Last night I watched the “Jungles” episode of Planet Earth II with my brother. This is the award-winning 2016 follow-up to the award-winning British nature documentary Planet Earth, from a decade earlier.
Before I criticize the show harshly, I want to make clear that I loved watching it. The insane camera work captures never-filmed-before rainforest creatures at their most captivating; the editing creatively crafts compelling stories of jungle life; the protagonists themselves perform their ecological roles charismatically; David Attenborough’s lyrical, anthropomorphizing narratives invite us to sympathize with other species; the delightful jungle scenes optically thrill the viewer.
In the first full vignette, a father spider monkey responds to the calls of his daughter, who is hanging by just her tail in the forest canopy after slipping from a thin branch while pursuing fruit. He pushes another branch toward her, saving her from falling to certain death by forming a bridge with his body. They hug it out.
Nature fascinates and enchants people via Planet Earth II. I have two main beefs with the series, though.
First, Planet Earth II makes it seem like humans do not belong in ecosystems.
The season has six episodes: “Islands,” “Mountains,” “Jungles,” “Deserts,” “Grasslands,” and “Cities.” My brother, who’s seen them all, tells me only “Cities” includes people. Each episode does include a 10-minute “making-of” documentary where humans are visitors filming nature.
It’s okay that Planet Earth II is totally focused on the non-human world. Urban people probably need to see more un-paved ecosystems of species other than pigeons, dogs, mice, turfgrass, raccoons, and the rest of the nearly homogenous assemblage of domesticates and commensals that have co-evolved with human settlements around the world.
The problem is that the show does not acknowledge that humans live in, and contribute to creating, all these earthly ecologies. In the “Jungles” episode, humans evade mention until the very end, when we meet “one of our distant cousins,” the large, acrobatic indri lemur. The species is one of many that lives only in the forests of Madagascar, where “one million hectares of the rainforest have been destroyed” in the past ten years. The passive phrasing avoids saying who cuts down the forest.
Attenborough continues, “The local people say the indris are our brothers and their song is a call to remind us that we, too, once depended on the jungle. This Eden is still a place of wonder and magic. Something, surely, worth protecting.” And that is all. Here, at the end of the episode, it is implied but not explicitly stated that local people might physically interact with and harvest from the jungle.
By omitting humans and not calling any attention to the intentional omission, Planet Earth II perpetuates the misconception that humans are only visitors, invaders, or destroyers of the jungle. But evidence is mounting that even the massive Amazon “wilderness” housed huge, highly organized human societies. People not only lived in but co-created the rainforest by planting fruit and nut trees, constructing enormous earthworks, maintaining grasslands by periodically burning large areas, flooding these open spaces, and setting up circuitous networks of weirs to trap fish there. Humans lightly gardened the Amazon so it would produce their food for free.
We produce our environments, making livable human habitats. All other species do the same, everywhere, always, together.
That leads to my second beef with Planet Earth II.
It omits collaboration in favor of cutthroat Darwinian competition.
In the first few minutes, Attenborough states that all jungle animals must “find their own way to survive in the most competitive place on earth.”
The theme continues throughout. Viewers’ attention is drawn to predators chasing prey. Through evolution, they develop adaptations to hunt better or avoid detection, respectively.
Cooperation, both within and between species, is shown but never mentioned. We see glow-in-the-dark fungi but are not told about their collaboration with the trees. We see a male bird-of-paradise clearing the leaves from a column of the forest to make a dull stage for his bright mating displays, but we are not told whether the defoliated space lets light in for flowers, young trees, or other beings to flourish on the forest floor.
We are told that it is because of the need to compete with 98 other species of hummingbirds searching for food that the swordbill hummingbird has grown a beak longer than its body, to get exclusive access to the nectar stored deep in an elongated flower. It is as if the long flower species already existed, and the clever swordbill adapted an extraordinarily long beak to reach inside.
Really, the flower evolved long petals and the swordbill hummingbird evolved a long beak together. (No one could have pollinated the long flower if it had existed first.) This is called coevolution. All evolution is coevolution.
The jungle is described as if the perfect environment for life existed and then the critters came to it. Attenborough informs us in the opening, “Jungles have just the right amount of light, water and nutrients, and they have had every day for millennia.” Later we learn that the forest makes its own weather, through transpiration and condensation.
The connection is never made: rainforest life created its own conditions from scratch. Life first came to land in the form of fungi, who ate rocks and digested them into soils. Plants washed ashore and found the land’s nutrients finally accessible in the dirt. Herbivorous animals came to feast on the plants. Carnivores evolved to eat them. Bugs, bacteria, and more fungi showed up to break down the dead and the poop into fresh soil for more life.
Species continually adapt themselves to the forest and change it to suit them. They do this together, in cooperating assemblages. Around half the cells in a human body are not human cells but microbes. We could not live without them and they could not live without us. All big organisms are actually lots of organisms that have joined forces. Evolution selects and changes complex interspecies relations, not “the fittest” in the jungle.
By not mentioning cooperation, Planet Earth II perpetuates dominant cultural myths of unassisted individual achievement—the rugged frontiersman or heroic entrepreneur battling alone against the elements or the marketplace. This is the same mythology that lauds industrial capitalism’s exploits without acknowledging exploited women, nature, slaves, or colonies. These are the blinders that make us believe material wealth can grow for humanity without taking those materials, that wealth, from nature. Where else would it come from?
To navigate today’s ecological and social crises, we must break down the myths that Planet Earth II perpetuates. Humans are always interacting with the rest of nature, even when detached from the ecosystems we rely on by the urban-rural “metabolic rift” and the invisibilization of impacts facilitated by international trade. Westerners must learn to intentionally cooperate with other species, other humans, and each other to make it out of the mess that we have created.
The Anthropocene terminology implies that humans have taken over the earth, when really it is the collaboration between Homo sapiens, our microbiomes, our domesticated animals and crops, and the other weeds, pests, diseases, and urban-adapted life that has come aboard the ark. To move to Thomas Berry’s “Ecozoic” era, we must recognize that we are continually collaborating with the whole web of life, and then do so with respect.
Addressing global environmental issues like climate change requires unprecedented global cooperation. We rightfully celebrate that every nation on earth finally signed a weakly enforceable document, the Paris Agreement, that expresses hope to stop climate change and commits to insufficient emissions reductions to do so. What’s needed, though, is to stop competing to win a race that all nations will lose together, in a way that most threatens those who are least responsible for creating the problem. My advisor Professor Josh Farley reminds us that there is no competitive solution to climate change: whatever nation constrains their economy to reduce emissions will be a loser in the fiercely competitive global economy, so no one wants to go first.
Likewise, economic inequality and poverty cannot be addressed without cooperating to share wealth more equally. At a time when learning to cooperate is so crucial to averting civilizational disaster, the media should show us that cooperation is everywhere. While 20th-century Western scientists saw nature as a big antagonistic struggle to survive, evolutionary biologists from the Soviet Union saw beautiful cooperation everywhere they looked. It’s all about perspective.
More and more kids are falling in love with nature not by interacting with other species outside but by watching series like Planet Earth. This feels problematic. Thinking through it would be another blog post, though. For now, let’s just hope Planet Earth III does a better job showing how humans and collaboration, not just creatures and competition, permeate the living world.
Sam Bliss is a second-year PhD student at the University of Vermont. His research focuses on food systems without markets.