"A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity. This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before."
He closes the series with this:
"Our planet is still full of wonders. As we explore them, we gain not only understanding, but power. It's not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands: it's the survival of the natural world in all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours."
With the statements that open and close the television series Planet Earth, we can assume that everything that lies between them is meant to inspire conservation via an awe-inspiring showcase of beauty and wonder. The problem, however, is that seeking out the "last wildernesses" can just as easily do the opposite. By leaving humans out of the equation and deliberately avoiding human footprints of any sort, Planet Earth obscures the fact that we're living on the edge of one of the largest extinction events in the history of the planet -- and one that's largely caused by humans. It even makes such a thing seem untrue. The fact that the life of nearly everything the series focuses on is at risk couldn't seem like more of a fantasy, and the trashing of much of the planet couldn't seem any more inconsequential.
With its many areas of focus: fresh water, oceans, mountains, caves, deserts, plains, jungles, etc. -- combined with its name, Planet Earth -- the mini-series gives the impression of being a comprehensive picture. Thus, our impact on the environment seems relatively small since there are so many places where Earth is (seemingly) untouched. Even Attenborough's mention that the planet is "fragile" seems to be slowly undermined. Not only does the series create these impressions by choosing to avoid humans, it's made worse by leaving out the mere mention of humans, even in places where it would be more than appropriate. During the episode Shallow Seas, there's a section on humpback whales where Attenborough goes out of his way to avoid mentioning specifically that humans are the main culprits in declining fish populations:
"The polar seas in summer are the most productive on the planet, and the whales gorge themselves 'round the clock. But it may not always be this way; fish and krill stocks are declining so rapidly that spectacles like this might soon be part of history."
Don't get me wrong -- trying to help and encourage people to fall in love with the natural world (while educating them along the way) is certainly a worthy goal, and Planet Earth is certainly an interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile television series. It's just unfortunate that the series seems to work better as a narcotic, something that soothes us and incurs forgetfulness. By focusing on pictures where every frame is packed with wonder and beauty, everything naturally seems fine. Sure, we've been trashing the planet all these years, but, whaddya know, things out there still look bountiful and pristine... damn near unscathed, really. And that's because what Planet Earth shows is not planet Earth at all -- far from it. It shows only the dream and leaves out the nightmare.
This false picture is the least harmful aspect of the series, however. The more damaging aspect can be gleaned from one of the phrases in Attenborough's closing narration: "As we explore them [the wonders of our planet], we gain not only understanding, but power." The assumption being hinted at -- and one that's made more explicit throughout the series -- is that human beings are the sovereign kings of planet Earth. Or, at the very least, beings who exist outside of the ecosystem.
There is a section in the series during the episode Caves that I found to be somewhat strange. We see humans, yes, but not as we would see them in a nature documentary; we see them jumping (parachuting) into a cave. They're treated very much like aliens visiting Earth, recording and documenting what they see:
"[the cave is] deep enough to engulf the Empire State Building," (it's interesting to note that we aren't given a measurement for scale... we're meant to be impressed by understanding that the cave is "great" because it trumps something that was made by humans... Of course it's also true that scale is easier to imagine when you use something people know for comparison, though I suspect few people can picture the Empire State Building any easier than they can picture 1,250 feet; they just know it's apparently a very impressive building. And then there is that word "engulf." Anyway...) "These depths were first explored only two years before men landed on the Moon." (Again, the context is mankind's accomplishments, and this time with an added extra-terrestrial element.)
Attenborough views humans as silent observers, scientists who go around collecting information for their own pride and gain. This anthropocentric understanding makes sense and sheds light on the hidden assumptions in the rest of the series. By showing a planet Earth divorced from humans, where the only people glimpsed (very rarely) are scientists, explorers and thrill seekers ("using" the world instead of living in it), humans are understood as existing outside of the rhythms and cycles of the natural world, which further cements our apartness and separateness from the environment. Such a way of seeing the world makes conservation on the size and scope that's needed all but impossible.