Do calls to the individual make collective change?

By William Costley

After watching Sir David Attenborough’s new Netflix documentary A Life On Our Planet, or, as he calls it, his “witness statement”, one begins to wonder whether the famous slogan ‘climate change’ is an accurate description of the planet’s current predicament. Throughout the documentary, Attenborough documents the destruction, depletion, and eradication of our world’s biodiversity, informing us how the habitats he explored as a young man no longer exist today.

Attenborough shows images of whales being slaughtered and pulled onto boats; a polar bear swimming aimlessly in the open sea most likely left to drown; and an orangutan wandering helplessly amongst the burnt ruin of its former rainforest home. Climate change is no longer an adequate description of the current state our natural world is in. What we now have is the fast-paced destruction and warming of the natural world as we know it. Most importantly, Attenborough illuminates the fact that humans are a significant part of the natural world, and although we have managed to order, manipulate, and take unprecedented control over the non-human species and resources of the planet, our actions will ultimately impact us the greatest.

We have managed to order, manipulate, and take unprecedented control over the non-human species and resources of the planet

The documentary is sobering in its viewing and works successfully to evoke strong feelings of guilt and distress. The picture he paints seems as though we are far passed the breaking point. Is it possible to reduce our fossil fuel emissions, reduce the amount of meat we eat, and reducing our high demand for things in general, in time to stop our planet from turning into a global human-less wasteland? Can we change the way business models  measure success based on constant growth and expansion? Whilst Attenborough eventually provides scientific solutions and glimmers of hope to the remorseful viewer, it seems an impossible task. As gut-punching as Life On Our Planet is, one wonders whether the individual actions and habits of the everyday person are enough to reverse the destruction and exploitation of the natural world.

The power of a documentary can bring to light specific issues and stories of people that the viewer would otherwise be ignorant of. Other nature documentaries, such as Blackfish and The Cove, reveal the horrors that go on behind the scenes. In some ways, this documentary serves as a reminder of what is going on in the world.  However, the topic of climate change is not novel and thereby any new content has the risk of being drowned out by other mediums of information and subsequently its efficacy being suppressed. The problem of clickbait news and people’s temperamental attitude to social issues poses a problem for a cause that requires our constant and immediate attention. Attenborough calls on us to come together to solve this crisis, but whether or not the momentum for real climate change policies can be maintained through social media and documentaries is another question. Moreover, when it comes to seriously changing how the world functions in ways which will truly slow down the rate at which we destroy our planet, the power lies with the people who control and own our natural resources.

One wonders whether individual actions…are enough to reverse the destruction and exploitation of the natural world.

If Attenborough’s witness statement is able to change the way some people buy and consume goods, then surely that’s a good thing. However, would it not be better if Attenborough highlighted the role that major businesses and their supply chains play in decimating our oceans and forests? With companies, such as Cambridge Analytica, using misinformation to influence our priorities, and big companies lobbying governments to stick to old unsustainable profitable practices, the individual is almost powerless. Of course, coming together and protesting en masse can force governments to do something. However, this momentum is subject to fizzling out and leaders with apathetic views may come into power.

Attenborough is doing what he does best. His message is clear and maybe the power to halt the destruction of our natural planet does come down to our choices and our demands from our governments. My worry is that the pace at which we reverse the damage will be too slow. Distractions, such as Brexit and COVID-19, deplete the time required for critical debate and formulation of impactful environmental policies. Hopefully A Life On Our Planet is effective in seriously influencing people who were previously blind or impassive to our planet’s demise. However, if companies and governments are too slow to offer consumers alternative green products and alternative sources of energy, then I don’t think any number of documentaries will suffice.

International Monetary Fund via Flickr.

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