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Earth: a man-made morality tale

A new BBC film suggests human beings are screwing up the planet. But without us, Earth would be a pointless rock spinning through space.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Culture

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A rainy night in the small Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge and I make the short, wet dash to the cinema to catch Michael Moore’s recent film, Sicko. (Hebden Bridge is the kind of town where films arrive three months later than everywhere else.) As I settle into my seat, I’m confronted by a familiar, white, hairy beast.

It’s not Michael Moore, though. As the evening progresses I discover two things. Firstly, that I should learn how to read a cinema schedule (Sicko was shown the week before). Secondly, that human beings are screwing up the planet; at least, according to the makers of the film that was showing, the ambitiously titled Earth. In 98 minutes, the film – a condensation of the BBC television series Planet Earth – whisks us round the globe from the poles to the equator and back again, as a year in the life of the world’s animals unfolds.

The familiar white, hairy beast is, in fact, a polar bear. The film begins in the Arctic with Momma Bear popping her head out from her snow cave after months of hibernation. She is soon followed by two cubs, who seem to be taking an inordinate time to learn how to walk. That’s fine for the kids, who have their mother’s milk to drink. But after months without a square meal, mom’s getting kinda peckish. Dad hasn’t hung about. He’s off across the ice to see if he can get some dinner (ie, a seal or two) before the sun breaks the sea ice up and he can no longer get to his prey.

As the year goes on, we watch forest ducklings make their first tentative flight (pretty much a straight drop of 30 metres from the tree they hatched in), see tired and thirsty elephants march across the Kalahari Desert in search of water, and admire humpback whales as they journey south to feed on krill in the Antartic. In between, we see nature, red in tooth and claw: a young caribou chased down by a wolf in the snows of the north; an adult elephant taken down by a pride of lions in Africa; daddy polar bear – exhausted from swimming as warming temperatures melt the Arctic ice – desperately confronting a pack of walruses and coming off second best.

This is the ‘cycle of life’, according to narrator Patrick Stewart. And the problem is, suggests the film, our urban lifestyles mean that we are disconnected from this cycle of life and death. As a result, we have become insensitive to the damage we are doing to the planet and our ‘fellow creatures’ – for whom the polar bear has become an emblem.

This is an activist piece, even by the greener-than-thou standards of previous BBC productions, seeking to appeal to the audience that turned out to see Al Gore’s slice of climate change alarmism, An Inconvenient Truth. There’s even a website, LoveEarth.com, for those who want to find out more about how we can save the world. And it’s a moral film, firmly directed at children.

The action lurches between the cutesy and the dramatic, but always cuts away before the predator really starts to rip its prey limb-from-limb. So, much as Earth sometimes feels Disneyfied, it seems even more childish than Disney’s own True Life Adventures. Maybe it’s my unreliable memory, but I remember watching those Disney films as a child and thinking what a scary business Nature was. By contrast, there’s nothing very upsetting in Earth.

The message of Earth is simply perverse: humans are presented, to all intents and purposes, as monsters who need to be tamed by a new generation, while a polar bear – half a ton of killing machine – is presented as the fluffy victim of the piece. Humanity is the biggest, greediest, nastiest bully on the block; bears are cute.

Before the filmmakers get on their high horses about the evils of humanity, they might want to take a look at their own work as a fine example of what our apparently wicked conquering of Nature can bring about: a $40million film involving dozens of photographers made over a five-year period in an effort to capture animal life in every corner of the world. The result is often stunning, a testimony to the skill and dogged determination of the photographers who sometimes waited for months to get the right shot, all backed by an effective score by George Fenton.

Yet the message of the film is to belittle that creativity and the enormous creation of wealth that made it possible. As Earth reveals, the world is a beautiful place, but it can also be an incredibly dangerous one. We should be grateful that while animals scavenge and scramble for survival in a cruel world, humans – freed from the day-to-day task of staying alive – can spend years on a project that is about the ‘cycle of life’ but is no longer determined by it.

For all the effort to make the film appear naturalistic, the fact is that the planet would just be a pointless rock spinning through space if it were not our planet, if there was no conscious being observing it and able to bring purpose and meaning to it. That’s exactly what a film like Earth does, bringing logical order to what would otherwise be a series of endlessly repeating, isolated events. Animals from far-flung parts of the globe that never experience each other, but who simply have to adapt to whatever Nature throws at them, are brought together in a web of meaning that only exists in our heads.

In animal programmes, that meaning always seems to end up taking the form of a fable of one kind or another. Simple, anthropomorphic morality tales – like ‘animals good, humans bad’ – are imposed on the struggle to survive and reproduce. But while humans have many different stories – amounting to something called history – animals have none of that. For animals, there is only one story: born, eat, shag, die.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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