In the modern world, geology proposes a new epoch in which human beings have enormous influence over the Earth’s climate and environment: the Anthropocene period. Since the Industrial Revolution, the human march toward new technologies, population growth, and urbanization has simultaneously questioned the extent to which the rest of the animal kingdom has a claim to the planet.
One great display of this march is in the Planet Earth series. Ten years after its first installment, Planet Earth II aired over the last several months. Utilizing ultra-high-definition resolution, advanced camera capabilities, naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s narration, and composer Hans Zimmer’s music, the dramas of nature are captured by and for human beings like never before.
Each episode of the series focuses on a different environment and how life thrives and struggles therein. ‘Islands’ serve as microcosmic worlds, hosting precious wildlife in spite of their remoteness. ‘Mountains’ exist at the edge of existence, where only the toughest can survive. ‘Jungles,’ despite their smallness in size, are the most abundant in biodiversity. ‘Deserts,’ given their lack of water, have the harshest conditions — and are growing hotter and dryer every year. ‘Grasslands’ are the most versatile environments, being able to survive floods and fires and playing host to the largest animal migrations on the planet.
Planet Earth II offers a look past our “anthropocentric” worldview. With the personification of animals as agents that strive to gather resources, find mates, reproduce, protect their offspring, and fight rivals, Planet Earth’s animals — including humans — are shown as diverse and yet fundamentally similar in their life story.
Perhaps the most compelling insight is the most recent development in the human-animal relationship. The final episode, ‘Cities,’ shows how urbanization and human populations have forced animals to adapt to urban life. In fact, Attenborough repeatedly emphasizes how many urban animals are more successful and resilient than their wild counterparts.
Featured in ‘Cities’ are Torontonian raccoons, who make homes out of rooftop chimneys and struggle to climb down vertical structures. As Torontonians, along with the 50 per cent of humanity who live in urban spaces today, it can be difficult to empathize with other animals given our isolation from the natural world — and our occasional visits to the Toronto Zoo do not count as a connection. It is not surprising, then, that Toronto Mayor John Tory declared a ‘War on Racoons,’ to combat their infiltration into the organic content of green bins.
However, this demonization of animals is neither justifiable nor universal. The Toronto Wildlife Centre, for example, strives to rescue and rehabilitate animals — such as falcons, squirrels, and racoons — who are jeopardized by urban structures. It is also noteworthy that urban animals are adaptive to circumstances imposed upon them, and so blaming racoons when we leave out our garbage, or when they are using our attics for purposes of giving birth, is not totally fair.
With the city becoming a new home for animals, Attenborough makes a plea for the creation of spaces that are conducive to wildlife growth. Citing Milan and Singapore as cities that have created vertical forests and man-made ‘supertrees,’ it is clear that cities like Toronto do not have to be irreconcilable with animals.
One traditional golden rule in the creation of nature documentaries is that human beings should not interfere with the proceedings of nature, however cruel they may be. However, Planet Earth II breaks this convention in ‘Cities,’ with the story of baby turtles that are misled by man-made lights to crawl in the wrong direction and endure dire survival rates. The filmmakers of Planet Earth II collected and placed every filmed baby turtle back into the sea.
Within cities, the human-animal relationship is closer than ever, and in this era of integration, a laissez-faire approach to animals is no longer feasible when our actions have such a great impact on their existence.
Where Planet Earth II succeeds, then, is not only in building awareness and empathy in its human audience, but in calling us to action — to recognize our responsibility to invest in creating more hospitable homes to other species.
This is not only true within cities, where integration is most obvious and where animals are closest. In all major settings — whether islands, mountains, jungles, deserts, or grasslands — many animals face dire prospects due to human-induced climate change and habitat destruction.
A recent report claims that the cheetah is dangerously close to extinction. Attenborough emphasizes the difficulty of filming rare endangered animals like snow leopards. Of course, human beings are not immune to disaster either, as Albertans experienced in the Fort McMurray wildfire last year.
The ultimate message in Planet Earth II is that human beings can no longer remain idle or disconnected from the natural world. In light of the upcoming transition to a Republican-dominated American government that overwhelmingly denies or refuses to act against the threat of climate change, the human species must be more resilient than ever to protect all of Earth’s species.