If there is anyone who attracts near-ubiquitous admiration in the United Kingdom, it’s David Attenborough. The naturalist has had a hold on our eyes and ears with a remarkable stream of nature documentaries since the 1950s. Even into his later years, Attenborough—who is now 96—has relentlessly continued to release new documentaries and sequels to his universally praised shows about life on the planet.
His latest is Frozen Planet II—a follow-up in the series exploring the chilled reaches of our planet. If that doesn’t take your fancy, then also released this year are a smorgasbord of Attenborough-fronted documentaries about birdsong and plants, two offerings about dinosaurs, and a sequel to 2018’s Dynasties, a kind of documentary-cum-soap-opera that follows named animals as they struggle to hold on to power in their respective dynasty. Although he is most closely associated with the BBC, whose Natural History Unit continues to produce the majority of his documentaries, recent Attenborough shows have also been commissioned by Apple TV+ and Netflix. If Earth had to offer up a planetary spokesperson for the natural world, Attenborough is the odds-on favorite, and for good reason: His softly intoned reverence for the natural world has inspired a sense of wonder for generations. He has done more than almost anyone to bring faraway landscapes into our homes in an unforgettable manner, and to remind us that we are destroying these beautiful, fragile ecosystems.
But watching the first episode of Frozen Planet II, there is something—forgive me—that leaves me a little cold. All of the hallmark Attenborough-isms are there: ominous strings as killer whales stalk a seal atop some pack ice. Drone shots of glaciers smashing into the sea beneath the Greenland ice sheet. The staccato comedy of a Pallas’s cat—truly nature’s chonkiest fuzzball—as it plods after a rodent. It’s all beautiful. It’s Attenborough, after all. But at the same time, this documentary feels strangely out-of-step with a planet on fire.
In most Attenborough documentaries, nature is unspoiled, beautiful. It is elegiac strings overlaid on unbroken blankets of ice. It is something that exists outside of ordinary human experience—a somewhere else that hovers so far on the edge of my own life that it might as well be plucked from the pages of a fantasy novel. Humans are there in the Attenborough documentary but seldom onscreen. They’re a looming destructive presence that exists just outside of the natural system, but bearing down on it. If a person does appear in an Attenborough documentary, it is usually the comforting presence of the naturalist himself.
This is one way to look at the natural world, but it’s not the only way. In her book Under a White Sky, the environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert describes the chaotic way that humans are imprinted on just about every ecosystem on the planet. It’s messy, and humans are wreaking havoc everywhere we step, but Kolbert dispenses with the myth that nature exists outside of humanity and that only by stepping away can we right the wrongs we have wrought. To be sure, Attenborough doesn’t fully subscribe to this view either. In the 2020 documentary A Life on Our Planet, he points out that reversing climate change will require humans to adopt renewable technology, eat less meat, and try other solutions. But he’s also a patron of Population Matters—a charity that advocates for reducing global populations in order to ease pressure on the planet. Keeping nature intact might mean that we should have fewer humans around to enjoy it.
I’m personally not convinced by this line of thinking, but I do think that wishing away humans in order to focus on nature has two other side effects that we can see in Attenborough’s documentaries. One is that our destruction of the natural world is sometimes sidelined. Conservationist Julia Jones made this point in relation to Our Planet, the filming of which she observed for three weeks in 2015. After the documentary was released she criticized the documentary for referencing forests burning in Madagascar but shying away from showing footage of the destroyed ecosystems. Later, Jones praised Attenborough and his teams for depicting the impact of humans in the 2020 documentary Extinction: The Fact—a film she praised as “surprisingly radical.”