Earlier this month, Netflix released “Our Planet,” an eight-part series that follows in the footsteps of “Planet Earth” (2006), a standard-bearer of prestige nature documentaries. The series’s presenter is the naturalist David Attenborough, who is regarded as a national treasure in the U.K.—he was knighted, in 1985—and has written and narrated so many wilderness programs, starting in the nineteen-seventies, that he has become synonymous with the genre. A jungle just doesn’t seem complete unless he has crouched in its greenery wearing head-to-toe khaki, gently explaining the life cycle of some being he discovered on the forest floor.
“Our Planet” contains many of the classic elements of his earlier programs. The dappled hot-pink petals of an orchid open with a loud, crisp pop. A parade of fluffy gray flamingo chicks, gathered on a salty mud flat, gallop to music so jaunty they seem about to break into a kick line. A pod of orcas slices menacingly through Antarctic waves like so many silent assassins. But in important ways “Our Planet” is a departure from Attenborough’s previous documentaries. It places global climate catastrophe front and center, and treats the problems of climate change and habitat loss with a new urgency. “The longer we leave it, the more difficult it will be to solve the problem,” Attenborough, who is ninety-two, told me over the phone from Washington, where he was going to deliver a speech to the International Monetary Fund. “Eventually, of course, you can’t solve the problems, and the result is chaos.”
The changes in the series seem to reflect a kind of political evolution in Attenborough. His voice, for anyone who has watched nature programs during the past couple of decades, has taken on a godlike association. You are looking at a flat glare of desert sand under a hot, still sky when, all at once, fat gray clouds roll in at hyperlapse speed and, when they burst generously open, it seems to be because of Attenborough’s whispered incantation: “Rain.” In this series, the same velvety British tones deliver not just reverent narration but policy recommendations—some quite radical, like the proposal to protect a third of the Earth’s coastal waters as marine reserves.
He has been presenting in this vein since the 1979 series “Life on Earth.” In an especially famous moment during an episode filmed in the Rwandan rain forest where Dian Fossey was studying mountain gorillas, he came face to face with a family of gorillas including an adult alpha male, a silverback, and abandoned his scripted speech about opposable thumbs to whisper, ad lib, about how unfair it was that humans had used gorillas as symbols of violence and aggression—“when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not—and that we are.” In his decades of travelling to the world’s wildest places, he has seen firsthand the evidence of human influence on climate. He told me about travelling up and down the rivers of Borneo; as recently as twenty years ago, those forested river banks were “rich with birds and all sorts of wonderful creatures.” No longer. “You go down now and the trees are still there, but there aren’t the monkeys that there were, there aren’t the birds that there were. And you wonder why, until you go up in the helicopter and you see that the band of forest along the riverbanks only extends inland by a mile. Beyond, there is nothing but oil palm.”
For decades, most nature programs have spent a lot of time appreciating the majesty of the ecosystem or animal at hand, tacking on a quick warning at the end about the danger of poaching or pollution. In “Our Planet,” warnings and appreciation are woven together throughout. “Fifty years ago, we didn’t even realize what the problem was. Maybe thirty years ago we did recognize what the problem was but didn’t know much about it, thinking, That’s way in the future. Now we know that it’s right here ahead of us,” Attenborough said.
Compared to its predecessors, the series also frames the value of nature in a new way. Usually Attenborough’s programs establish a place or a species as a thing of remarkable beauty—this soulful orangutan, that industrious bird of paradise—before warning that it is somehow imperilled. The value of the creature is its existence. We may never see a polar bear, but we take pleasure from knowing that they’re out there. In “Our Planet,” the value of nature is presented as something much closer to home, and more practical. Attenborough reminds viewers again and again of the connections that link these far-flung ecosystems to our own species’s survival. Protect the sea otter because it’s lovely, if you like, but also because it keeps in check the sea urchins that otherwise mow down kelp forests, which act as crucial carbon sinks. “We are part of nature. We aren’t separate from nature,” Attenborough told me.
Attenborough said that these documentaries have always had a role to play in teaching people about how earth’s systems work, so that this understanding and valuing of nature can filter up to the elected officials they choose; they are more important than ever now that half of the world’s population is urbanized, he told me, and therefore perhaps more disconnected from the natural world. Later in the day, in his speech to the I.M.F., Attenborough critiqued our dependence on fossil fuels and government subsidies of them, drew a connection between global migration and climate change, and called for nations to uphold their commitments to the Paris climate accord. Over the phone, he spoke like someone with financial systems on his mind. “The principles by which you deal with the natural world are very like the way you deal with finance,” he said. “If you have a system that is producing you an income, you are very foolish if you take so much of the profits that you start eroding your capital—you’re heading for a disaster.”