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The new Netflix series Our Planet begins on the Moon. Soon, it reveals a view of our amazing little planet, where it remains for the next eight episodes. It is an exercise in perspective. As astronauts on the Apollo mission first discovered 50 years ago, that distant vision helps you see that our fragile planet has limits. It is a precious object.
David Attenborough, the 92-year-old naturalist famous for his warm and authoritative whisper, immediately clears up any concerns that Our Planet is a spectacle of nature. Watching a polar bear and her cub roam an icy terrain, Attenborough explains that wildlife populations have plummeted, on average, by 60 percent in the past 50 years. "For the first time in human history," he says, "the stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted." (The ice melts into the sea).
Our planet takes you on a journey to all kinds of landscapes and seascapes on Earth. The frozen Antarctic, the deep jungle of Borneo, the Arabian desert, the coral reefs of Australia. It has familiar scenes of playful wildebeest, flamingo feasts, and bizarre bird mating dances that you are used to seeing in Planet Earth documentaries, but unlike its predecessors, it is marked by frequent reminders that global catastrophe is unfolding. Half of the world's shallow coral reefs have already perished, and the rest could disappear within a few decades. Every year we lose nearly 15 million hectares of rainforest, an area larger than Illinois. And by 2040, the Arctic Ocean will be virtually ice-free.
"We are entering a new geological era, not as in the past when changes occurred over millions of years, not even thousands of years or centuries, but within decades, within my lifetime," writes Attenborough in the table book that accompanies the documentary. "These changes are as fast and as great as when the planet was hit by an asteroid."
The show is part of an emerging genre of wildlife documentaries that tackles conservation and climate change together. The new National Geographic Hostile Planet series, narrated by Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, portrays animals that withstand scorching heat, parched landscapes, and fractured ice in the most extreme environments on Earth. Attenborough also narrated a documentary due out this spring entitled Climate Change: The Facts, on BBC One.
For a show about our changing environment, it's curious that the carefully constructed opening of Our Planet, and the entire first episode, doesn't mention “climate change” by name. (Later episodes don't stray from the phrase.) The opening episode, which explains how Earth's remote habitats are all connected, was possibly the most difficult to correct, Alastair Fothergill, the series producer, said in an email.
"We felt it was critical for the entire series that the balance between entertainment, education and environmental messages was correct," he said.
"We need millions of people around the world to watch this series, and we have to make sure we don't alienate the audience."
It is a difficult task, as the episodes are full of alarming facts. The terrible statistics explain the fate of unsuspecting animals that live their lives on our screen. For example, while watching fuzzy orangutans move through the trees in North Sumatra, Attenborough says he might be looking at the last ones that can live in the wild. Deforestation has led to the disappearance of 100 orangutans a week, he says, turning his jungle home into expanses of palm trees grown for their oil.
Those responsible for all this forest clearing, poaching and destruction spend most of the series off stage. The only time people show up is in the episode "Coastal Seas", which illustrates overfishing by showing fishermen working on their boats. Only a few images of human activity made the cut, Fothergill said. But as a result, they are all more powerful.
The episodes come with mini science lessons. You will learn how Arctic sea ice acts as a "protective white shield" for the planet, keeping the earth cool by reflecting the sun's energy back into space, and that the Earth is losing that shield, a feedback loop that accelerates the heating. You'll also learn about coral bleaching and the amazing carbon-absorbing powers of forests and seagrasses.
And, like in any good nature series, you will probably find something that surprises you. For me, in Blue Planet II, it was the toxic lakes within the ocean. On Our Planet, the bottom of that pristine-looking Antarctic ice is covered in algae, forming the basis of an ecosystem that Attenborough describes as "the polar equivalent of the great grasslands."
Not everything is bleak. Siberian tigers are slowly coming back from the brink of extinction; Blue whales and humpback whales have made remarkable recoveries thanks to international agreements to save them. It is a reminder of what human cooperation is capable of when we are actually capable of cooperating… or when we leave things alone.
The last episode tells the story of the recovery of the strangest fauna in Europe. It takes place in the radioactive exclusion zone around Chernobyl, Ukraine. Twenty years after 100,000 people were evacuated, the exclusion zone has populations of animals similar to those in the wildest parts of Europe, Attenborough says; now, wildlife populations there are more profuse than in the surrounding nature reserves or national parks. Bison, elk and deer roam the ruins of buildings while wolves and lynx patrol the forest that has grown in the old suburbs.
"They may be radioactive," says the Our Planet book, "but they are having a chance."
By Kate Yoder