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11 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:07pm

Blue Planet II’s environmental message is heartfelt – but it misses the point

What I wish David Attenborough had said instead. 

By Adam McGibbon

The achievement of Blue Planet II is immense. It is incredible not just for the skill, courage and patience needed to produce the footage of our amazing natural world, but also for the incredible communication abilities of David Attenborough. It’s not easy to get 17 million people tuned in to watch anything, let alone a programme about our natural world and the threat it’s under.

Attenborough’s communication of the global problems we face – plastic pollution, ocean acidification, over-fishing, climate-change – was masterful. It was frank about the scale of the problem, without coming across as heavy-handed or nagging about the role humanity plays in all this. It mixed serious problems with a dose of hope. In short, it managed to avoid a lot of the mistakes that we in the environmental movement make when trying to get masses of people to care about these issues.

That is, until the very end of the documentary. 

After showing us plastic in the stomachs of albatrosses, coral reefs turned into graveyards by the seas we are warming, and injecting a dose of hope by introducing us to the people who dedicate their lives to saving the oceans, the tone moved into an area that took away the power of the message.

In one of the final sequences, Attenborough shows us how the sea level rises that we are driving will affect hundreds of millions of people who live near the coast. Deep sea scientist Jon Copley says: “It comes down to us each taking responsibility for the personal choices that we make in our everyday lives. That’s all any of us can be expected to do. And it is those everyday choices that add up.”

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But as one of the final messages of the series, this isn’t what people need to hear. Not when just 90 mega-companies are responsible for two-thirds of all man-made carbon emissions.

The blame is not shared equally, so the problem cannot be solved by individual behaviour change. Suggesting otherwise creates the false illusion that individual lifestyle choices can change the world, and that is all we should be expected to do.

Attenborough then signed off with an earnest and heartfelt appeal – “Surely, we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet?”

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These are fine words from an incredible advocate for nature. But with the programme leaves the millions of viewers with the idea that we are all equally responsible and that the way to fix this is to, say, switching the lights off before bed.

I wish David Attenborough had instead said: “We all contribute to this, yes – but the blame is not shared equally. We all have a responsibility to take on the huge polluters – the fossil fuel companies, the big businesses obsessed with profit over everything else, that are wrecking our world, and make our governments take action. This is the only way that we can truly protect our Blue Planet.”

Putting the emphasis on individual behaviour and consumer choices not only doesn’t make any substantial difference, it takes the heat off the real enemy. It removes the politics from this most political of situations – who is in power? Who is in control? And why?

It also plays into the well-worn idea that the green movement are middle-class moralisers who obsess over people’s lifestyle choices, anBlud thus aren’t worth listening to. It isn’t an effective campaign tactic. The problem is government inaction and big polluters, and we need more people turning their fire on them.

The enemy is not those of us who use too many plastic bags. Our enemy are the polluting corporations of the world, that resist government regulation on plastics, fisheries, air pollution and more. They poison our air, trash our climate and unduly influence government. We now know that oil companies knew about the potential for climate change in the 1960s, yet robbed us of a generation to deal with the problem by supressing the science and funding climate denial thinktanks for decades.

People should be angry. They should be furious. We need someone as widely respected as David Attenborough – someone who can communicate beyond the usual environmental movement circles – to say, loudly, clearly, that the corporate ransacking of the world and their capture of governments is to blame. Act individually if you want, but we should go after these companies with the ferocity needed to force our governments to take action against them. This means divestment, direct action, and delegitimising the companies who are wrecking the climate.

There is a tendency to shy away from the politics of all of this. But the problem is so serious that we need someone as gifted, talented and well-respected as David Attenborough to speak out in this way. Giving 17 million viewers a truly powerful call-to-action could be world-changing. We can all get a Bag For Life from the supermarket if we want – but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the corporate ransacking of the world. This is the root of the consumption and climate problem. This is what we need to tackle.

Adam McGibbon is an Irish activist and campaign manager. He has worked for the Green Party and various environmental and social justice NGOs. He writes on environmentalism, social justice, tenant’s rights and contested nationality in Northern Ireland. He tweets at @AdamMcGibbon.