A wild swimmer's battle to clean up our rivers
When Blue Planet II aired in 2017 and revealed the extent of the damage being wrought on the world’s marine life, people across the country felt an overwhelming sense of grief. It became the most-watched TV programme of the year in the UK and, for the first time, the issue of plastics pollution truly hit home. A wave of determination to do better seemed to sweep the nation.
Opinions are split over whether the “Blue Planet effect” did indeed have lasting consequences, but now a new BBC science series, simply called Earth, is sounding a similarly stark warning for what happens when our fragile planet is beset by disaster.
Episode one, Inferno, which airs on Monday 17 July, explores one of the darkest periods in Earth’s history: the worst mass extinction the planet has ever seen, when as much as 90% of all species died.
This extraordinary moment – some 252 million years ago – took life to the brink, wreaking havoc and destruction on an unprecedented scale. But somehow, life found a way to bounce back, and a new geological era ushered in the age of the dinosaurs.
Speaking at an advance screening of Inferno, the series’ presenter, Chris Packham, drew comparisons between the catastrophes that have beset our planet in the past and the climate crisis that we now face.
Packham said: “I think there is an increasing number of people who are aware of the dangers of our impact on the climate and biodiversity, but I don’t think that enough of those people who are decision-makers are feeling it yet.
“We watch other parts of the world burn and get submerged under water… I feel it every time I go out of my front door. I see species that have arrived, and I note the absence of others. I see that the seasons have gone haywire since I was a kid. I see and feel change as a naturalist every day, but most people go about their daily business.”
Drawing on new research from more than 200 scientists, this dazzling series uses incredible visual effects to show what happened during key moments in Earth’s story. These sensational images include lava fields covering an area the size of Australia, ice blanketing the Earth’s equator and giant fungal spikes towering 8 metres [26 feet] high.
Packham, 62, has spent his career documenting and conveying his passion for the natural world – first to a children’s audience on The Really Wild Show and then on wide-ranging nature documentaries for the BBC, including the ever-popular Springwatch.
In 2017, the presenter broke new personal and professional ground with award-winning BBC documentary Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me, in which he movingly revealed spending much of his adult life trying to hide the fact he has a form of autism. Packham was widely praised for giving a brilliant insight into how his brain works, and for making people understand how – far from being a disorder – it’s made him the much-loved conservationist he is today. Earlier this year, he handed the mic to other neurodivergent people in the BBC’s Inside Our Autistic Minds.
I hope other people feel as guilty as I do because we have failed.
A presenter who’s committed to making us see the world and its people differently, Packham’s main aim, he says, is to make his audience feel passion for the brilliance of the natural world. And one of his main motivations is guilt for not having done more to protect it.
“As an older person, I can tell you that I feel really wretched and guilty – that’s a motivator for me. There’s no question of that.
“I got into animals when I was crawling around in the garden, and then I studied zoology. By the time I left university in the 1980s, I recognised that I was never going to have the luxury of just sticking with the fascination, I was going to have to also be part and parcel of fixing the problem.
“Since 1970, we’ve lost 69% of the world’s wildlife, and I remember 1970 like it was yesterday. So of course, when it comes to conservation, I feel incredibly guilty.”
“I have a 28-year-old stepdaughter [conservationist and presenter Megan McCubbin]. We go out and she sees things and thinks they’re wonderful. She saw a small copper butterfly the other day, and she was going on and on about it. I was thinking: ‘Megs! I used to go out and see 15 or 20 of those and we didn’t have to go looking for them, they were everywhere!’
“I don’t feel I’ve done enough. I’ve been asleep at the wheel. I’ve got to do more, and more quickly now, while I have the time. I hope other people feel as guilty as I do because we have failed. And now we need to fix it, to stand up and get on with it.”
So what should we be doing? Packham believes we need to empower younger people to lead on the issue: “Tomorrow is their future. Not so much mine. We ought to recognise that and empower those young people to be involved, and that doesn’t mean listening to them in a patronising way, it genuinely means empowering them to make decisions. I think there are too many old people who haven’t made decisions, who are still not making decisions…”
It’s too easy to blame government for its inaction, he says, but the onus is on us – the people. “Ultimately, we voted for them, and we’re still citizens, and we still live in a democracy where we have a voice, so we ought to be asking them more fervently to do the right thing.
“The people who have been doing that with the greatest gusto are young people. They did stand up and take to the streets and raise their voice. They do have genuine concerns and they do motivate most of our protest movements.
“We can all be dissatisfied with that lack of activity and inertia, but for me it’s a fuel. Every day that goes by where I don’t fix something, I know that I’ve got to work harder tomorrow. And I’m not alone. I know that a lot of other people feel the same way.”
For Packham, that means using his incredible platform to encourage us all to have a deeper sense of duty towards our fragile planet and its many species.
“If we can generate that affinity, for people to understand just how special our planet is, then perhaps they’ll think twice when it comes to doing anything damaging, or think more positively about making sure that it gets fixed,” he says.
While Packham stresses that the series is not primarily about climate change, there’s no doubt that viewers will take away the painful message that life here on Earth is more fragile than we might dare to imagine.
And yet Packham is adamant that we have reason to be optimistic: “My optimism at the end [of the series] is based on the fact that we can fix it, we know what to do, we know what the problems are so we can stop it or slow it down. And when it comes to repair and restoration, we have the tools to do that.”
Judging by the reaction in the screening room, there’s every chance that this series will mark the start of the “Earth effect”. Let’s hope so.
Earth starts on Monday 17 July, 9pm, BBC Two and iPlayer.
Did Blue Planet II change our behaviour?
In 2020, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford carried out a study to find out whether Blue Planet II did prompt viewers to use less plastic in their own lives.
The researchers conducted an experiment with 150 people split into two groups; one group watched Blue Planet I, which contained no references to ocean conservation, and the other group was shown Blue Planet II.
The participants then filled out identical questionnaires and were offered a choice of drinks and snacks, either in paper or plastic packaging. The scientists found that while the viewers of Blue Planet II had a far greater awareness and understanding of the need for marine conservation, there was no significant difference in whether they chose plastic or paper-packaged snacks.
Written by Fiona Cowood
Fiona Cowood has 20 years’ experience working in senior editorial roles at leading national titles including Grazia, Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has interviewed a diverse range of remarkable people – from victims of sex trafficking in Nepal through to former Foreign Secretaries and national treasures like Tom Jones.