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Nature documentaries have the potential to move the needle on climate action

In a new study from the British Ecological Society, researchers have analyzed the four most recent environmental series that were narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The experts found that while these nature documentaries often describe the human- induced threats to our planet, they rarely give viewers a candid look at them. 

For the investigation, a team of researchers from Bangor University, the University of Kent, Newcastle University, and the University of Oxford coded the scripts from each of the docuseries. 

The study revealed that the Netflix series Our Planet dedicates 15 percent of its script to environmental threats and conservation, but this type of content is not nearly as prevalent in the BBC series Planet Earth II and Dynasties.

According to the researchers, Our Planet is also unique in that it incorporates the topic of human environmental impacts into each episode. By contrast, the subject is only addressed in the series Blue Planet II in the final episode.

The team noted that Our Planet shares visual similarities with the other series. Despite making much more mention of human-induced threats, Our Planet contains few visual depictions of these threats and largely shows the natural world as being untouched and separate from humans, which is something nature documentaries have been criticized for in the past.

“One could argue that by using camera angles to avoid showing any sign of people, nature filmmakers are being disingenuous, and even actively misleading audiences. The viewer may be led to believe that things cannot be that bad for biodiversity as what they are seeing on the screen shows nature, for the most part, doing fine,” said study lead author Professor Julia Jones.

“The inextricable link between threats to the natural world and the high consumption of western lifestyles would be more difficult to ignore if the presence, or even dominance, of commercial agriculture, mining and transport infrastructure were more visible in the landscapes, reducing the space for the awe-inspiring wild spectacles shown.”

While nature documentaries have the potential to spark behavioral changes and raise awareness about important environmental issues, the extent of this effect is not well understood. 

“Previous studies have shown that documentaries can increase willingness amongst viewers to make personal lifestyle changes, increase support for conservation organizations, and generate positivity towards an issue, making policy change more likely,” said Laura Thomas-Walters. 

“However, we still don’t understand the mechanisms by which these changes take place. Considerable research is needed to investigate how viewing nature, portrayed as threatened or pristine, in a documentary affects people in ways which might, ultimately, contribute to saving it.”

According to the study authors, collaboration between filmmakers and researchers could help to pinpoint the impacts of these documentaries. 

“There is limited evidence on the causal relationships between viewing a documentary and subsequent behaviour change,” said Dr. Diogo Vesrissimo. “Nature documentary producers should work with researchers to better understand these positive and negative impacts.” 

The study is published in the journal People and Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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Image Credit: Shutterstock/FloridaStock

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