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A Netflix Nature Series Says to Viewers: Don’t Like What You See? Do Something About It

It’s a striking image, watching a walrus climb a rock cliff. During one episode of the new Netflix nature docu-series “Our Planet,” we witness something that shouldn’t be happening — and is only happening now, the producers say, because of climate change. Desperate marine animals driven away from their natural habitats are trying to adapt to shelter elsewhere, and falling to their deaths as a result.

This is not the typical scenario featured in feel-good nature documentaries, but “Our Planet” has a different aim. Its creators partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (and a team of scientists) to depict how various ecosystems around the world — from the frozen Arctic to rain forest jungles to coastal seas — are imperiled by human activity, and what can be done to protect or restore them. “We were trying to get to the heart of the issue with each of the great global habitats,” said Keith Scholey, an executive producer of the series, “and to be very clear about the elements of destruction and the solutions.”

[A look at recent Netflix originals worth your time.]

In phone interviews with Scholey and Adam Chapman, who produced and directed two episodes of the series, and, separately, with Sophie Lanfear, who produced and directed one episode, they shared their experiences making “Our Planet.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How did your advocacy interest shape the filming and the production?

SOPHIE LANFEAR The only reason I was interested in working on “Our Planet” is that it had conservation very much at the heart of the series. Often it’s a last-minute thing — two lines of commentary at the end of the show. To me, it’s about designing the whole structure of the film with a conservation message, and having the visual kinds of sequences that show you, not tell you, what is going on with the world.

ADAM CHAPMAN We set up some stringent parameters when we were selecting what to do. The obvious one is that they had to be the most dynamic and new animal behaviors that we could find. And more important, each sequence had to represent a much greater truth about that habitat.

LANFEAR For example, when I was designing [the second episode] “Frozen Worlds,” I watched every single relevant documentary I could find, and what I found was that none of them told the story of sea ice. Sea ice isn’t just this vast nothing. It’s a living habitat. The algae feed on the ice, and the krill feed on the algae, and the krill feeds the whales and the penguins. And when you lose the sea ice, this white reflective surface at the top of our planet, we lose our protective shield from solar energy. So it’s not only bad for the animals that live there, it’s bad for us.


A green turtle gliding over the reefs of Heron Island, on the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef.CreditOliver Scholey/Netflix

What was it like seeing the impact of climate change unfold in real time?

KEITH SCHOLEY I think the bit that shocked me was the coral bleaching in a 500-mile stretch of the Great Barrier Reef. It goes ghostly white when the temperature changes. It expels the algae that live in the coral. It looks rather beautiful, but then it dies.

CHAPMAN The sequence for me that had the most emotional resonance was the glacial calving in Greenland, which is the final sequence in Episode 1. We waited for the glacier to calve for quite some weeks, without any luck. And we were nearly packing up.

LANFEAR I kind of looked at the nose of it, and I was like, “Hmmm, that one looks like a different shape.” And we could see, ever so slightly, that it was moving, so it was all-systems-go in the last evening in the last hour of light. About a third of the glacier broke away in that event. It sounded like a war zone. Like cannon fire.

CHAPMAN We then managed to film on the ground and from a helicopter that we had on standby. The 20 minutes we spent in the helicopter were probably some of the most exciting time I’ve had filming in my career. But after the elation of achieving this goal, looking down at this bay with this massive iceberg in the middle of it, you realize the portent of that event.

Store Glacier in Greenland. “When you think about the sea ice disappearing, then you realize the walruses are like refugees,” Lanfear said.CreditNetflix

LANFEAR We could see through some of the sea ice. It was like glass. And that’s when it just hits you. The scientist Alun Hubbard has studied the ice cores in that section of the glacier, and that’s thousands and thousands-of-years-old ice. Something that is thousands of years old, destroyed in the blink of an eye. It’s very sobering. And when you think about the sea ice disappearing, then you realize the walruses are like refugees. They are Arctic refugees.

The walrus scenes are astonishing. These walruses don’t have enough ice, so they’re hauling themselves over rocky areas and up cliffs. But they can’t get themselves off the cliffs, and they’re falling to their deaths.

LANFEAR The walrus scenes were the hardest things I’ve ever had to witness or film in my career. When I was planning the story, I knew about the mega haul-outs happening in the region, and we chose the Russian site because it was the largest aggregation in the world, bigger than the ones happening in Alaska and Canada. But there was a bit lost in translation with Anatoly Kochnev, the Russian scientist studying these sites. There’s an old piece of news footage that I had in mind, and it was kind of like sausage rolls falling down. I was expecting that perhaps the walruses would tumble down, but at the end, they’d be O.K. I really wasn’t prepared for the scale of death.

What we think is going on is that the ones at the top can probably hear the ones in the water, and they can sense that there is water below. They teeter on the edge, and they just can’t work out how to get down there. A small group of maybe six or seven would make it down safely, and we’d all celebrate. But the vast majority do not. They basically walk themselves off the cliff. The walruses are used to a soft landing. Their depth perception hasn’t evolved to deal with a cliff situation, nor have they evolved to work out how to get back the way they came. So it’s just tragic. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

You could also make the argument that it’s not plastics, as usually portrayed in nature docu-series, but overfishing that is the issue for the oceans.

SCHOLEY We tried to boil down for each habitat what is the really big issue. Plastic is really bad, don’t get me wrong on that, but it won’t destroy the ocean. The two things that will are the warming of the ocean and overfishing. We are hammering the ocean so, so hard. And what happens with overfishing, which we try to explain in the program, is that the fish all stir up the nutrients. They all keep the system going. So when you lose the fish, you lose the whole productivity of the ocean, and the whole thing collapses.

A mother and baby orangutan. “The natural world, we’ve just taken it for granted,” Keith Scholey said. “The wilderness was something that needed to be overcome, and we need to build it up again.”CreditNetflix

The series presents a lot of no-brainer solutions to show how populations can bounce back, like developing marine reserves to solve overfishing and restoring jungles where orangutans that have evolved to use tools like sticks (for finding and eating their food) are now at risk.

SCHOLEY The crucial thing in the orangutan sequence was to point out that the baby has to learn so much from the mother. The real tragedy of orangutans being wiped out is that if the wild population is ever lost, they will lose the learning that the species has evolved [to have]. A captive animal could never learn that complex behavior without a wild mother.

The way I think of it, humans are just like any other animals. We try to do our best for our immediate families. That’s completely natural. What’s strange about humans now is that we have to work out how not to be like other animals. [Laughs] We need to manage ourselves when it comes to nature. We manage our societies really well. We manage our economies really well. But the natural world, we’ve just taken it for granted. The wilderness was something that needed to be overcome, and we need to build it up again. And a lot of that can be done by just leaving it alone. Just leave it alone, and it will sort itself out. You don’t have to put a lot of effort into it. You just have to go away.