BBC's The Green Planet is Attenborough's most important documentary yet

Ten years ago, a new BBC documentary by David Attenborough was something of a treat.

Attenborough’s huge back catalog dates back to 1951 when he made a documentary about the rediscovery of the prehistoric coelacanth.

And since then, his shows have been ostentatious and luxurious glimpses of nature through the magic of television (and, of course, the magic of extremely skilled and patient production teams – who have rightly devoted large chunks of documentaries to their kind doing what they do).

From the frozen planet to Africa; from the blue planet to life; we were amazed and enjoyed. But the climate is changing and it’s no longer just for fun.

Actually, it’s not just for fun for a long time. The Green Planet is about plants, so what better place to start episode one than in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and Borneo.

First, of course, we are shown the beauty. Attenborough takes us through some of the completely indescribable and incredible intricacies of plant life that exist in these locations.

A tree dies in the forest and falls to the ground, so that for the first time in maybe 100 years, parts of the forest floor get a little sunlight.

Time-lapse cameras show how fresh shoots that are just slumbering for a chance suddenly burst out of the earth and start a race to the canopy.

Vines shoot tendrils to wrap around large monstera leaves before they can unfold as each plant vies for light and a place in the forest. Fabulous balsa trees are covered with tiny hairs to distract the hooks of the vines.

Plants produce flowers that last only a single day and fill and replenish with nectar to attract kinkajous who drink profusely from the mugs.

The “corpse flower” opens to catch carrion flies. And millions of leaf cutter ants work tirelessly to bring home leaves to a benevolent mushroom. (Ants, baby. We were all there.)

Like all documentaries about the nature of Attenborough, The Green Planet is absolutely amazing and feels important and indispensable to the world.

But inevitably, and after just 20 minutes, we are shown how human striving has affected the rainforests.

To facilitate logging, agriculture, ranching, mining, oil production, and dam construction, large areas of the world’s rainforests have been (and still are) cleared or replanted with regulated trees that are fit for purpose and destroy diversity .

What is happening in these places is a global emergency and we know the damage will be irreversible.

Attenborough tells us that 70% of the world’s rainforests now grow within just a mile of a road.

But then he shows us how to reforest forests and how a place that he visited 30 years ago, which was previously decimated, has been reforested and is now reconnecting with life.

At the COP26 climate summit in November 2021, Attenborough received a standing ovation for his speech in which he said that the fate of future generations must stimulate delegates to “rewrite our history”.

As a bat flutters right in front of him, he radiates from ear to ear and it is a joy to see his sheer boyish joy and enthusiasm for nature that shines through The Green Planet as much as it does in any movie he has made.

David Attenborough is 95 years old. How many more nature documentaries will he make?

But perhaps more importantly, did we finally realize that he’s not making these films just for fun?


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