A few weeks ago, David Attenborough ‘broke the internet’ with the launch of his Instagram channel and a timely reminder that the world is in trouble.
In his iconic, soul-soothing voice Attenborough talks about the heart-breaking, rapid loss of life-supporting biodiversity caused by humanity. We live on a finite planet after all.
Zooming out on footage of the first moon landing, he injects a dosage of much needed hope: We, as in humanity, have solutions in place to halt the alarming developments.
It is not the first time that Attenborough offers an unaddressed bias between ‘we’ as destroyers, as an equivalent to the ‘we’ as the fixers. This narrative is challenging and potentially harmful.
Humans are not ‘overrunning’, as Attenborough puts it, the planet equally. The average UK consumer hits the annual emissions of a person in Rwanda within five days
The strata of impact and influence varies vastly globally. The HQs of polluting companies are located in the global north. Consumption and buying power differ across the globe. Access to education and health care is nowhere near equal.
Humans are not ‘overrunning’, as Attenborough puts it, the planet equally. The average UK consumer hits the annual emissions of a person in Rwanda within five days.
Then, even in the UK, emissions vary greatly based on wealth. ‘We’ as in humanity is a comforting narrative that is held by people who hold privilege over others.
Think about it. According to the Millennial Development Goals, no country on earth both: 1) meets its people’s essential needs, and 2) falls within the earth’s biophysical boundaries (also see Raworth ‘Doughnut Economy’ 2018).
As a storyteller with a vast platform, Attenborough wants to throw out a wide net. Yet, his aim for global exposure cannot let inconvenient truths slip through
Humanity may be unified in a need for urgent change, but it has vastly different issues to tackle. Denying the situation’s complexity means denying inequality which causes a lack of accountability where it is needed.
As a storyteller with a vast platform, Attenborough wants to throw out a wide net. Yet, his aim for global exposure cannot let inconvenient truths slip through. So, if taken at face value, the ‘one human race’ narrative is a vulnerable one.
Racial, class, gender and economic fault lines continue to run through society. Therefore, the notion of ‘overrunning’ humans risks being weaponised into racial trope.
It has been greatly disappointing to see fellow national treasure-status environmentalist Jane Goodall fall into the same trap. In Davos, she notoriously raised the point that: Most environmental problems wouldn’t exist if our numbers were at the level that they were 500 years ago.
In the US, a white supremacist reasoned his shooting of ethnic minority members with the need to reduce the global carbon footprint. The 2019 Christchurch shooter described himself as an eco fascist
It is an idea that distracts from the root causes behind climate change and is, in fact, harmful.
In right-wing circles, the notion of overpopulation in developing countries has been gaining momentum for a while now.
In the US, a white supremacist reasoned his shooting of ethnic minority members with the need to reduce the global carbon footprint. The 2019 Christchurch shooter described himself as an eco fascist.
It is easy to isolate these examples, but it is those simple truisms that feed into subconsciously held belief systems, even in the mainstream. The more anxious we feel, the more we crave simple solutions.
As the climate crisis continues to unfold, we are bound to hit seismic shocks; moments that are prone to populist power grabs. Opportunists will offer simple, not fair or considered, solutions. Blaming overpopulation is one of those easy scapegoats.
The idea of nipping out for a ‘nature detox’ is part of the problem. It is an escapist choice, necessitated by nature’s absence in political, economic, and social decision-making
To solve the biodiversity crisis, David Attenborough proposes that we all re-wild ourselves.
I do not want to argue with the idea that we need to re-connect with the eco-systems that ensure our very survival; nature needs to be at the heart of our decision-making. However, the idea of re-wilding has a distinctly individualist aftertaste.
It implies that activities such as wildlife observation, a Sunday nature walk, the odd wild swim would re-kindle an appreciation for nature, and result in healthier consumption. That being a better consumer and a nature geek would be enough.
The idea of nipping out for a ‘nature detox’ is part of the problem. It is an escapist choice, necessitated by nature’s absence in political, economic, and social decision-making.
While we’re re-wilding ourselves coping with the grief of environmental loss, populists and lobbyists unite in the destruction of vital habitats such as the Amazon rainforest or Arctic oil reserves.
Re-wilding cannot be a romanticised distraction. It is also not a silver bullet.
More importantly, Attenborough’s generalist, unfocussed lens misses out on the crucial role of excess capitalism, its greenwashing techniques, and the exploitative structures disempowering sustainable, and fair alternatives.
It means that the elephant in the room continues to be ignored. As Attenborough wants us to eat and consume more sustainably, my question is whether the end consumer really is the most effective starting point?
The environmental crisis is a systemic issue and needs to be treated as such. Right now, a great deal of responsibility is being shouldered in the wrong places
Can a re-wilded consumer/individual fix the environmental damages of the fast fashion industry, the price dumping techniques of large supermarket chains marginalising sustainable food production methods, or the fact that one third of global emissions between 1965 and now can be traced back to 20 companies?
The environmental crisis is a systemic issue and needs to be treated as such. Right now, a great deal of responsibility is being shouldered in the wrong places. Sadly, it is a missed opportunity.
Still, my hope is that Attenborough’s narrative is a starting point. Undoubtedly, implementing more sustainable production systems and living less wastefully are important steps towards a healthier planet.
I’m also hoping that a collective motivation to change the current set-up will encourage viewers to realise that the idea of ‘overrunning’ is a socio-economic issue.
Tackling this type of issue means to recognise our power as citizens, rather than consumers. It means realising that we cannot effectively vote with our buying choices.
As citizens we can call out greenwashing, challenge, create and suggest alternatives. We can engage meaningfully.
Ultimately, we need voices to have choices – not just coins. We should also use these voices to call for climate justice, rather than buying into the idea of collective human guilt.
I remain doubtful that Attenborough will discuss accountability, systemic solutions, and the shortcomings of universalist environmentalism as part of his witness statement.
Still, I’m staying tuned, David.
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