-compromised environments, asking her about the value of watching Planet Earth II in a time like this.

White told me:

In this series it's all really about helping people to connect with nature again. It's very easy to feel disconnected. Most of us are living in the middle of a city; we may literally go to work watching our cellphone on the subway to go to our jobWith this series we really wanted to make people feel connected and make them watch these animals' lives and get a sense of understanding and almost empathy for what those animals' lives entail.

White said that she takes note of and loves when she sees people saying things on social media about loving the program and being inspired to go into conservation work. And while Planet Earth II doesn't present an explicitly conservational message, White thinks that the overall sentiment—that our earth needs us to be its caretakers—is implicit. She explained:

We can't avoid mentioning the fact that these habitats are all fragile and they have got threats to them. What I really hope is that people will have... a better understanding and more sense of love for the natural world; they’ll be more in-tuned in reading about the other threats... to giraffes and to other animals... A lot of people working in the conservation world cite natural history film-making as being what made them want to get into [the field] and made them want to protect it. A lot of young people watch planet earth too... Those are the people who have a chance to make real change, who grow up thinking, "I'm fascinated by the natural world and I want to do things to help protect it."

Of course, it's hard not to be skeptical and wonder if young people's interest in Planet Earth II's beautiful cinematography is a stand-in for truly caring about the earth, and is instead another example of the slacktivism of, say, posting a photo of a safety pin on a social media profile pic, but, hopefully, that won't be the case. Hopefully, viewers will partake in the wonders that are Planet Earth and, in fact, planet Earth, and commit themselves to working for a better future for every living thing on the planet, whether it's part of a viral video, or not.

Watch Planet Earth II now on BBC America