Watching “A Life on Our Planet,” or How I Ruined David Attenborough for Myself

May 23, 2021   •   By Jerrine Tan

IN EARLY MARCH 2020, just before the pandemic was starting to take hold in the United States, I felt a spreading unease when I noticed major Western news outlets circulating — almost brandishing — articles with pictures from NASA satellites showing how pollution in China had significantly and visibly decreased since the lockdown. Then, pictures of the Himalayas visible from India — finally, for the first time in years — made the rounds. This was quickly followed by a flood of images on social media of animals “taking over” urban spaces, of dolphins frolicking in the canals in Venice, and drunken elephants lolling in tea fields in a village in China. The rapidity and diversity of this influx gave the whole affair the gloss of seemingly well-meaning ecological and universal optimism about the health of the planet. Then came the internet, in the form of the posturing, self-flagellating “environmentally minded” to preach about how “humans are the virus!” with no rejoinder reflecting on a global market of consumers, hungry for cheaply made products that drive Chinese and Indian factories.


The ludicrous pictures of dolphins and elephants were subsequently debunked, but something about how people — mostly from the West and from developed nations — thrilled at those early narratives, specifically about places like China and India, continued to disturb me. As “neutral,” “environmentalist” chants of “Humans are the virus!” became echoed in Trump’s “China virus!” and manifested in waves of anti-Asian hate crimes, my discomfort became recognizable as indignation and congealed into anger. In truth, these articles about NASA pictures showing a decrease in pollution in China due to the coronavirus lend themselves to insidiously racist and eco-fascistic reasoning. Comments about the reduction in pollution as an inadvertent “positive effect” of the coronavirus entail the logic of “a silver lining,” but a silver lining implies that the cost to a bad situation is something that can be reframed and differently processed or understood. What does that say about how Chinese and Indian lives are viewed when their loss was elided, obliquely assumed to be justified, while frolicking dolphins and elephants were celebrated?


Later in the pandemic, on October 4, 2020, Netflix released Sir David Attenborough’s latest film, A Life on Our Planet, in which he reflects on the changing state of our natural world over the course of his life and career. The reviews of the documentary have generally been positive and Attenborough, in his 90s, occupies the space of a well-loved patriarch — a veritable steward of the Earth — his voice so soothing and intimately synonymous with nature documentaries, he might as well be Mother Nature’s own grandfather. But he and his latest film get many things willfully, ignorantly, and dangerously wrong by choosing to rely on the beautiful aesthetics of images and falling into the trap of making reductive, apolitical claims that undercut his very message, veering dangerously into the territory of eco-fascism.


The film’s stylistic choices allow it to do a number of things effectively. Aesthetically, A Life on Our Planet is exceptionally moving on two counts: first, the production quality is stunning, offering a luxurious buffet of gorgeous natural imagery rendered in a stunning color palette; second, it evocatively employs the aesthetics and affect of ruin porn. The viewer first swells with emotion for our beautiful planet, and is then wrung out by images depicting the threat of its imminent — and indeed, immanent — destruction. The film contrasts this imagery with punctuated invitations for us to “take a hard look at numbers”; periodically, a black screen with white numbers appears, scoreboard-like. As we make our way through the last century, the viewer observes with increasing dread, the exponential devastation of the natural world represented numerically in the areas of world population, carbon in atmosphere, and remaining wilderness. The relationship between the three categories is clear: as world population increases, so does the carbon, and remaining wilderness is quickly depleted.


But such mathematical neutrality is suspicious, as are Attenborough’s repeated references to himself and his viewer as belonging to one, undifferentiated “human kind” or “species.” He casts all humans as having once been “hunter-gatherers,” but this insidiously subsumes everyone in the image of Indigenous peoples, thereby cleansing colonialism of its sins. He shakes his head at the greed of humans, describing how we’ve destroyed the earth, while an Indigenous tribe and their way of life are only featured in a short snippet, ultimately romanticized as noble savages. Attenborough is guilty of presenting an Anthropocene that, as Métis scholar Zoe Todd describes, erases “Indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems and legal-political realities”; his narrative also erases how violence against Indigenous people is part of a colonial, expansionist history that maps onto the destruction of natural spaces and current unsustainable practices. Furthermore, the natural world is often described through a reductively utopic vision — indeed, Attenborough makes multiple references to the Holocene as a “Garden of Eden” throughout the film. But the world as it currently exists, and as it will persist, is a political one, governed by nation-states. It is hardly naïve, but rather willfully obfuscating to skirt politics in all of these discussions. Glaringly, nowhere in the film, which reflects on the life of a white British man, from the interwar period to the present, does Attenborough mention colonialism and its devastating and enduring effects on global communities and on the environment, nor does he — despite remarking on Indigenous ways of life — address the ecological effects of settler colonialism, the many wars waged by imperial powers, the use of napalm and Agent Orange in wars that destroyed vegetation and took countless lives.


Even the choice to frame the film using the event of Chernobyl as a lone, manmade catastrophe is a strange one. More resonant, in fact, might have been a reference to the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, since it immediately echoes with the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Both events, half a century apart, inspired waves of political activism: in the latter for peace, and in the former, for safe, clean, renewable green energy and governmental transparency. Such a framework would allow for a more robust conversation around the necessary policies and indeed, activism, required for a sustainable future from the vantage point of the politically fraught present.


After all, if the film were truly invested in highlighting Indigenous peoples and exploring the indelible interconnectedness of all our lives, examining the events of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan would have opened up an honest and lesser known connection to the Sahtu Dene people of Canada who were used as manual laborers to transport uranium for the Manhattan Project. [1] So many men in the community eventually died of cancer that it came to be known as the Village of Widows. In 1998, Sahtu Dene representatives traveled to Hiroshima to apologize for their involvement in the bombs even though they were unaware of the purpose of the uranium at the time. The first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima was Barack Obama in 2016; the Sahtu Dene people have yet to receive an apology from the Canadian government. Another model of diplomacy and social responsibility is possible. [2] If we are to move forward through an understanding of our radical interconnectedness and our moral responsibilities to each other, we would do well to learn from these extant, though unexcavated and unpublicized histories, not mere insincere gestures to hunter-gatherer tribes and singular catastrophes.


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The film’s focus on the apparent human mismanagement of natural resources is problematically predominantly in the Global South and in Asia — deforestation in Borneo, overfishing in Japan.


Scenes at a Japanese tuna fish auction

Scenes at a Japanese tuna fish auction

Attenborough declares that we need to “rewild the world” and that this is “simpler than you might think” and also that “[he is] going to tell you how.” With its glib turn toward a prescriptive hopefulness, the documentary provides a reductive lauding of Japan’s low birth rate as a solution to the world’s overpopulation problem without addressing Japan’s aging population, its failing pension system, and its tax on young Japanese people. Attenborough’s voice-over renders a simplistic and reductive understanding of Japanese society, and sociopolitical history, explaining that as Japan’s standard of living rose from 1950 to 1975, so did the number of children per household decline. The historical markers here are significant: the unprecedented event of the dropping of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 and the consequent postwar years under American occupation is conveniently skirted, and so too is the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980s followed by the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. In fact, Japan has faced over 30 years of deflation, and now faces an untenable aging population, with the young working demographic shuddering under the weight of a broken pension system. This is why birth rates have plummeted.


Japanese workers are not drinking sake leisurely after work, as the beautiful camera work proffering glimpses into a utopian “modern Japanese milieu” suggests, but dying from overwork (過労死, Karōshi) and even resentful of the elderly. When I asked a Japanese friend once about the aging population and pension system in Japan, he replied: “They can’t die fast enough.” This is, of course, anecdotal, yet I was alarmed to find he was serious, and chastised to learn the full extent of the immense economic burden the average Japanese worker feels. How goading, then, for none of this to be addressed when issuing a prescription of lower birth rate “to save our planet” with the specific case study of Japan, as if offering Japanese lives in penance for our bad planetary governance. Who gets to decide who should not reproduce? A facile reduction of Malthusian logic around populations easily lends itself to eco-fascistic reasoning.


A screenshot from the film shows a vignette of springtime in Japan with the voice-over, “It’s now time for our species to stop simply growing.”

Even though the film does not choose Japan’s brushes with nuclear destruction as its framing structure, it nonetheless engages Japan early on through an incriminating lens. Japan is indicted for overfishing, and therefore seemingly bears the full responsibility for the warming of oceans in the truncated logic of the film. This allows for the meted-out measure of population control to appear deserved. The film thus works — even if unintentionally — to represent universal, ecological issues as caused by Asian nations and therefore sanctions the sacrifice of Asian bodies. In a shocking frame, Attenborough voices that it is time for the species to stop growing while Japanese people enjoying the cherry blossom season are featured. This is emblematic of racial scapegoating which has a long history in the West.


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Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “a practice of abstraction, a death-dealing displacement of difference into hierarchies that organize relations within and between the planet’s sovereign political territories.” We often think of racism as a purely social issue, but in drawing attention to the planetary scope of the problem at the level of politics and territory, Gilmore makes visible the fact that our politics and even our approaches to thinking about the natural world and beyond have been governed and shaped by racist actions and entrenched structures of thinking. After all, the history of racist pseudosciences like phrenology and eugenics demonstrates how the natural world has always been invoked and perverted to serve racist arguments and hateful ends.


Eco-fascism denotes a logic which blames the destruction of the environment on overpopulation and inadvertently or directly demands population control through xenophobic reasoning and racial purity. Naomi Klein identifies eco-fascistic leanings as the blind spot in liberal discussions about persuading the right about climate change: “[T]he right denied climate change not because they didn’t understand the science, but because they objected to the political implications of the science.” Far-right environmentalists tend to overlap with a white supremacist and eugenicist worldview, equating preservation of an unspoiled nature with the preservation of untainted whiteness. Justin Farrell’s Billionaire Wilderness demonstrates how a political rhetoric around conservation and natural beauty can obfuscate, enable, and maintain gross inequality. Farrell describes how land protections limit development and drive up prices, widening inequality in spaces where the grossly wealthy rely on low-wage workers. In fact, the world’s richest one percent emit double the carbon of the poorest 50 percent. According to Forbes, the world’s billionaires increased their wealth by $1.9 trillion in 2020; in contrast, more than 22 million US workers, of whom most were women, lost their jobs. Furthermore, the United States’s carbon emissions per capita remains one of the highest in the world, more than twice that of China’s.


And romantic anti-capitalism is always already tied to racial capitalism: Iyko Day incisively maps out this structure of racist, romantic anti-capitalism: “Anti-Asian pathogen racism is a reaction to the abstract domination of capital, whereby Asians become the personification of a destructive value dimension that is otherwise immaterial and unrepresentable.” Day elaborates that such forms of thinking often “form the bedrock of white settler ideology.” Social and economic value is extracted from nonwhite people while the degree of environmental violence experienced by racialized and colonized people is made invisible.




As Attenborough offers his final reflections, an idyllic scene of Singapore’s Supertrees and Marina Bay Sands is inexplicably spliced into the hopeful ending of an otherwise bleak description of mankind’s stewardship of the earth. The landscape features futuristic looking Avatar-esque, tree-like structures, and the glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled Flower Domes feature imported flora and fauna. The visual effect is striking, but the area is not actually green and is built on reclaimed land, with soil procured from other countries, destroying those communities and ecologies and harming local marine life in the process.


There is a painful irony to clearing jungles in order to build greenhouses. This picturesque presentation of Singapore is especially grating since, earlier in the film, an emotional section on the endangerment of orangutans in Borneo due to deforestation and forest fires is dragged out through evocative music and poignant images of lone orangutans amid a charred landscape. But there is no acknowledgment on Attenborough’s part of the global capitalistic forces that drive these ecologically devastating actions: in fact, many Singaporean companies are behind this drive for slash and burn deforestation. Even in Singapore itself, the conservation of the island’s richly biodiverse forests has not been undertaken with sufficient care. It was revealed earlier this year that an area of eight hectares of forest had “erroneously” been cleared by a local construction company. Meanwhile, yet another precious green sanctuary, Dover Forest, home to at least 158 species of animals, has been zoned for clearing and residential development.


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“This is my first time at Davos and I find it quite a bewildering experience to be honest. I mean, 1,500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet.” So begins Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s no-holds-barred speech in a now viral video of him speaking on a panel about taxes at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2019. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water, right? […] We can invite Bono once more, but we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.” Indeed, Bregman effectively calls out the hypocrisy at the heart of summits such as Davos and highlights the incompatibility of such platforms with effecting bold change, because the necessary actions are in conflict with the self-interests of individuals and corporations that make up the Davos crowd in the first place. It is from this event that A Life on Our Planet excerpts a moving sequence:



As somber music plays in the background, we watch the crowd at Davos as they watch as walruses tumble to their death. But this mise en abyme, multiply mediated emotional response is manipulative, meant to leave the viewer feeling reflective and doleful. In fact, this sequence merely traffics in a toothless affective style, emotionally draining but politically empty. Billionaire tears do very little. In the end, the film amounts to the same thing as the goading doomsday climate clock in the middle of New York City — terrorizing ordinary people, whose changes in lifestyle choices may be well meaning and good, but who will never have the necessary impact that systemic change and regulations to large corporations will.


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Jerrine Tan (@jerrinetanew) was born and raised in Singapore. She has a PhD in English from Brown University and teaches Global Anglophone Literature. Her essays have been featured in WIRED, Lit Hub, Contemporaries at Post45, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and are forthcoming in Modern Fiction Studies and The Cambridge Companion to Kazuo Ishiguro.


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[1] I was made aware of this connection by Sabrina Huynh’s presentation, “Confronting Nuclear Colonialism with Film and Art” on the LEAP Symposium panel, “Deconstructing Dominant Narratives: Research, Advocacy, & Possibility in the MHC Community” at Mount Holyoke College, October 2, 2020.


[2] David L. Eng uses the Sahtu Dene people’s apology to develop the concept of “absolute apology,” a corollary of Jacques Derrida’s “absolute forgiveness.”