It doesn’t take long to identify the main problem with Our Changing Planet (BBC One), the latest series from the BBC’s Natural History Unit.
It starts in the wrong place. The programme wants to show us how climate change and human behaviour are having a disastrous effect on the planet, in a project lasting seven years. But it begins in year one. We’re introduced to the issues – dying coral reefs in the Maldives, retreating glaciers in Iceland, industrialisation in Cambodia – and told that the presenters will be providing us with updates over the next seven years.
But if the idea was to jolt us into changing our behaviour, and to present us with the horrors of environmental damage, wouldn’t it have been better to chart the decline over the past seven years and show us the terrible results, so that we act now?
Television documentaries of this kind are powered by striking imagery. Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II brought attention to plastic pollution by showing us shocking footage of its effects on wildlife.
Our Changing Planet, despite the best of intentions, simply doesn’t capture this. Chris Packham, one of the presenters, inadvertently nailed it with a remark made while he stood beneath a melting glacier in Iceland. “We read a lot about the impacts of climate change but it’s only when you stand here, dripping wet, listening to that cascading water, that it really hits home how urgent the issue is,” he said. But whatever he was experiencing while standing there wasn’t conveyed through the screen.
The BBC calls this “the most ambitious environmental series” it has ever commissioned, though I’m not sure about the basis for that claim. It certainly has the most presenters: Packham is joined by Steve Backshall in the Maldives (nice work if you can get it, etc), Liz Bonnin in California, Ade Adepitan in Kenya, Gordon Buchanan in Brazil and Ella Al-Shamahi in Cambodia.
Packham brings a seriousness to proceedings, but Backshall – although I’m sure he is entirely committed to the show’s environmental purpose, and I’m a big fan of his Deadly 60 show for kids – has a natural enthusiasm which means he can’t help behaving as if he’s on a really great holiday.
The show is informative. I learned about the feeding and reproductive habits of manta rays, the scale of poaching in the Cambodian rainforest, and the changes that hydroelectric dams are wreaking on the Mekong River. But the sense of urgency was missing.