Globe-trotting wildlife series spark ‘eco-anxiety’ in their own presenters

BBC presenter Liz Bonnin - Chris Chapman/BBC
BBC presenter Liz Bonnin – Chris Chapman/BBC

Where once the BBC had the monopoly on landmark natural history series, US streamers are now in on the act.

Netflix and Disney+ have announced a raft of expensive productions covering wildlife in all corners of the globe.

However, the shows are being criticised by the very people who work on them. Young filmmakers are “grossed out” by the fact that making such shows creates a huge carbon footprint, and that they have little benefit for species on the brink of extinction.

They are calling for a step change in the industry, and asking if natural history series can be justified at all in today’s environmental climate.

Supporters include Liz Bonnin, the BBC wildlife presenter, who said she felt “eco-anxiety” while working on nature films.

Chairing a Royal Television Society discussion about wildlife film-making, Bonnin said: “We are trying to win over hearts and minds, to get [viewers] to fall in love with nature and get them to understand the importance of the planet.

“But at what point is it justifiable to make a big landmark? We’re making all these programmes that have some of the biggest impact in television, but to what end if our carbon footprint is so high and if the story isn’t leading to tangible change so that those animals don’t go extinct?”

Major natural history series have 30-40 times the carbon footprint of a normal hour of television, the panel heard, as they involve flying crew and kit around the world.

Sir David Attenborough on location in Kenya - Alex Board/BBC/PA
Sir David Attenborough on location in Kenya – Alex Board/BBC/PA

Tom Mustill, an award-winning film-maker who has worked with Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, said: “The elephant in the room of wildlife film is that it’s making huge amounts of money while its subject matter goes extinct.

“There’s a gold rush for these films [but] I think because we give ourselves a pat on the back for making everyone fall in love with nature, we give ourselves a pass in terms of our impact.”

Mustill added: “People are stopping working on programmes now because they are grossed out, because it’s called, like, Ultimate Beautiful Planet VI… it used to be that people would feel so lucky just to go and make those films, but now you feel it’s so against your inner self. It feels so dissonant, and so many of us feel like this.

“So many people in wildlife TV don’t watch wildlife TV. When I got into it, you’d tell your friends and family when you’d made a film, ‘Please watch this.’ Loads of my friends don’t suggest I watch the films they make because they don’t think they’re very interesting.”

Netflix recently announced six new natural history projects: Our Universe, Our Planet II, Life In Our Planet, Our Oceans, Our Living World and Our Water World.

The panel discussion, titled Is TV Overheating the Planet?, also featured Doug Allan, a veteran cameraman who worked on Planet Earth and Blue Planet for the BBC.

Liz Bonnin on location in the Galapagos islands - Freddie Claire/BBC
Liz Bonnin on location in the Galapagos islands – Freddie Claire/BBC

He said that the industry must get “very radical” on the issue of climate change and consider rebranding natural history programmes, making them as much about politics and economics as wildlife.

“In all the wildlife films, it’s often this wistfulness that comes through. We need anger and people in tears – people dying because of climate change. We need that level of emotion,” Allan said.

The panel included Kristina Turner, co-founder of Filmmakers for Future: Wildlife, which campaigns to make the industry more environmentally friendly.

Sharing footage

Suggestions during the discussion included using crews from the countries in which filming takes place, rather than flying British cameramen abroad, and sharing footage between broadcasters to cut down on the amount of filming needed.

A short film that Mustill made for Surfers Against Sewage consists entirely of footage sent in by amateur and professional film-makers. “I didn’t shoot anything, I didn’t interview anyone. I can’t tell the difference between amateur and professional drone photography any more,” Mustill said.

This month, Sky launched Predators, narrated by Tom Hardy, which features lions, cheetahs, polar bears, pumas and wild dogs.

Its producer, Wendy Darke, appeared on the panel and said the series had used best practice in cutting its environmental footprint, filming in two years rather than the typical four. The programme will stress that the dangers faced by animals in the show are man-made, from forest fires to melting ice caps.

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