To see / 8 July 2019

Whose Planet Exactly?

Review of the Our Planet series, Netflix, 2019

The new (semi)conservationist Netflix series Our Planet (director: Alastair Fothergill, narrator: David Attenborough) aims to ‘tell the story of our changing planet and how we can help it thrive’ and was advertised as ‘visionary’, though this is surely a case of a very bad wording.

The series consists of eight episodes, around fifty minutes each. The first episode – One Planet – is introductory. It covers the basic concept of the series, which takes the viewers on a journey around the globe, to the ‘wild’ places that still remain on Earth. The series examines the lives of the creatures living there and how human activities are affecting them, the ecosystems, our own species and the planet as a whole.

The next seven episodes take a closer look at some of the ‘wild places’, hence the names of the episodes: Frozen Worlds (Arctic and Antarctica), Jungles, Coastal Seas, Grasslands, High Seas, Fresh Water and Forests. In every episode there are a few main themes: Which non-human animals are living in the ecosystem at hand, what kind of problems they are facing, how the human species contributes to those problems and what some positive examples of dealing with those problems are.

Frozen Worlds has a nice structure, in that it shows how the lives of different non-human animals are interconnected and co-dependent, but also how processes such as climate change and pollution are affecting them. It addresses the human impact on the lives of non-human animals and the environment of the ‘frozen lands’ directly. It also shows how we affect the whole planet when we affect those regions. The vital human-caused problem of this episode is global warming and the episode gives the viewers a clear picture of the issue. The third episode, Jungles, deals with deforestation due to palm oil production and agricultural needs for more and more land, and its effects on the non-human animals living in the jungles and elsewhere. It shows how jungles cool down the planet and absorb CO2. It also states the interconnections between global warming and deforestation and explains why it is vital to preserve those ancient woods (similar problems are also addressed in the last part of the series, Forests).The fourth episode, Coastal Seas, shows how global warming is causing the seas to acidify, resulting in species dying out. The episode addresses the dying of coral reefs and informs us of just how catastrophic their disappearance can be. It also deals with the problem of so-called ‘overfishing’ that is causing numerous species to die out and is leaving our oceans empty. The episode promotes so-called ‘sustainable’ fishing that would allow for fish species to recover. In the fifth episode, the interconnectedness of issues that are specific to the landscape in question is presented less profoundly, and some of the scenes start to repeat themselves (e.g. salmon migrations or whale hunting techniques that we see in more than one episode), but they nevertheless still incorporate the introduction to the biggest issues that humans are causing in the landscapes. Poachers are mentioned as a danger to non-human animals in the episode, Grasslands, along with the issue of the devastating destruction of grasslands for the purpose of gaining more land for agriculture. The episode, High Seas, also deals with the problem of overfishing; this time in the seas, only 1% of which are protected and ‘belong to no one’. The episode suggests we should protect 30% of the high seas and not fish there, so that fish would repopulate the oceans and we would be able to fish in a ‘sustainable’ manner outside those protected areas. The episode also mentions the problem of disappearing phytoplankton, microscopic plants that provide 50-85% of the oxygen in the atmosphere and addresses plastic pollution in the oceans. The Fresh Water episode is dealing with the problems that arise if humans disrupt the flow of fresh water and problems that are the immediate consequence of our over-usage of water in industries and farming. We are running out of fresh water and the nutrients that fresh water carries around the world don’t reach their destinations, causing numerous creatures to die out.

From what’s been written up to this point it may seem that the series is largely focusing on human impact on the environment and non-human animals, but this is only partly true. As mentioned above, every episode addresses one of the globally important environmental issues, but that is still very scattered—a bit of information here and there. The series does not have a clear structure and most of the material in the episodes is still something you’d find in a typical conservative documentary about ‘wildlife’. There are numerous hunting scenes that are not always well-incorporated in the series and take more time than necessary. We can, of course, use the ‘food chain’ – it would be more suitable to call it the ‘food web’, since this is not a linear system – to illustrate how global environmental issues affect whole ecosystems and even the whole planet, but it is only one of the ways; the food chain focus can give the impression that non-human animals are not individuals with inherent value, but only elements that help sustain a bigger system. And while it is true that we all play a role in different ecosystems, we still are individuals, too.

Even though the series does single out some of the animals (one little bison, chased by a lion, for example), there is not much singularity to be seen in those cases. We don’t see much of those animals’ individual personalities. They function merely as a sort of a species representative. This problem resonates in the perception of biodiversity as something we humans need for our own survival. The inherent value of other creatures is not something that Our Planet recognises, and we have to ask ourselves how inclusive the ‘our’ in the title really is.

Another problematic concept that the series does not distance itself from is the concept of nature as a permanent battlefield. The series focuses intensely on hunting scenes and courting scenes of tournament species. There is, is fact, not much else shown. The series tells us nothing about other forms of relationships – friendships, alliances, lasting partnerships, family relationships – that non-human animals form between one another, nothing about how they form societies or how the trans-species societies are built. The idea that nature is a battlefield is not objective. It is our ideological perception of the lives of other species. The series chooses the examples that fit our capitalistic culture built upon ideas like the survival of the fittest and never-ending competitions. And capitalism is, in fact, our key problem, if we want to solve environmental issues. Capitalism appropriates every being (human or non-human) and every entity (river, forest, mountain…) into a mere resource. And because of it, we are where we are, on the brink of ecological disaster.

Capitalistic overuse of natural resources like wood, water, coal, fossil fuels, industrial and carnist (carnism is a concept used in discussions of humanity's relation to other animals, defined as a prevailing ideology in which people support the use and consumption of animal products, especially meat) farming practises and ongoing production of more and more products that are turning into more and more waste are reasons that our planet cannot sustain our demands anymore and that ecosystems all over the globe are collapsing.

When the series states that we need biodiversity (and goes on listing creatures – non-human animals and plants – that we need), it is, in a way, using logic based on the same premises. This is even more clear when the series promotes practices like ‘sustainable fishing’, where fish are not seen as individuals with inherent value, but rather as a resource. It is fine to use them (the series boasts that we could even catch more and bigger fish) as long as they can thrive as a species, because we need them to do that, too. The series does not incorporate animal ethics at all and is still grounded in the ideological premises that got us into this mess in the first place. This is not very sound logic. For long-term resolutions, we need to change the ideological grounds of our economies and politics. A good start would be to recognise the inherent value of every creature and entity, the fact, that other beings are here with us, not for us (in any way).

Another issue in the series is the fact that all the solutions for presented for problems that the series does provide – like eating as plant-based a diet as possible (in most cases – and all cases in Western societies – it is a possibility), using renewable energy, planting trees, shopping sustainable items (like sustainable palm oil) – do not form the main material, which is a problem of direction. There are too many repetitions and long takes that do not add much to the content and it seems as if there suddenly wasn't enough space for practical solutions. Those vital initiatives are to be found on the websiteof the series, instead – and, sadly, not every viewer will go there.

Our Planet is marvellously filmed, and it does offer a nice overview of the most important environmental issues. But it does not always present those issues very clearly, it doesn’t tackle the deep ideological foundation, and the practical solutions are not as readily available as the main material in the series.

It’s a start, but it’s not enough.