‘Attenborough has betrayed the living world’

Far flung: David Attenborough in Kenya. Before TV work, he joined the Navy so he could travel.

Is this criticism fair? Environmentalist George Monbiot has denounced Sir David Attenborough, claiming his films do more harm than good. Attenborough’s new series, Dynasties, begins on Sunday.

Sir David Attenborough is a national treasure, right? Just this week, a nationwide poll ranked as him the most popular person in Britain — ahead of Judi Dench, Prince Harry and the Queen.

Not everyone agrees. In a fiery column published yesterday, environmentalist George Monbiot accused the veteran broadcaster of “downplaying our environmental crisis” and creating an atmosphere of “complacency, confusion and ignorance.”

Why did he launch this extraordinary attack?

It is partly to do with Attenborough’s new TV programme, Dynasties. Beginning on Sunday, the five-part series enters the world of a different animal each week, starting with chimpanzees, followed by wolves, lions, tigers and penguins.

While the show will refer to the environmental impact of humans on these creatures, Attenborough signalled that the series will avoid “alarmist” messages. Repeated warnings about humanity’s destruction of nature can be a “turn-off” for viewers, he said.

On this point Monbiot disagreed, emphatically. “In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features […] I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable,” he said, insisting that it is not “alarmist to tell us the raw truth about what is happening to the world, however much it might discomfit us.”

Last week, a landmark report claimed that 60% of animal populations have been wiped out by humans since the 1970s. Tiger populations alone have fallen by 95%. To avoid ecological catastrophe, scientists warn that we must drastically change our lifestyles: from eating less meat to cutting back on international travel.

For Monbiot, these are the hard truths that Attenborough’s programmes too often avoid. “For many years, wildlife film-making has presented a pristine living world,” he writes. “The cameras reassure us that there are vast tracts of wilderness in which wildlife continues to thrive. They cultivate complacency, not action.”

Is it fair to say that Attenborough has “betrayed” the living world?

Hunted

Of course not, some say. Consider how Blue Planet II inspired countless people to take up the war on plastic. His genius is making films with universal appeal, pushing environmental causes into the mainstream. Without his work, efforts to save the natural world would have far less support. He should be praised, not attacked.

Not so fast, others respond. Too often his films value entertainment over education. They invite us to marvel mindlessly at nature’s beauty but shirk unpopular truths: if we want to save the world’s animals, we must dramatically change our lifestyles, now. Unless the message changes, there will be no wilderness left for film crews to document.

You Decide

  1. Can TV shows save the environment?
  2. Is Sir David Attenborough a fair target for criticism?

Activities

  1. Should nature documentaries be entertaining or educational? Discuss in pairs or small groups before discussing as a class. Give reasons to back up your thoughts. Do you think Sir David Attenborough’s programmes are educational? Why/why not?
  2. Watch the trailer for Dynasties by following the link in Become An Expert. What are your first impressions? Does the trailer make you want to watch the series? Take a vote: who in the class plans to watch the first episode on Sunday evening?

Some People Say...

“It’s a terrible thing to appear on television, because people think you actually know what you’re talking about.”

Sir David Attenborough

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The first episode of Dynasties will be broadcast this Sunday on BBC One at 8:30pm. Four episodes will focus on aggressive and competitive animals — lions, chimpanzees, wolves and tigers— following their power struggles and fights for survival. An episode about penguins will demonstrate how cooperation, not competition, is the way to survive in the Antarctic.
What do we not know?
How it will be received by audiences. Attenborough’s programmes have an outstanding track record. Blue Planet II was the most watched television show of 2017, with the first episode reaching 14 million people. Before that, Planet Earth II was a particular hit with young viewers, attracting more audience members in that demographic than X Factor.

Word Watch

Most popular
According to a survey of the British public by YouGov. Attenborough scored an approval rating of 87%. The Queen came in 24th place with 74% (just behind Charles Dickens and Robert DeNiro).
Column
Read it for yourself by following the links in Become An Expert.
George Monbiot
British environmentalist and author who writes a weekly column for The Guardian. He has previously produced environmental programmes for the BBC and worked as an investigative journalist.
Ignorance
Lack of knowledge or information.
Report
Published by the World Wide Fund for Nature. See its key findings by watching the second video link in Become An Expert.
95%
This population decline stretches over the last 100 years.
Complacency
A feeling of calm satisfaction about a situation which prevents you from working hard to make changes.