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TV Review: Attenborough’s Life Stories – “The Fragile Planet”

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I have to confess at the outset that I rarely watch conservation shows because I usually feel bad by the time the credits roll that I’m not doing nearly enough to “save the environment.” I then make radical promises to myself, which I have to break because they aren’t practical. More often than not, I have to just shut myself off to the horrors of melting polar ice caps because I don’t feel I can actually do anything with my current resources and life to make a big enough difference.

The final installment of the PBS Nature series Attenborough’s Life Stories, “The Fragile Planet,” changed my perception on that note. Although the episode is at times overwhelming, experiencing the conservation efforts through the eyes of someone who has seen so much happen within their lifetime made it “real.” Showing me that my infant cousins might not ever know species I now take for granted, this show left me with a sense of empowerment and a new appreciation for the natural world. I’m not doing anything drastic, but I don’t feel that I have to. If we all make the changes within our power, we can make a sea change together.

Sir David Attenborough, the internationally renowned natural history filmmaker who has dedicated the majority of his adult life to this subject, says, “For me, as for countless others, the natural world is the greatest of all treasures. And yet, in my lifetime, we have damaged it more severely than in the whole of the rest of human history. Indeed, significant parts of it now are in danger of total destruction. When I first came to Borneo in 1956, the rainforest stretched, unbroken, on either side of the river for hundreds of miles. Today, it’s very different.”

In his 60 years of natural history filmmaking, Attenborough has seen much change in the destruction-versus-preservation tug-of-war, and the struggle for the many species to rise out of endangerment, or, in our case, the struggle to ensure we don’t end up on that list ourselves. Attenborough says: “We became witness to a slow-motion tragedy,” but over the last half-century, conservation efforts blossomed as “soon, we realized that true conservation means protecting the entire habitat.”

Born in 1926, “the end of the age of the great naturalist collectors” as Attenborough describes, he saw the shift from zoo keepers going out to capture whatever animal they needed (and he even dug up turtle eggs to have some protein on one of his expeditions) to watching a species of frog go extinct in front of his eyes, to setting a bunch of conservationist-bred hatchling turtles free to wiggle their way to the ocean for the first time.

Attenborough points out: “Of course, it’s not just the big, charismatic species that we’re exterminating. Life on Earth is a complex web and we ignore the millions of tiny creatures in it at our peril. One kind of animal is right now in the grip of the greatest extinction event since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Animals like this—amphibians. Globally, the numbers of amphibians are declining at an alarming rate. One third of all species are now critically endangered.”

As Attenborough takes us around the world and across time to share the efforts of individuals on a mission, grassroots groups, partnerships between communities and conservationists and multi-national efforts, it appears we are slowly turning the tide. But will we make enough change in time, or will it be too little, too late for our future generations?

Early conservation efforts were more internally-focused. Americans cared about their buffalo; Brits cared about their sea birds, and very little light was shed on exotic animals. In 1961, with the establishment of the World Wildlife Fund, that began to change.

But the major shift in attitude, on an international level, came about with the launch of Apollo 8 in 1968, sending back live photos of Earth from 175,000 miles away.

As Attenborough says: “Those images were instrumental in changing the way that many of us viewed the planet. We began to think ‘globally’. Looking at the Earth from outer space made us realise just how small our world is, and how finite its resources, It also helped us to understand that we have to cherish not just individual species, nor even individual patterns of wilderness, but the whole planet as a single integrated ecosystem.”

To that end, it’s quite heartening what we’ve managed to achieve in the space of 44 years of global thinking—but seeing the effects of global warming upon the polar ice caps from September of 1980 to September of 2010 is equally disheartening.

In “The Fragile Planet”, we travel over land and sea to appreciate the range of our impacts—positive and negative—on the natural world, including how an increase of one degree in temperature affects the life of the coral reefs. Attenborough shares clips of many of his documentaries, including Zoo Quest for West Africa (1954), Zoo Quest for a Dragon (1956), Attenborough and Animals (1963), Eastward with Attenborough (1973), Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984), Life in the Freezer (1993), The Life of Mammals (2003), and Life in Cold Blood (2008).

This episode, like the others in the series, is beautifully edited, with the music, images and narration dovetailing into a message that is both haunting and hopeful, and I think this show should be required curriculum for freshmen in high school; give them something real to wrap their wits around the issue of global warming.

We stand at a crossroads, but as Sir David Attenborough shares in his closing remarks: “I’ve spent my life filming the natural world, and I’ve traveled to some pretty remote and exciting places in order to do so. I’ve enjoyed every minute. But every journey seems to have gone quicker and shorter. It’s as though the world has shrunk. But then, sadly, so have the wild places. The increasing size of the human population is having a devastating effect on the natural world. But, fortunately, people are becoming aware of that and doing something about it. And I’d like to think natural history films have helped in that process. And, there are some signs of hope. Animals that I thought might become extinct in my lifetime are still with us, and growing in numbers. We now have a better understanding of the natural world than ever. We know how best to protect it, for future generations. I can only hope that we will.”

Considering that Attenborough is 86, I had wondered what drove him to continue working tirelessly in his field. We saw in the first episode ((“Life Through the Camera”) his joy at the discovery of new technology which opened up worlds to be captured and shared; in the second episode (“Understanding the Natural World”) we sat alongside him as he witnessed the blossoming of natural science; here we see a different side–the grim yet-all-is-not-for-lost determination of a man who has seen so much flower into existence–and so much devastation of life–that, were I in his shoes, I wouldn’t have the heart to let go, either.

This conclusion to Attenborough’s Life Stories seemed to be a “passing of the baton” much like the Olympic torch is borne by many people across cultures and distances, uniting people under the strength and hope of our kinship as humanity. I see this endeavor—a coproduction of Thirteen and BBC in association with WNET, funded in part by patrons of PBS and Canon—as a uniting of people as our kinship with the natural world. If we all bring a spark of our passion to the torch, it cannot help but burn bright across the realms of space and time much like Attenborough’s legacy in our world.

Attenborough’s Life Stories, “The Fragile Planet”, premieres Wednesday, February 6th, at 8pm ET on PBS. You may watch previous episodes online or purchase the series on DVD or Blu-ray. (For more on Sir Attenborough, visit his site.)

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About Joanna Celeste

Joanna Celeste is at heart a storyteller, writing reviews, short stories, poems, articles and the occasional novel-in-progress, as well as interviewing others to discover their point of view, in the celebration of story. She welcomes emails from her readers at joanna_celeste [at] ymail.com, though she is currently booked for reviews through to January 2014. Visit her at http://joannaceleste.com