'Our Planet' aims to raise awareness and offer solutions for an Earth in crisis

Living on Earth
Aerial view of greenery

A streamside area of rainforest in Tawau Hills National Park on the island of Borneo. Borneo has the world's tallest rainforest trees. At more than 130 million years old, Borneo’s forests are also the oldest in the world.

Reprinted with permission from Our Planet, by Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Fred Pearce

At its heart, "Our Planet," the new eight-part nature series on Netflix, is a celebration of the remarkable biodiversity of life on Earth — and a warning that humanity must act to save it or risk destabilizing the Earth we depend on.

Each of the eight episodes, which are narrated by Sir David Attenborough, explores a different ecosystem and explains the interconnectedness of life in that place. And each ecosystem, from the Arctic tundra to the tropical rainforests, inspires awe and demands action. 

Keith Scholey, who produced the original BBC's “Planet Earth” series and is one of the lead producers of the new series and a co-author of the companion book, says, “We wanted it to be about our time, because [of] what has happened.”

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change 

“We've been watching the rapid decline of nature,” he explains, “and the idea of this series is to bring that decline to everyone's attention, to point out what the problems are, but very much also point to the solutions. We feel really frustrated because the natural world is collapsing before our eyes and it doesn't need to. People often get gloomy and think it's an inevitability. We just need to stimulate the world to do something about it.”

Wildlife shows are hard to make, Scholey adds, because the creators always want to show new things, and being new means doing things no one has done before — probably because they're very difficult.

Related: Shell oil quits lobbying group over climate change policy

“I often describe making wildlife films like paying off a blackmailer, where the audience is the blackmailer,” Scholey says. “They say, ‘Right, we've had that. Show us more.’ And we always want to share more. … This time, it had to show you something new, but there had to be a purpose behind it.”

“The natural world has a wonder to it, but it has a cruel side..."

Telling this kind of story can take an emotional toll on the creators, Scholey adds. “The natural world has a wonder to it, but it has a cruel side,” he explains. … You expect it, but it's always hard to watch and hard to be there.” The hardest thing, however, is witnessing whole habitats “going down the tube” — like coral reefs.

“That idea, that we could have removed in a century the coral reef habitat of our oceans — and these habitats have been around for at least 200 million years — is staggering and very depressing.”

“The science tells us that in 50 years, they’ll almost certainly be all gone,” he says. “That idea, that we could have removed in a century the coral reef habitat of our oceans — and these habitats have been around for at least 200 million years — is staggering and very depressing.”

Conservation isn’t about preserving the natural world because it’s a nice thing to have, Scholey says. It’s about maintaining the stability of life on Earth.

“The Earth without life went through billions of years of being a raging monster and, finally, life actually calmed it down and brought about stability,” he explains. “[A]s the world becomes more stable, life becomes more complex, and that makes it more stable, etc. The moment humans stepped foot on this planet, the planet was probably the most stable it's ever been. And we've only been able to have agriculture and everything like this because of the stability nature gives the world.”

Remove that stability, he says, and agricultural systems cease to function. If rainy seasons become unpredictable or destructive, everything comes a bit unglued. When millions of species go extinct, it’s not just sad, it creates more instability. “The ocean goes unstable, the atmosphere becomes unstable, the soil becomes unstable. We can't function like that,” Scholey says.

Often, he adds, “it’s the tiny stuff that binds the complexity together, which gives nature its strength, and brings stability to the planet.”

“There's a huge disaster happening with insects being wiped out, largely by pesticides,” he says. "But it's the little guys, the insects and what have you, that bind our world together. And you never know at what point you're going to really miss them, but we will miss them. They do so many complex functions.”

Related: Climate change leads to rise in world hunger

Scholey says some of the things that are happening to our world right now are “just crazy."

The ocean, for example, is being destroyed “by a bunch of fishing fleets run by a handful of countries working unprofitably. Those fleets are subsidized,” he says. “All they are actually catching are luxury goods. Shark's fin. To add a texture to a soup, we’re killing 100 million sharks a year. That's a billion sharks a decade. And that is undermining the biggest carbon sump we possibly have to fight climate change. This is ridiculous.”

He predicts that humanity will look back on this time the way we now look back on when we were destroying the world’s whales. It took a single meeting in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission to decide to stop commercial whaling, he notes. “That decision has brought most whale species right back and, with that, a more productive ocean.”

"These are the sort of things we have to look at and just say, ‘Look, let's stop the silly stuff. Let’s move on, let’s sort this out.’ And I hope the project does that.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.