“How and whether we decide to invite the wildlife back is up to us”
Planet Earth 2 concluded this past Sunday with a look at the species that have adapted to a distinctly un-natural habitat: cities.
We’re introduced to animals surviving in urban territory that have found a niche, become bold opportunists, and learned to live alongside human neighbors. Seeing raccoons, pigeons, and peregrine falcons in breath-taking 4k, shot with the gravity and grace that characterizes the series, is utterly surreal. These vignettes are captivating and charming: Mumbai’s leopard population – the largest in the world – stalks domestic pigs by night; spotted hyenas honor a 400 year-old friendship with Ethiopian butchers; and millions of starlings swarm above Rome like schools of fish.
The segment with the bowerbird, whose mating ritual incorporates garbage, is particularly fun (one man’s trash is a bowerbird’s sex palace). And while it’s reassuring to see that, as bespoke Jeff Goldblum, life finds a way, there is an undeniable sense of dread in “Cities.” After all, Planet Earth has historically indicted the negative impact of human development on biodiversity; the series’ hope that wildlife can adapt to rapid, gross urban expansion is precarious at best.
A decade ago in the companion series Planet Earth: The Future, a panel of specialists weighed in on endangered species, the systematic eradication of ecosystems, and what the best way forward might be.
The featured panelists agreed that a consuming, growing human race will be unable to coexist with nature. Futurist James Lovelock went so far as to call sustainable development a contradiction in terms: what we need, rather, is sustainable retreat. The final episode “Living Together” concludes with an acknowledgement that fortress conservation, the forceful guarding of nature reserves from human encroachment, is an imperfect albeit necessary solution.
Two-thirds of the way into “Cities” the other shoe drops. In a single scene Planet Earth II shows us what it looks like when wildlife can’t adapt to human development. Mistaking the electric light of the city for the moon reflecting off the sea, newly hatched sea turtles make their way into the path of predators, storm drains and oncoming traffic. It’s an incredibly upsetting and effective sequence. Our narrator David Attenborough explains: “This turtle is one of the countless species that have been unable to adapt…only a small amount of animals have managed to find ways of living alongside us.”
The solution, as espoused in Planet Earth: The Future, is accommodation on our part; human expansion must be curbed and ultimately recede. For this to be sustainable, local communities must be the protectors and benefactors of wildlife conservation. “Cities” provides us with some examples: temples that revere langurs, butchers who support hyenas. Both programs concede that real-life examples of community-lead conservation, while ideal, are rare. Where 2016’s Planet Earth differs, is its optimism in the ability of large, urban cities, not just small communities, to undertake this investment; to work to protect the earth’s natural capacities while meeting human needs.
Finally, Attenborough addresses us directly. We must, he explains, actively do better. To parse and isolate wildlife, even to protect if from ourselves, is not a viable solution. If we lose our connection to wilderness, we risk everything – the future of both humanity and the natural world depend on the preservation of this connection.