Be it the eruption of Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, or the recent extreme cold weather events in Texas, US, you don’t have to look far to see the forces of nature that are at play around us. In the new Sony BBC Earth docu-series A Perfect Planet, British historian David Attenborough now offers a riveting look at the natural forces that shape our planet, and life on it.
The five-part series starts with an episode on how volcanoes support different life forms and species, like the Lesser Flamingos which congregate every year at Lake Natron in northern Tanzania to breed. We associate volcanoes with violent eruptions, ash clouds and the destruction caused by molten lava. But when magma cools, the land becomes fertile and breeds life. For example, volcanic islands, as Attenborough describes them, comprise roughly 5% of Earth’s land, but they are home to nearly 20% of the species. At one end is Fernandina, the youngest of the Galápagos Islands, where land iguanas use the heat from the island’s active volcano to incubate their eggs. At the other end is Aldabra, a dying coral atoll in the Indian Ocean, home to the Aldabra giant tortoise—a species that faces an uncertain future owing to rising sea levels.
Other episodes cover weather, oceans and the sun. But the most captivating is the fifth and final episode, which encapsulates the impact of humans on the planet since the Industrial Revolution. Globally, we now release 100 times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all of Earth’s volcanoes combined.
Our over-reliance on fossil fuels to generate energy is a key factor in this. The message that resonates through the series is that we need to shift, as quickly as possible, from oil and coal to renewables. Global carbon emissions, however, still show no signs of slowing. Could volcanic heat and solar power change the way we generate power? One line from Attenborough drives home the urgency: “Today, humanity itself has become a new kind of super volcano”.
While the series uses some recent examples to depict the different kinds of anthropogenic pressures on the planet— like the Amazon rainforest wildfires and the bushfires in Australia—the episodes also bring to light human efforts that show there’s still hope of salvaging the situation. For example, the Great Green Wall of the Sahara, a mammoth initiative in Africa, aims to tackle the increase in desertification by planting a billion drought-resistant trees that will hold the top soil together. Around 12 million trees have already been planted in Senegal.
The cinematography and natural landscapes in the series are complemented by British composer Ilan Eshkeri’s music and score producer Steve McLaughlin’s work. The music jumps, changes and adapts to every shot in spectacular ways: be it an exciting sequence of hyenas hunting a young wildebeest in the Serengeti, or brown bears catching salmon in the Kamchatka peninsula.
A documentary on the natural world would be incomplete if viewers were not left pondering some difficult questions. Are we destabilising a perfect planet? What kind of planet will we leave for future generations? We are yet to get many of the answers. But as American economist and environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin points out in the final episode, this planet is more powerful than we think.
A Perfect Planet premieres in India on 8 March, 9pm, on Sony BBC Earth.