Shortly before David Attenborough’s new series Dynasties hit the screens in the UK, the veteran broadcaster/presenter was the subject of a targeted article by environmental activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Monbiot, whose piece proved unsurprisingly controversial, claimed that Attenborough has “betrayed the living world he loves” by “downplaying our environmental crisis” and generating “complacency, confusion and ignorance”.
“For many years”, Monbiot writes, “wildlife film-making has presented a pristine living world. It has created an impression of security and abundance, even in places afflicted by cascading ecological collapse. The cameras reassure us that there are vast tracts of wilderness in which wildlife continues to thrive. They cultivate complacency, not action.”
He goes on: “I have always been entranced by Attenborough’s wildlife programmes, but astonished by his consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defence of the living world he loves. His revelation of the wonders of nature has been a great public service. But withholding the knowledge we need to defend it is, I believe, a grave disservice.”
Letters streamed into The Guardian – some of which were published online –in defence of both accuser and accused.
Monbiot certainly has a point. Only in passing do many of Attenborough’s documentaries touch on the impact humanity is having on the natural world. Yet when they do, they pack a punch. Blue Planet II has been rightly lauded for the attention it drew to the issue of ocean plastic. Africa – one of my favourite of all of Attenborough’s recent series – ended with an entire one-hour programme entitled “The Future”, which spoke of the need to protect the natural world as Africa’s population is set to explode.
So which is the “right” approach? Lay the facts bare, however unpalatable? Or showcase the natural world in all its splendour (increasingly hard to do, given the rate of ecological collapse)?
The same day I read Monbiot’s article, I also found myself looking into sustainability from the angle of behavioural psychology. I came across an interesting statement in a 2016 research piece by US psychology professors Sue Koger and Britain Scott: “Messages about the predicted catastrophic consequences of climate change”, the authors noted, “can actually increase anti-environmental behaviour…both personal and collective defence mechanisms, including the denial of responsibility, rationalisation, distancing, and suppression serve to protect people from the internal conflict generated by knowingly engaging in unsustainable consumption practices”.
Although climate breakdown is just one of many environmental crises humanity has caused, the theory applies across them all, and has been recognised since the 1970s. As Koger and Scott note, “sustainable action is…unlikely to follow from fear-based appeals.”
So perhaps Monbiot is right. Attenborough’s documentaries can downplay the environmental crisis which humanity has caused. But if we’re to believe the work of Koger, Scott, and many others in their field, Attenborough’s approach – to inspire wonder and foster love of the natural world – may well be more useful in these perilous times than first thought.