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Was Alfred Nobel right?

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"As we look ahead to COP15 maybe we need to take a leaf out of The Green Planet’s book and make sure we explain how our research can provide hope"

It may seem like a hoary old trope for ecologists to mention the influence that David Attenborough’s documentaries have had on their interest in the natural world. At the risk of making the trope even hoarier, in my case it's true. Life on Earth was first broadcast in 1979, when I was five, and was a genuine television event in our house. There were two aspects of it that I found appealing: first, the explanations of evolution and ecology, and second the way the series dotted around the world, taking you to a vast array of habitats to see the species inhabiting them. To be honest, my own interest in ecology was prompted in part by the understanding of natural history such programmes provided, but also simply by the idea of travelling to see these habitats and species first-hand.

More recently I’ve been sitting down with my own children to watch The Green Planet. It’s great to see Whispering Dave (as he’s known in our house) back out in the field, and as a plant ecologist it’s a delight to see such a strong focus on the incredible things that plants can do, albeit often slowly and hidden from us without the aid of time-lapse photography.

The series has prompted some interesting household discussions as well. As the kids point out, it’s all very well him telling them about the impacts of climate change, but just how big is Whispering Dave’s carbon footprint? All I can do is say mea culpa on this front; although I’m probably not as big an emitter, my research career has involved quite a bit of international travel. I wonder though – and despite criticism of Attenborough’s apparent initial reticence to address climate change in his documentaries - if we’d care as much about the natural world and the impacts of climate change on it without his work over the years bringing it into our home.

The other interesting response from my children is their frustration with the inevitable component of the documentaries showing how mankind is destroying the planet. As they point out (pretty vociferously, being of a generation that seems much more willing to have its say) they didn’t mess it up so back off with the finger-pointing. However, the Green Planet is also doing something which takes us a step further – it’s offering messages of hope. In the most recent and final episode of the series the programme visits rainforest which has been restored on land previously deforested for cattle grazing. This illustrates the interesting step taken by the Green Planet in going beyond simply detailing the impact of humans on the global environment to explaining that something can be done about it, and also showing that such actions don’t necessarily all sit with governments.

This point came back to me during discussions in the Institute about the upcoming COP15 for the Convention on Biological Diversity. With colleagues I’ve been considering how we might use the focus on the biodiversity crisis that COP15 will bring to promote our work on biodiversity conservation and wider sustainability. As part of this we’ve been discussing what themes we might use to organise our work. Given the above feedback, perhaps an overriding theme in our messaging needs to be hope. Alfred Nobel stated that “Hope is nature's veil for hiding truth's nakedness”. This stark statement suggests we are sometimes fooling ourselves by hoping, but also that hope is natural. Hope can be vital in bringing us through tragic events involving substantial suffering. And perhaps hope is an evolved response enabling humans to persist. We have to be realistic about the challenges we face, but as we look ahead to COP15 maybe we need to take a leaf out of The Green Planet’s book and make sure we explain how our research can provide hope, while not using it as a fig leaf for truth’s nakedness.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/EcologicalSciences/was-alfred-nobel-right on 29/11/22 12:20:40 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.