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Does David Attenborough’s most recent work encourage action?

ByKriszti Kocsis

Oct 10, 2019

Before we consider the effect Sir David Attenborough’s work has made on today’s society, it is important to investigate the culture of ‘raising awareness’.

This term has a negative connotation. Recently it has been more criticised than praised. The reason: sometimes awareness campaigns fail to provide solutions to a problem in discussion, leaving the people aware, willing but utterly confused about how to take action. These were the debates surrounding Sir David Attenborough’s three most recent works: Blue Planet, Blue Planet II and Climate Change – The Facts.

The aforementioned series are blockbusters in the UK. Most know Sir David and are well aware of the power and charisma that lingers around his persona. His decades-long career as a natural historian and documentarian is outstanding, almost unmatched in productivity and influence. His most current work is narrating and directing these three monumental and purely beautiful shows, taking the visual effects of nature documentaries to another level. And he achieves what these series are meant to achieve: they make people sit, rage, and care. Genuinely care, as mass death of an entire bat population with their corpses lying in the grass, baby seagulls dying from swallowed plastic toothpicks, and motion animations of football-pitch-sized lands disappearing underwater with people forced to flee (contributing to an emerging group of environmental refugees). This is indeed enraging.

This is not like call-for-action campaigns for genocides or natural disasters, where the best viewers can do is donate. This is a phenomenon where people feel that their personal action would contribute to a significant change in the situation. The consequences of plastic waste, damage of economies that depend on fossil fuels and the environmental impact of meat production places the control into the hands of ‘ordinary’ people.

However, the ‘Blue Planet effect’ has been criticised for various reasons. Blue Planet raises awareness of plastic waste, portraying it as the single vilest tool of destruction in the hands of humans, whilst Climate Change – The Facts refers to the dangers of deforestation and usage of fossil fuels.

However, they fail to highlight the issues outside of these main aspects, such as workplace recycling and sorting out the proper disposal of waste other than plastic. Another criticism it receives is that it calls for awareness, but fails to give a detailed plan of action, specifics both for politicians and activists, or people who genuinely want to change and get involved yet don’t know how.

However, people did manage to take action. Since 2017 (the release of Blue Planet II), actions turned radical. An article on globalcitizen.org writes that 88 per cent of people claim that after watching the series they made a change in their plastic consumption and usage. Waitrose is set to replace single use plastic bags for loose fruit and vegetables to ones that can be compostable, and stopped using disposable coffee cups at the coffee stalls within their stores.

The BBC writes that The Houses of Parliament announced cutting emissions to almost zero by 2050. More than 50 per cent more people use reusable water bottles and metal straws than in 2017. One eighth of British people have become vegans or vegetarians and an even more significant number have become flexitarian. Millions of school children, joined by parents and teachers, took to the streets in mass climate protests three times this year.

The criticisms therefore only reveal how unrealistic expectations can be about the effects of these documentaries. The aim of their production was neither preaching, nor providing a handbook for reshaping the structure of societies built on using materials that walk us towards our own destruction.

The aim of these three series were touching people’s minds, encouraging them for research and collective action. And it did achieve it. In the last two years there has been nothing as unifying, visible and radical as the climate strikes of the last year, and Sir David Attenborough’s work contributed to this on a scale rarely seen before. His work became the starting point of a movement.


Image Credit: www.dfat.gov.au via Wikipedia Commons

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