Posts tagged: Attenborough

Uttering heresy: Why David Attenborough may not be good for conservation

By , 26 February 2010 6:50 pm

There cannot be many people on the planet who have access to television who have not seen at least some part of one of David Attenborough’s wonderful programs on wildlife. Currently we are working our way (slowly) through Planet Earth on the new TV and very fine it is indeed. Here in the UK as the old man gets into what must surely be his last decade there are already murmurings as to how we should honour him at his passing. Westminster Abbey perhaps?

Now let me say at the start that I yield to no one in my admiration of Attenborough. He is an excellent biologist and presenter (unlike the present crop of natural history presenters who seem to be chosen on the basis of looks alone) and his affection for wildlife and natural world is undeniably inspirational. And yet I have been thinking the unthinkable, and wondering whether his programmes (and similar wildlife spectaculars) have actually been good for conservation. Some of you will find this a statement that borders on the offensive or even nonsensical. Surely these programmes have portrayed the wonder of creation in a way that we could never have imagined? True: but have they been good for conservation? Have they encouraged people to go out into the natural world around them and wonder?

You see the problem as I see it is that such programmes present a wildlife that is so utterly spectacular and stunningly awesome that real nature can only come as an anti-climax. The reality is generally inferior in both quantity and quality. In the UK we do not see happy flocks of penguins marching resolutely across ice floes, schools of bounding killer whales or swarms of innumerable iridescent butterflies. We do not even get close to wildlife: the best views I have had of most birds would have ended up on Attenborough’s cutting room floor. (I do have to say that we were very fortunate in Lebanon to get some marvellous views of raptor and stork migration that rank very highly in wildlife experiences. They, though, are the exception rather than the rule; you had to be there at the right time.) From the short programmes appended to Planet Earth it is apparent that in some cases it took weeks of waiting with equipment costing tens of thousands of pounds to get some of the imagery. The problem is that having watched such programmes, when you go out into the natural world you are frequently disillusioned; birds are tiny little dots in a shaking telescope, butterflies do not stay to be identified and your photos of seals amount to little more than a cluster of pixels. If you do persist with an interest in wildlife you may be tempted to become an eco-tourist and I am very ambivalent about ecotourism and uneasy as to whether it does more good than harm. The reality of conservation is that there is an awful lot of work and some of it is frankly dull and unexciting.

Now these blogs are not of course simply about conservation or anything else; they are if anything a rather hasty Christian perspective on such matters. But actually I wonder whether this problem of reality being only a pale imitation of art is far more insidious and far more widespread than just involving the natural world. Doesn’t Hollywood and the media constantly tell us that life is spectacular and awesome, a non-stop adventure of fun and excitement? Yet the reality is that much of life is drab weeks and drab weekends albeit at punctured with brief but passing moments of pleasure and joy. And the problem is that if you expect the pleasure and joy to be the permanent phenomenon then you will undoubtedly feel cheated at your miserable lot. Doesn’t the same also apply to marriage? Isn’t that supposed to be an endless sizzling rapture of romance? Well sometimes it is but a lot of times it’s, well, just ordinary. And none the worse for that.

I am happy to keep watching the David Attenborough films and long may he flourish. But I have learnt to have happiness with a brief glimpse of a solitary Goldfinch on my birdfeeder. This side of heaven it is surely damaging to expect too much and there is perhaps more merit in the ordinary than the world would have us believe.

Have a good week.

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