SOMETIMES it’s hard not to despair at the destruction we humans wreak on our beleaguered planet.
But if there’s one man able to provide us with a sense of hope at the start of a new year, it’s Sir David Attenborough.
No one is better placed to understand the scale of the challenge. With over 60 years of wildlife documentary-making under his belt, he’s visited some of the most spectacular places on earth and encountered some of the world’s most remarkable animals.
Last year, he told us in his hour-long film Extinction: The Facts: “Only now do I realise just how lucky I’ve been. Many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever.”
This year he’s back on our screens with another stunning series, The Green Planet, this time focusing on the life of plants.
But rather than use one of the stunning images from his TV programmes, our picture choice this week reminds us of the extraordinary achievements of the man himself: now in his mid-90s but still a soothing and reassuring voice, despite the increasing starkness of his message.
It’s only too tempting to lash out in anger at the state of our planet. In our anthrocene epoch, there are no shortage of targets for our wrath, from the multinational companies ripping the rainforest apart to the flytippers leaving household debris scattered across our countryside.
Sir David, who, like the Queen, has been on our planet for almost a century, has spent that lifetime telling us in his distinctive hushed tones about the beauty of the natural world and must know those frustrations better than most.
His latest series reflects on the importance of plants to every breath we take and every mouthful we eat, gently reminding us that we can’t afford to take nature for granted.
It’s Attenborough at his best: awe-struck, full of wonder and curiosity. A natural storyteller, he finds it easy to enthral an audience of all ages and he knows it’s that education and engagement that holds the key to our shared futures.
Shouting apocalyptic warnings might make us switch off in horror. Showing us at first hand the wonders of our planet might just make more of us want to protect it, before it’s too late.
IF YOU see one film in 2020, make sure you track down a screening of 2040, an inspiring 2019 Australian drama-documentary directed by and starring film-maker dad Damon Gameau.
Alarming and disarming in equal measure, the film takes the form of a poignant letter to Gameau’s four-year-old daughter Velvet re-imagining how the effects of climate change could be reversed over the next two decades through the creative use of technologies that already exist.
From community-based solar power grids to progressive farming ideas and underwater seaweed beds, the environmentalist offers an upbeat explanation of ways in which workable “regenerative” community projects could help rescue us from the unthinkable alternative.
Set against a backdrop of predictably cutesy soundbites from children around the world talking about the sort of future they want, the film harnesses sophisticated visual effects and clever dramatisation to intersperse interviews with key experts in the climate change discourse in a way that successfully manages to avoid it becoming a montage of talking heads, even if some critics found the offbeat dad jokes and quirky CGI a little too much to handle.
Amid the children’s more outlandish visions of rocket boots and a round-the-clock National Hot Dog Day are some trenchant reminders of the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of the young, and their high hopes for a kinder, cleaner and greener planet are enough to reduce some of the audience to tears.
Yes, there’s scope to criticse the documentary for its “easygoing can-do approach in which there is no great emphasis on sacrifice and not even any obvious sense of emergency”, but although The Guardian’s reviewer only awarded three stars when the film was launched here in November, there was also a recognition of Gameau’s intrinsic likability and the underlying practicality of his approach.
Perhaps more significant is the success with which he moves the rhetoric away from righteous anger and confrontation. Basically he recognises there’s enough eco-anxiety around already and more pessimistic premonitions of doom simply leave us wringing our hands and hiding our heads under the covers.
Yes, the elephant in the room is the backdrop of melting ice sheets and increasing weather abnormalities, but rather than wallowing in fear and despair, Gameau focuses on how local communities in Bangladesh are already harnessing solar power to create micro-grids of electricity, how new farming models can sequester carbon and how new approaches to the cultivation of seaweed could help to promote marine biodiversity.
On his travels he also begins to realise how the education of a new generation of women and an accompanying reduction in population growth could be the single biggest key to success.
The visual letter cleverly juxtaposes visions of how Velvet’s life might have changed in two decades’ time if we make some inspired choices now with subtly understated reminders of the bleak and downright terrifying alternative.
This makes the film an ideal starting point for classroom and community discussions, because we’d all frankly prefer to live in Gameau’s world of green cities, driverless cars and better public transport than consider the prospect of how barren soils and oceans, coupled with rising sea levels and extreme weather, could create a hell on earth and force millions of migrants on the move.
Peopling his film with fellow optimists also allows us to recognise what we too can do to help a new generation of Velvets cope with the realities of modern life. Just as Gameau’s four-year-old must leave her safe bubble of childhood innocence, we also need to reject the blissful ignorance of climate inaction and embrace the opportunity to do our bit for the planet.
The film doesn’t resort to snide attacks or scapegoating, but there’s no shrinking from harsh realities either, of how our current paralysis may be stoked by a negative press which does not discuss solutions to climate change and a fossil fuel industry hell-bent on protecting its commercial interests at any price.
But while the film touches on the immense wealth and power wielded by vested interests to quell political action, it’s significant that some of the solutions are coming from the poorest people in the world whose lives and livelihoods are most immediately affected by intense weather events and rising sea levels.
It also means that our hopes for an optimistic future do not just rest of the innocent naivety of the young, but a groundswell of ordinary people: academics, campaigners, farmers and engineers who are already starting to create a new vision, pushing against the political tide.
Gameau urges us to join the regeneration revolution, and in the first six months after the film’s launch a surprising amount has been achieved.
Not all audiences may feel the documentary manages to occupy the “sweet spot between overexcited hopefulness and grounded realism”, but it does succeed in making a difficult subject eminently digestible for a universal audience.
UK screenings have been organised by environmental protest groups and other campaigners. Keep an eye out for a chance to see Gameau’s eccentric, engaging and essential contribution to the climate change debate at a local venue.