how can we live without polar bears? bbc's planet earth gets political

In October, I blogged about my impressions of the BBC nature series "Planet Earth". I loved the show, but criticized the producers for making it completely apolitical. There was not a single mention of habitat conservation, climate change or any human-caused environmental disruption, which struck me as a terrible missed opportunity.

We put down the series for a while (because we got addicted to "The Wire") and just returned to the final three episodes. Now I must retract my criticism and give the series the highest possible marks for its politics, both in form and content.

The last three episodes of the Planet Earth series are devoted to humans' impact on the environment, and the debate about what can and should be done about that. The strategy of putting all the environmental content at the end was very interesting and potentially very effective. Had each episode contained environmental messages, many viewers would have turned away. The narration might have become repetitive, plus the environmental content might have had less impact it it were dispersed throughout the series, focusing on one environmental risk at a time.

Instead, we are first mesmerized and awed by the beauty and majesty of nature, and the incredible diversity of our beautiful planet home. And then, after being introduced to nature in forms usually unseen by human eyes, we learn of the dire threats, and the precarious state of the earth. And we learn it all at once, with facts and statistics piled one on the next - boggling the mind, and depressing the heart.

We are also introduced to the debate about what should be done. We hear the viewpoints of the leaders of large mainstream environmental groups, radical indigenous environmentalists, energy industry spokespeople (now forced to admit that climate change is occurring... we just don't know if it's caused by humans), indigenous people who have been hurt by some conservation methods, and independent thinkers such as James Lovelock and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The program has a distinct point of view, but is never preachy.

Here are some excerpts from the final three episodes. I'll tell you this: it broke my heart. The first of the three episodes, especially, outlines the threats to species around the planet. I am loathe to say this, but for me it brought on a crushing sense of despair.

* * * *

Right now, the world is facing mass extinctions not experienced since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. All species of big cats, elephants, several species of antelope - all threatened. Amphibians worldwide are in freefall: thousands of species of frogs have disappeared in the last 20 years.

And of course, there is the polar bear, our symbol of climate change, of the loss of the polar ice cap. Our symbol of what the endless quest for consumption and materialism has wrought. The struggles of the polar bear are heartbreaking. In the only overtly political piece in the series (before these final episodes), Planet Earth included a segment showing a polar bear attacking giant walruses - huge, dangerous animals living in large defensive herds - on dry land. This is not normal polar bear behaviour. The bear does not survive: wounded, exhausted, it gives up, lying down near the walruses to die.

You are then shown the same area - the same latitude at the same time of year - 10 years earlier. It was a frozen sea. Polar bears were hunting normally - small seals living alone under the ice. If nothing changes, 35% of polar bears will be gone in the next 50 years.

I kept thinking, How can we live without the polar bear? How can we live in a world where we have killed off these creatures?

The BBC Planet Earth film crew was continually shocked at the rarity of so many species. Not only the number of species going extinct is rising, but the rate of extinction is accelerating. A very large proportion of wildlife species will be completely lost in next 50 years. One of four mammals and one of three amphibians is on the threatened list. Half of all rainforests, wetlands, and grasslands are gone. Entire habitats are being systematically eradicated.

The forest elephants of Asia were presumed to be safer than their African cousins, as they inhabit a remote area and live under dense cover. The Planet Earth team learned that this was simply untrue. These magnificent creatures were just as threatened by poaching; their remoteness and vast forest cover made almost no difference to their vulnerability.

Poaching - especially hunting for an external luxury market, rather than a local consumptive market - can wipe out a species population in as little as 20 years.

In the Amazon River, freshwater dolphins were thought to be nearly eternal. A new market for catfish opened up in Colombia; the dolphins are killed for bait. Now these dolphins are threatened.

Fifteen years ago, filming another series, BBC film crews saw mass migrations of Saiga antelopes on the steppes of Central Asia - herds in the millions. When they returned there to film Planet Earth, there were only a few hundred animals left. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the opening of the border with China opened up new markets. Some antelope were hunted for meat, but most were slaughtered for their horns, which are used in Chinese medicine. Poachers reduced millions to nearly nothing within the span of 15 years.

* * * *

The question is posed: Why do we need frogs? Why should we care if a species of insects or coral is killed off?

The late Professor Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist, the founder of The Greenbelt Movement, who died a few months ago, answered the question this way.
The whole planet Earth is a system. And we, human species, are only part, a very small part, of the system. There are literally millions of species out there. We may not know them. We may not know their value, but we want to conserve them.

We should have a lot respect for the system, for the natural system, for the biodiversity. Don't worry if you don't know what good they are for. You didn't create it, so you don't know what it is for. Just let it be. Because, who knows, someday, down the road, our future generations might find that they can survive because of that aspect of biodiversity.
Several people weigh in on why we should conserve biodiversity, from the blatantly economic to the purely ethical.

There is much discussion of how conservation efforts must be locally directed, supported and sustained in order to succeed, and whether large Western conservation groups care more for animals than for the people in any region. Someone asks, is it good to invest in animals when people are starving? E. O. Wilson says, "You bet your life." He details why saving wildlife is an important investment, one that yields benefits on so many levels. Then finally, he concludes:
The expenditure of a few thousand, even a few million, if it can bring a species through, it has so much to give us, if we can keep it alive, in every sphere of human consciousness - the aesthetic, scientific, in relation to the environment. Yeah, that's a very good investment. It's sure a better investment than conducting wars.
I thought, There. At last someone says it.

Jeffrey A. McNeeley, Chief Scientist with the World Conservation Union, says:
If you look at the amount of money that we were able to generate for all kinds of other things, like invading Iraq, for example. Now what does that cost? What tiny proportion of that would it take to ensure that those species do in fact survive? Minuscule.
There is much discussion about humans being moved to save big, beautiful mammals, yet the bulk of life on earth exists as "bugs and weeds", the tiny organisms that keep the planet going - which are also facing mass extinctions. James Leape of the World Wildlife Federation says:
Think in terms of a brick wall. We are systematically knocking out bricks. Sooner or later, the wall collapses.
I have serious problems with WWF, ever since they partnered with McDonald's. Later in the program, Leape defends trophy hunting, because it promotes ecotourism. I could barely watch. But Leape does offer some important insights in this program, and WWF has done some excellent work.

We need the frogs and weeds, no doubt. But the large, beautiful mammals are what capture our imaginations. Without that appeal to the public, the movement is lost. Robert May talks about how this can be used to save an area, a conservation "hot spot", where saving one area saves several species.

* * * *

We hear that the only solutions that will work in the long term are the ones that come from within. In Ethiopia, after the iconic Walia Ibex was down to only 150 survivors, a national campaign was launched to save them. They have quadrupled in numbers. 600 animals is not many, but they are coming back.

The wild dogs of Africa were severely threatened by diseases, which they contracted from contact with domestic dogs. The people of the nearby communities keep domestic dogs and value them, but cannot afford to vaccinate them. When a conservation program offered to vaccinate the village dogs at no cost, the local people were very happy, as their community would be safe from rabies and other dangerous diseases, plus a safer environment increases tourism. The wild dog population began to rebound.

In one strange segment, someone from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans talks about the zoo's program to save animal DNA in order to later clone them... so we can populate another planet. It's possible the BBC producers kept this bit - without comment - as a form of ridicule. The zoo spokesperson says cloning "is using human ingenuity to save a species. Something's going to have to be done." I have an idea. How about we save the earth we have right now, before we begin trashing another planet?

* * * *

In these three episodes, no one ever utters the word "capitalism," but a few people do describe the profit motive as the biggest threat to the planet.

In the segment on population, one expert says, "The bigger threat is growth in our economy and the way we use our wealth." Someone else says that citing over-population - usually conceived as being too many people in Africa and India - is a way of saying, "It's not about us."

Considering 5% of the world's population consumes 35% of its resources, and half the world's population lives on two dollars a day, blaming population growth for environmental problems does not stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, if we want to reduce population growth, we already know how: educate girls and women, and give people access to free, safe contraceptive and free, safe, legal abortion. Meanwhile, the first world with its zero or negative population growth continues to consume and trash the Earth.

Robert Watson, Chief Scientist of the World Bank, says (emphasis mine):
It's not simply an issue of the number of people - it's the number of people and to what degree those people can buy biological resources, energy resources, use water, and so forth. The bigger threat is growth in economy and the way we use our wealth. It's how we live on the planet, not just our numbers. If we all lived on this planet the way Americans live, we would need three planets to support the current population.
* * * *

There was a lengthy segment on the economic value of conservation, and programs that attempt to make it more valuable to preserve land than to destroy it. Several successful programs are highlighted, including ecotourism in Kenya and the government of Costa Rica paying farmers to let land return to forest. It's a viable strategy in some areas, but capitalism is all about short-term gain, and in many situations, it's way more profitable to destroy or deplete an area with extraction than to preserve it. Yes, there is great economic value in bees pollinating plants, trees keeping a water system functioning, plants keeping our air clean. But the people who profit from environmental destruction are not driven by a concern for clean drinking water.

* * * *

In the excellent segment on climate change, in which we meet indigenous people and others who live close to nature, like farmers and ranchers, who see the effects of climate change on a daily basis. The Planet Earth team was in Antarctica ten years earlier. Now it is warmer, greener. David Attenborough:
It was perfectly responsible 20 years ago to be a climate change skeptic, but not anymore. Powerful economic forces are at work, industries that are concerned that action on climate change may be to their disadvantage. So in the end, it's not that surprising that some still voice doubts.
* * * *

Roger Payne, the first person to record the songs of humpback whales, is interviewed. Humans hearing whale songs for the first time was a watershed in the environmental movement. Like Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring, Payne's whale recordings led to a shift in consciousness. Payne says that people think whales are safe, because of the international moratorium on whaling. But they are not. They are being slaughtered at sea. They are also being poisoned, as the female whale's breast milk is the equivalent of toxic sludge, because the plankton and krill she feeds on is poisoned. Payne says, "I'm seeing my life's work being undone in front of my eyes, and it's a horrible thing to see."

* * * *

What about "sustainable development"?

A mainstream environmentalist says it's the most exciting thing to happen to the movement in decades. It's what we're all working for. It's the way forward.

An government shill for the oil industry says it's a sham. He says environmentalists talk about sustainable development, but they want no development. "So-called environmentalists want to leave the people of developing nations in the energy dark ages, so they can't advance as a people." He's a half-step away from calling "those people" backwards darkies. So the oil industry is actually doing missionary work!

Wangari Maatha says:
Sustainable development must mean that we develop in a way that we can thrive on this continent [i.e., Africa]. Africans have thrived on this continent for very many years - without airplanes, without trains, without skyscrapers. Without all the modern development that we think, when we look at the West, that's what development means. To me, development means staying alive. Having a quality of life. Not so much a life that is surrounded by goods, things. But a life where you can live in a clean and healthy environment.
James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, says:
There is no such thing as sustainable development. It's a contradiction in terms. What we need now is a sustainable retreat from the mess that we're now in. Solutions like renewable energy are not really solutions. Perhaps 100 years ago, that would have been fine. But it's much, much too late now.
David Attenborough, the series narrator, counsels that what's needed is
for humans to change their view, to know that gross materialism and the pursuit of material wealth is not the only thing in life.
Former UK MP Clare Short, who resigned from Parliament in protest of the invasion of Iraq, says:
It is impossible and unacceptable, and won't work, to say to the poor of China and India, you can't have what we've got. So the only way that we can get a deal with the people of the world to preserve human civilization is to say, It's not any longer going to be economic growth for economic growth's sake, but a more equitable world, where everyone has the basic things that human beings need, and then we cease to find the meaning of life out of more economic growth and more and more consumption. Because in our kind of society, where that's what's happening, it's not only plundering the world and unsustainable, it's making people miserable.
* * * *

Of course the producers of Planet Earth try to end the series on a hopeful note. After watching these three episodes, I felt anything but hopeful.

To me it's clear that there is no such thing as sustainable development, not as development is presently conceived. Capitalism is wholly incompatible with a healthy Earth and, at this point, with the continuation of life on Earth.

There is only one way forward. We have to share the resources of the planet so we can all live. Not to help the world's poor become the world's consumers. Rather, a different system where we all have enough. Many of us would have much less. Many more would simply have enough.

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