Nature and humans, together again


Courtesy of Ensia

Humans have been “framed out of the picture” when it comes to documenting nature, says Conservation International executive vice president and senior scientist M. Sanjayan in the opening of a new series, “EARTH A New Wild,” which premiers Feb. 4 on PBS. Sanjayan and producer David Allen — “probably the finest natural history filmmaker out there today,” according to Sanjayan — didn’t want to make another documentary that showed “pristine” nature with all the humans removed. Instead, they wanted to show how humans rely on nature and how, increasingly, nature relies on humans. “We don’t want to pretend that this is some petri dish in some remote, isolated planet,” Sanjayan says.

In the six-part series, Sanjayan travels the world to uncover stories in which humans are as much a part of nature as anything around them. From the Waorani people in the Amazon to Allan Savory’s ranch in Zimbabwe to a panda rewilding effort in China and more, Sanjayan finds examples that made him question many of his assumptions as a conservation scientist. In fact, he says, “I was surprised at virtually every story we did on the show.”

What do you mean by a “new wild”? What was the “old wild”? And how is the “new wild” different?

What [“EARTH A New Wild”] is trying to say is that we are in a new age, and in this new age — call it the “Anthropocene” — our relationship to what we consider wild really has to be different. We have to view the wild in a different way, and the way in which we go about protecting the wild has to be different as well.

There’s a really interesting moment in the show, in the second act of the first episode. I am with Jane Goodall in Tanzania, and I ask Jane, “Is this a new kind of wild that we’re in?” She says, “Well, it’s a new kind of way to protect the wild.” Jane is framing it that way, so I feel pretty good framing it that way as well.

Why is it so important to bring humans back into the picture when discussing environmental issues?

I have been struck by this belief — and it’s a slow-growing belief — that people are part of nature. If we start framing ourselves as part of nature, then the reasons for saving nature become very self-serving. They become about the things we need, rather than things that are nice to do, after the fact.

We all thought that we were going to have a show on the natural world and its spectacle and beauty and grandeur, and show the audience things that maybe they’ve never seen before in the natural world. We don’t want to do it in isolation. We don’t want to pretend that this is some petri dish in some remote, isolated planet. If it’s near civilization, then we want to be clear about that as well.

At what point were humans “framed out of the picture,” as you put it in the intro?

E.O. Wilson came about and he kind of blew our minds with books like Biodiversity, and gave prominence to that word. He didn’t coin it, but he certainly made it popular, and created this notion that the world was really magnificent, incredible, and diverse, and dripping with life. Filmmakers picked up on that kind of idea and started showing it — the most remote, the most pristine. They realized that the planet is an amazing spectacle and they’re going to show it. But in doing that, I think they wanted to go with blue-chip natural history: just show it in that pure way, as they saw it.

You go back and start looking at natural history documentaries, certainly the thing that I remember as a kid, the first one that really blew me away was “Life on Earth.” In “Life on Earth” you do actually see people a little bit. That was [David] Attenborough’s first giant masterpiece. It was followed by “The Living Planet” and “Planet Earth.” They all followed a tradition where you started losing the human element pretty quickly. So it’s been going for a while. But I see it changing now. I’m starting to see things where humans are creeping in.

There’s this debate in environmentalism about how images of destruction have failed to bring about the changes we need in people. I was watching “Years of Living Dangerously,” the other show that you were recently on, and it seemed to rely more on showing what can really go wrong, whereas “EARTH A New Wild” focuses on what can go right and what we can do right. Was that a conscious decision?

I think that, to some extent, both shows would have liked to get beyond just showing what’s going on to what we can do about it. One of the challenges with “Years” was that we just didn’t have the bandwidth to be able to fully explore the solution part. You had to first educate the audience about climate change being real and what was happening to the planet right now, not in some distant future, but as we spoke.

I think there is a sincere desire to try to get beyond that, but I just don’t think they had the space to do that. So for them, I think their simple answer would be, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens in season two.”

For [“EARTH A New Wild”] it was a little different. We knew from the start that we did not want to do an environmental show, and we didn’t feel like we had to spend a lot of time educating an audience — especially a PBS, National Geographic audience — about the ills of the planet. In general terms, people understood that things are going extinct, that the oceans are getting trashed, that land is disappearing, that forests are getting logged. You kind of have to be under a rock not to know those things.

Climate is different. Climate you might actually think there is a conspiracy to hide it from you, right? But just in general, most people on the planet look around and say, “Yeah, I used to catch fish in that river and I don’t any more.” So we knew that we wanted to shock you very quickly, but then use that as a base to move beyond it. We show the Colorado River drying up and dying halfway to Mexico. We show grassland that has been converted to crops in the Midwest. But we use that as a jumping-off point. And we spent time with Jeremy Jackson — you know he’s the Dr. Doom, the guy who coined “Rise of Slime” — and he gives us four big reasons why that’s happening. Then we spend the rest of the show trying to show that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s the rise of the slime. Slime hasn’t actually risen necessarily yet. There is still the chance to do something.

To me that was important. Because the world is filled with incredible people, and I didn’t want to feel alone anymore. I wanted to go on this journey, not just to see what was happening to the planet, but also to see the ways in which humans were responding to that change. I tried to find [and] I’m trying to write a new covenant between the wild and us. I was amazed. I was amazed at how many stories we quickly uncovered.

Many people have pointed out that “saving nature,” is not really what it’s all about. As you and many others put it, “Nature will find a way, with or without humans.” Is learning to be a part of the new wild really about saving ourselves?

Yes, I think that’s right, and I think there are some cases that make it very apparent how that would work. Others are less so. I mean, is putting the wild back into the panda and releasing it about saving ourselves? Probably not. But if you look at what is going on with vultures in Asia and the rise of rabies, or if you look at disease and overfishing in Lake Malawi, or even cowboys in the American West and how they are adapting their ranching to benefit the grasslands and the wildlife that live there, that really is a bit about saving ourselves.

The show is very hopeful, but do you ever get frustrated that, as the series shows, we seem to have much of the knowledge, technology and techniques we need to solve some of these grand challenges, but we’re just not implementing them at a grand enough scale?

Yes, of course. I think you just hit it. I truly believe that we’re the generation that will see the worst and have the opportunity to do the most. And that’s the key. We have that opportunity. Whether we go down as the greatest generation that ever lived on the planet or the biggest losers will depend on whether we’re willing to scale and willing to act.

The very last episode of the very last show ends in New York City. It’s a perfect way to end a show about planet Earth in some ways. Here’s this woman, the industrial architect, and she has this grand vision of bringing back the harbor by bringing back oysters. So here I am, in this murky, disgusting water. We find one oyster. She’s all thrilled by it, and she’s talking about how industrial design can work to bring back the shellfish that once cleaned the harbor. I just saw her in New York two weeks ago, and she told me that she had just got a $60 million seed grant to scale up her work. That’s bloody impressive, you know? So I feel very hopeful that the ideas are there. It’s like climate change, too: it’s our ability to apply and apply fast. That’s the thing that’s hard, and that’s quite frankly why I did the film in some ways, in retrospect. You hope it will spur debate, which will help these mavens and mavericks to scale.

Even in this world of new media, you seem drawn to TV. What is it about TV that you think can be used to spur the change you’re looking for with these shows?

It still has a very large audience. It’s a nice blend of respectability and staying power, especially for a global audience. People talk about TV as dying, but I actually think we’re in this resurgence of great television. So it’s not TV that’s gone away. It’s just the way we watch it has gone away. It may not be like we’re going to all sit down with the family on Thursday nights.

I think people will consume [“EARTH A New Wild”] in lots of different ways. We have a very large Web presence [that] The Nature Conservancy and PBS are collaborating on building out. It is getting out to schools. There’s a virtual field trip that already has something like 38,000 kids signed up for it.

But I still think television gives you that long-form storytelling means that you can really let the story breathe and let it fully develop. Books can do it too, but honestly, unless you’re one of those very rare, extraordinarily successful authors like Jared Diamond, the audience is tiny.

Throughout the show a lot of your views get called into question, and you mention a few times how your views changed. So I wonder what you would say the take-home message is for other conservationists and environmentalists — and how does that differ from the take-home message that a general population might get from this?

I went into the show with some of my own prejudices. And when I was there, I really wanted to question and push some of the folks who were saying some of the things they were saying. Allan Savory is a perfect example. I had obviously looked at his work. I had seen his TED talk, and now I was determined to go to Zimbabwe and see for myself. And then I saw it. I have to admit … you sort of realize that a lot of things you’ve been spouting about cows and this that and the other may not be exactly right. So I think that the key thing to remember as conservationists is to never get trapped into dogma, to always be able to have the open mind to go out and test it.

Now, for an audience watching the show, one of the coolest things about this show is that nothing in this show was baked. We had done the research, spent a lot of time figuring out whether you can film it, whether visually it will hold up. But the reveal, the find, was genuine. The surprises you see on my face, or you hear in my voice, they’re absolutely real. Most of these things that happen in these shows are just spontaneous. I was surprised at virtually every story we did on the show.

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