I am part of a generation that idolises David Attenborough and, like many younger conservationists, have long extolled the virtues of his breathtaking documentaries for their stark impact on my life. From the Life of Birds to Planet Earth, these are the shows that ignited and then nurtured my passion for the natural world and, truthfully, I owe them a great deal. As do many others, I suspect.
It is little wonder then, that like the vast majority of people on my timeline, I cringed this week when Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, chose to berate Attenborough [and the BBC] in a recent, incendiary article. One claiming that the veteran broadcaster had, through years of inaction on environmental issues, betrayed the living world he loves. A bold claim, and one which takes a great amount of courage to make, I will admit, which also appears to have triggered many people to align themselves one way or the other.
I find this intensely frustrating. For decades, Attenborough has created a false impression of the health of the living world, and repeatedly *failed* to highlight the realities. Now he makes a doctrine of this failure. pic.twitter.com/MbyWSwNKYa
— GeorgeMonbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) 4 November 2018
I confess, upon reading this article, my first thought was “you can’t say that, he is David Attenborough“. The precursor to a mental scramble to justify my undying devotion to the man as the worlds most prominent natural history broadcaster, as an inspiration to countless people [young and old] and a purveyor of spectacular, educational documentaries. I fell into the trap of being precious about a “national treasure” absent consideration, as is often the case when criticism falls on one we hold in high regard.
Curiosity peaked, I re-read Monbiot’s article shortly after. More carefully this time and trying, difficult as it may be, to keep an open mind – only to find that by doing this, disagreement surged. What exactly has David Attenborough done for the natural world he holds so dear? Well, that’s easy: he has educated the masses, inspired multiple generations of conservationists, brought nature into the homes and lives of millions and doubtless, triggered further thought in some people previously unconcerned about the fate of biodiversity. He also did a fine job of bringing to light the problem of plastic pollution (Monbiot would disagree here) and has preached, on a number of occasions, the threats posed by a surging human population. Few in this world boast the deeds or moral high ground to cast shade in his direction.
In my opinion, David Attenborough has done more than most in defence of the natural world. Thus, to claim betrayal seems like a frightful exaggeration. Although, when one changes the assertion and asks “has he done enough for nature” the lines begin to blur somewhat.
Attenborough has an almost unprecedented platform from which to express his views. He boasts unimaginable clout and influence and, although he alone is not responsible for the content of his documentaries [the BBC come into play here], has both the support and heft to alter his broadcasts on a whim. With all of this comes power: the power to speak up and make a real difference. Has he used this to whip up a storm about environmental issues? No, he has not. Blue Planet II aside, you seldom see Sir David on the campaign trail and rarely do his documentaries depict the ugly state of nature in the modern-day.
In one sense, Monbiot is right. Attenborough has not done all he could to hammer home the plight of our planet, for reasons he recently discussed. He has not attempted to instigate protests, has shied away from lobbying ministers and never, not once, has attempted to turn public opinion against individual organisations, companies or people. All of this sits fine with me, for Attenborough’s power has been used to great success in a far softer, less abrasive, but no less significant manner: to inform, educate, inspire and yes, entertain. We cannot all do everything and the broadcaster has undoubtedly done a great deal with the talents he possesses, as we all should.
To dismiss the contribution of David Attenborough outright is incredibly ignorant for one simple reason: there is room for both the Attenborough and Monbiot approaches to nature conservation. Both are equally important and each hinges on the success of the other. To reach the stage of direct action, as Monbiot and others advocate, you first need to be interested. You need to boast an affection for nature prior to delving into the serious, technical and often bland ins and outs of environmentalism. To reach the point of action, you need to be inspired, plain and simple, and no one inspires quite like Britain’s most trusted broadcaster.
Absent Attenborough and his efforts to highlight the beauty and diversity of nature, few people would give a hoot about the fate of our planet. Okay, some would – those privileged enough to be exposed to nature from an early again – but not nearly the number required to make any real difference. The conservationists, naturalists and environmentalists who work to achieve great deeds in the field and yes, tirelessly support the causes championed by George Monbiot and others, would be fewer in number absent, Attenborough, as a catalyst for their devotion. Sure, he has not single-handedly brought about the salvation of our planet [no one can do so alone] but he has put boots on the ground in defence of nature.
Once you look past the potshots and sniping generated by this article, you will see that we desperately need both approaches to nature conservation. We need the Attenborough approach to ensnare, captivate and pave the way, and we need the Monbiot approach to bring about the next steps. Both are dependant on one another, and both are equally vital.
It would have been easy to rebut Monbiot’s article, as others have, by asking what difference he and the approach he advocates have made for nature. It would have been easy to give in to the comparison of feats and achievements but, in my opinion, doing so would be reductive. We need both the Monbiot’s and Attenborough’s of this world to make any real difference.
If activists such as George Monbiot are the engine that drives change for the natural world, then educators like David Attenborough are the gasoline – their work and influence the fuel that powers the whole vehicle. No campaign can succeed absent public affection for the natural world and without doubt, no one fosters affection quite like Sir David.
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