Has David Attenborough Really Betrayed The Natural World?

‘An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity but great fulfillment.’ – David Attenborough

A few days ago, our feeds were dominated by the headline ‘David Attenborough: too much alarmism on environment a turn-off‘. Since then, I’ve seen countless posts, tweets and articles written in response, ranging from the supportive, the critical and to the downright rude – but the majority follow the common theme of feeling let down by our much loved natural world enthusiast. One even went as far as to claim he’d betrayed the living world, stating that by downplaying our environmental crisis, he’d generated complacency, confusion and ignorance.

What did he actually say?

The original article, published by The Guardian, was a precursor to the upcoming series ‘Dynasties‘, which follows the lives of five of some of the world’s most charismatic animals. Sir David Attenborough, who it could be said is one of the world’s most favourite enthusiasts of the natural world, will be narrating the programs. The full article can be found here, but in a very brief, paraphrased summary, he emphasised that these programs are to be taken as a showcase of innovative wildlife film making and insights into the world and plight of these animals – not as environmental campaigns. Within the article, it is posed that the comments it reported could end up ‘reigniting the debate’ about Sir David’s priority – education, or entertainment?

That debate is one that has since been populating my news feed, with both sides showing strong dedication to their reasonings and opinions.

Although the series aims to be an intimate and intense insight into the lives of these species, showcasing the pressures they face within their habitats and from the human race, the article suggests that the approach could be seen as too light handed. This is a sentiment echoed in reaction articles, some even bringing up that although the recent series Blue Planet II is credited with causing outrage against plastic straws and a mass shift in the nation’s attitudes towards single use plastics, it still isn’t good enough and needs to strive to better inform the public as to just why and how we need to take action.

However, on the other side of the coin, I’ve seen defences that largely congregate around a similar idea: hope. Growing up, I watched The Really Wild Show (and very recently had the opportunity to meet Michaela Strachan, but more about that later, I’m still not quite over it) and the whimsical aspirations of roaming the world saving animals settled themselves deep in my brain. To this day, I still credit the inspiration for my chosen career path with the documentaries I used to watch on Animal Planet, the spectacles of nature showcased on the various Planet Earth episodes, and even the frolicking celebrity specials that would be frowned upon now (Tamzin Outhwaite Goes Wild With Dolphins, I’m looking at you). Would I still have developed a love for the natural world had I not been exposed to it through programs such as these?

I’d hope that I would have, however, I’m still grateful for the insights into the world that these programs provided.

This forms the main basis of the defences I’ve seen – Sir David Attenborough has provided a lifetime of inspiration and stories from the world around us, inspiring countless careers and opening eyes and minds to the vast range of lives on our planet.

That being said, an earlier article reports an important point: he is not a scientist, instead, he describes himself as ‘somebody who takes their discoveries and tried to make them comprehensible to others.’ This brings us back to the earlier question posed; does he have a responsibility to educate rather than just entertain? Are the two really mutually exclusive? Does his prowess within the field of presenting the natural world give him a responsibility to ensure viewers have a real grasp on the magnitude of the issues faced around the world? Is inspiration enough? Are we placing the responsibility of saving the world on the shoulders of one man?

What do you think?



6 thoughts on “Has David Attenborough Really Betrayed The Natural World?

  1. Sir Davids Iconic PROGRAM about mountain gorillas in Rwanda was the spark that ignited my interest in nature. Johnny MORRIS/ANIMAL magic, TRIPS to twycross zoo and the circus WHERE elephants and tigers etc were paraded for our pleasure, though frowned upon now stirred something within me . Even now driving to work I marvel at seeing a barn owl in the twilight or a shy MUNTJAC deer dart into the hedgerow, sitting by the river on a sunny Sunday the sight of a buzzard wheeling above will catch my eye, the hoards around me are oblivious, perhaps they have better things to do than watch a bird. This is all thanks to sir David Attenborough.

    Regarding alarmism being a TURN-OFF. IT’S not the alarmism it’s the overkill, it’s almost impossible now not to turn on the TV and see another item by some minor “celebrity” walking along a beach or swimming in the ocean surrounded by plastic.
    Ok we get it but banging on about it won’t fix it.

    Sir David is an EDUCATOR. HE was an entertainer too …… HOW entertaining was he with the mountain GORILLAS in his black plastic gloves (an assumption based on the fact I had a similar pair)
    to be fair he is more A narrator these days thanks to his advancing years but hey HE’S done his time, LET the young ones do the hard work.

    Re the sea of plastic HE doesn’t profess to know the answer ONLY to draw our attention to the problem and Inspire others to find the solution.
    My solution would be to stop production of all unnecessary plastic, single use etc immediately and all other plastic asap. And Return to using wood, glass, metal, leather (assuming we haven’t all gone veggie to save the planet) ETC where possible.
    Where immediate replacements aren’t available then invent something …. Necessity is the mother of invention.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a comprehensive reply! I think there so many people over the world that have been inspired by similar, and even further than that, have been taught a new way to see the world.

      Do you think that programs looking at tackling the problem, rather than highlighting the plastic problem, could work better? I’m very interested in just what works for people and what inspires them to take action.

      Again, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts – it’s lovely to get an insight into how other people see the situation!

  2. All the best education and learning experiences are fun and engaging. Personally the things I remember most from school are things from primary school were there was always colour and learning about history was not only a history class but also art, maths and acting. From secondary school I remember the trips we went on and the film’s we watched at the end of term the classes I don’t remember so well, copying down notes and hoping not to fail.

    So in my opinion David Attenborough needs to entertain in order to educate and give people the hope they need to know that they can make a difference in the world even through very small actions.

    1. I completely agree! Even the smallest actions can have a big difference- especially if they’re done by many people. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on this, I really appreciate it!

  3. I think the whole outcry was a little much to be honest. David Attenborough never claimed to be our champion in fighting climate change or pollution but we appointed him anyway. Now there’s backlash when he doesn’t do the job we designated to him. It sums up our society where its now expected that every wildlife documentary should be accompanied by the doom and gloom message about the state of the planet. The fact that we expect it shows we know what we re doing to the environment and we’ve known for years the steps we have to take to combat THIS but have done too little.
    I think we are also aiming our frustrations out on the wrong person when things such as fracking have been reapproved OR informative adverts have been banned for being too ‘too POLITICAL’.
    So I don’t think it’s the role of David Attenborough to hit us with these hard truths because really we already know about them.

    1. Some very good points! I can see where you’re coming from, he never claimed to be the be all and end all of saving the world, but we’ve put that expectation upon him. Thank you very much for commenting, and definitely thank you for bringing up the ‘too political’ point – I’m going to write about that next!

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