The BBC’s Africa as Middle Earth

The BBC Natural History Unit has done it again.  Its new wildlife documentary, simply titled Africa, currently showing on the flagship channel BBC One, is an extraordinary feast of natural wonders in high definition.  It is pulling in large terrestrial and ‘iPlayer’ audiences, impressing critics and setting the Twittersphere alight.  The photography is, as so often before, ground-breaking: slowmo battling giraffes in the Kalahari, a baby elephant dying in an Amboseli drought, starlight camera sequences of black rhino at a Kalahari waterhole and lingering wide-angle shots that capture the grand scale of the African landscapes.

But there is a problem. The ‘Africa’ on display is missing something rather important: Africans. In 2011, the BBC was criticised for splicing footage of a captive polar bear giving birth into wild sequences for the Frozen Planet series (a standard documentary technique). This time the BBC has edited out the people of an entire continent. The first episode of Africa begins with the comforting voice of David Attenborough: “Africa… the world’s greatest wilderness … the only place on earth to the see the full majesty of nature”.  His description might just about apply to the Kalahari of the first episode, an arid region with few people. But the second episode was about East Africa, a region home to over 130 million human residents. In fact, southern Uganda, in which much of the episode was filmed, has some of the densest human populations anywhere on the continent. Where were these people, their buildings, their farms, their livestock? Where were their nation states, which were not named in Attenborough’s narration? One aerial shot of Lake Mutanda in south west Uganda showed a few twinkling tin roofs, but this was the exception. Another, of the Virunga Volcanoes – mountains absolutely surrounded by smallholder farms – seemed deliberately angled to avoid showing any signs of agriculture. After watching this programme, anyone unfamiliar with East Africa could be forgiven for thinking that there is an unbroken chain of natural wildlife habitat stretching from the Rwenzori in the west to Mount Kilimanjaro in the East. There isn’t.

In Africa, the BBC is selectively editing its images of the African landscape to tell a particular story about nature.  When Peter Jackson wanted to portray Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he used the landscapes of New Zealand to represent Middle Earth.  To create the fantasy world, Jackson’s team had a huge struggle to find corners of land where the cameras could not see any imprint of human action. This is what the BBC has done in Africa, projecting a story onto a real landscape; a spell that would be broken if there were any sign of human residents or their creations. Continue reading

Zombie ecology

Garden centres are portals to the world of the undead.  Zombies stalk their orderly aisles, moving awkwardly in a strange world of fragrances and soft music.  You can see them any weekend – the near and post-retired generation, harassed parents with young children, and young couples trying out lifestyles. They shuffle past the displays, scented candles and hanging baskets, hosepipes and bird food, jams and cushions; or roaming the endless patio outside, with serried ranks of plants, all exactly sized and perfectly in flower, pallets of compost and stacks of pots, and a builder’s yard of trellis, fencing and posts.  Groups of them cluster hungrily around the restaurant, eyeing up the chilli and the bakewell slices.

Garden centres in the modern sense are relatively new on the UK retail scene.  Once, gardeners bought their plants from nurseries, a label suggesting green-fingered plant lovers carefully tending their charges. Some specialised and local nurseries survive, but most have changed beyond recognition. Prior to the Sunday Trading Act 1994, garden centres were one of very few retail businesses allowed to open on a Sunday in England.  In Margaret Thatcher’s ‘free market’ Britain of the 1980s, consumers ruled.  Garden centres welcomed Sunday shoppers with open arms, becoming outdoor superstores, selling anything from strimmers to soft furnishing, tropical fish to fashion.  Many are now part of national chains, and big supermarkets and DIY stores have joined the bonanza. Continue reading

Ecosystem Services: Conservation’s Babel Fish

The Babel fish is one of the more inspired forms of fictional biodiversity. It features in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (sadly no relative), and allows his antihero, the ape descendant Arthur Dent to traverse the universe with only his speaking handheld digital assistant, the Hitchhiker’s Guide, for company (forget Siri, Douglas Adams got there first).  The Babel fish is described as ‘small, yellow and leech-like’, and when it had slithered into Arthur Dent’s ear, he could understand anything that was said, in any language of the universe.  As usual in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, this turns out not to be entirely a good thing.

Many conservationists seem to hope that ecosystem services will work like a Babel fish for them.  For decades they have hammered on about how valuable nature is, and nobody has paid much notice.  Humanity blithely goes on strip mining the earth’s stock of natural capital and burning it getting rich, or just keeping alive. But the ecosystem services Babel fish promises to change all that.  Insert it into public discourse, and when conservationists speak of wildlife, biodiversity, endangered species or habitat loss, their listeners will hear human wellbeing, natural capital, nature’s supply chain, the stuff humans get for free.   When we speak about the importance of conservation, everyone will automatically understand what we mean. Continue reading

Green Development?

Once sustainability seemed a rather edgy and challenging concept: messy and controversial, but also aspirational.  Michael Jacobs pointed out in a memorable exchange with Wilfred Beckerman in Environmental Values in 1995 that sustainable development and sustainability were essentially ethico-religious terms, a bit like social justice or democracy.  They expressed key ideas about how society (and the economy) should be governed, albeit in a way that skated over the intractable political ecology of wealth, power, consumption and environmental change.

It seems they are not like that any more.  Everybody, from rock bands to corporations, claims to be green.  The ‘green economy’ is booming, with banks and other businesses trading in everything from pollution permits to carbon derivatives.  After the deeply disappointing ‘Rio+20’meeting in June 2012, seasoned observer Fred Pearce observed in New Scientist ‘this is how civilizations end … not with a bang but with a whimper’. Continue reading