A few weeks ago, Netflix launched its high-profile documentary Our Planet. As you’d expect, the documentary featured some stunning visuals, and was mainly voiced by David Attenborough, but also by Salma Hayek, Penepole Cruz, and other top Hollywood actors. It was an instant hit.
Of course, until now, this doesn’t really seem that different from other good documentaries — particularly the recent Attenborough‐voiced BBC documentaries. What really made Our Planet stand out, Netflix says, is that it puts the threats natural environments are facing at the forefront.
Researchers wanted to put this to the test.
A team from Bangor University, University of Kent, Newcastle University, and the University of Oxford coded the scripts from these recent documentaries (the 3 BBC ones — Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, and Dynasties — and the Netflix one), seeing how much time they dedicate to threats and conservation.
Planet Earth II focused on how animals meet the challenges of surviving in the most iconic habitats on earth. Blue Planet II offered a similar exploration, in the world’s oceans. Meanwhile, Dynasties follows the fates of some of the most iconic species on Earth. However, the documentary which spent the most time discussing threats was indeed Our Planet: some 15% of its script was dedicated to what’s not right in the natural world.
But Our Planet wasn’t an outlier: Blue Planet II dedicated almost as much to environmental threats, although this was largely concentrated into a single episode, whereas Our Planet sprinkled conservation issues across all episodes.
There were further issues about how anthropogenic impact was presented: turn the sound off, and you have a documentary that looks pretty much like any other. The researchers interpret this as a clear editorial decision, with documentary makers wanting to go for appealing visuals rather than address more thorny issues head-on.
“The makers of Our Planet did produce a hard‐hitting and visually stunning eight‐minute film, also narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which is available on the accompanying website. It was therefore a clear editorial decision to keep the ‘feel’ of the main episodes similar to previous such documentaries, rather than explicitly showing the extensive anthropogenic impact on our planet,” the researchers write.
Needless to say, researchers aren’t thrilled about this.
The problems this approach causes are multifaceted. For starters, it eliminates the direct visual influence of humans from the “beautiful shots” — suggesting the idea that some places are for nature, and other places are for humans, as if nature wasn’t all around us, in all environments. This also implies that because human activity isn’t visible, it doesn’t really affect these creatures, when this is clearly not the case. Ecosystem alterations such as deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions exert huge pressures on Earth’s creatures. In addition, in many parts of the world, a pressing conservation issue is balancing the legitimate need of people to use ecosystem resources with conservation of said ecosystems.
Simply put, nature and humans are almost always intertwined, and documentaries aren’t showing this enough. Professor Julia Jones, lead author, said:
“One could argue that by using camera angles to avoid showing any sign of people, nature film makers are being disingenuous, and even actively misleading audiences. The viewer may be led to believe that things cannot be that bad for biodiversity as what they are seeing on the screen shows nature, for the most part, doing fine.”
“The inextricable link between threats to the natural world and the high consumption of western lifestyles would be more difficult to ignore if the presence, or even dominance, of commercial agriculture, mining and transport infrastructure were more visible in the landscapes, reducing the space for the awe-inspiring wild spectacles shown.”
The good news is that there is plenty of room for improvement, and nature documentaries can make a difference. The final episode of the 2017 documentary Blue Planet II has been widely credited with influencing UK policy change on marine plastics. Just months after it, legislation banning plastic straws came into effect, and to many British citizens, David Attenborough’s narration basically ended plastic straws in the country.
However, the extent to which the documentaries change overall human behavior and policy are not exactly well known. Dr. Diogo Vesrissimo, co-author, comments:
“There is limited evidence on the causal relationships between viewing a documentary and subsequent behaviour change. Nature documentary producers should work with researchers to better understand these positive and negative impacts”.
Nevertheless, in an era where it’s pretty much do-or-die for the environment, bringing the threats that nature is facing into the mainstream (however tentatively that may be) is extremely valuable. We need more than just beautiful images and heartfelt stories. We need to put two and two together and acknowledge just how mankind is affecting the environment.
We may lack the fine analysis, but nature documentaries do have an effect on society — and they need to do better in this regard.
The study was published in People and Nature.