Nature documentaries have long been the starting point for many an ecologist. They’re the reason that David Attenborough has long been so idolised among lovers of nature. But whether or not they actually work as a conservation tool has always been a little more difficult to say. Additionally, while they’ve long showed the wonder of animals, plants, insects and everything in between, many have shied away from the damage that humans have inflicted on the planet. This week’s authors wanted to examine Netflix’s latest move into nature documentaries, Our Planet, and see if it delivered on their promise to showcase the anthropogenic dangers that ecosystems face today.
What They Did
The methods here were pretty simple. The scripts for Our Planet, as well as three other recent David Attenborough led documentaries (Blue Planet, Blue Planet II and Dynasties) were analysed. The percentage of the word count which dealt with threats to the natural world was calculated, as well that which dealt with success stories regarding species and ecosystem conservation.
What They Found
Our Planet did spend more time talking about the dangers to the planet than the other three documentaries, with only Blue Planet II having a similar word count. Blue Planet II actually spent more time on conservation success stories than Our Planet (although most of this was packed into one final episode). One of the issues present though was that the visuals remain largely unchanged, with human impact on nature largely confined to Attenborough’s narration. This may have lessened the show’s impact on viewers and given the impression of nature as constantly stunning and untouched.
There aren’t problems with the study itself so much as with the questions it posts. Sure, Our Planet spends more time talking about issues like climate change and deforestation, but does that translate to a tangible effect? It’s extremely difficult to study the effect of nature documentaries on conservation efforts. One tangible example that the paper brings up is the UK policy change on marine plastics, which is somewhat credited to the final episode of Blue Planet II. Even then, how much the documentary actually played into the policy decision is debatable.
It’s a problem faced by nature filmmakers everywhere – you want to show the truth, but are worried that anything too depressing or severe will reduce viewership. And as stated above, even if documentaries do start to bring the impact of humans on nature more front and center, it’s difficult to know whether this aids conservation efforts. For starters, people who watch nature documentaries are likely to already have some sort of interest in nature, which makes viewers a biased sampling pool. The good news is that there are a growing number of methods which could be used to deal with these issues. Hopefully we will start to see some tangible effect of the work of Attenborough and the rest of the nature documentary industry some day soon.