The Human-Sized Hole in Netflix’s Our Planet

Katie Williamson
May 31, 2019 · 5 min read
Last month, Netflix released a new nature documentary series called Our Planet.

“With our help, the planet can recover. Never has it been more important to understand how the natural world works and how to help it.” David Attenborough, Our Planet Narrator

We couldn’t agree more. Behind this quote lies a call to action; where former series like Planet Earth and Blue Planet focused on building understanding of our natural world and inspiring awe and inspiration for its magic, Our Planet sets itself apart by urging us to manage it responsibly.

And from the many reviews of the series thus far, one might think that Our Planet has succeeded in its mission:

It’s hard not to see [Our Planet] as a direct rebuke of the BBC’s nature documentaries: take one well-worn spectacular of the natural world, shoot it even more spectacularly than the BBC ever did and structure your whole opening episode around the idea that, without taking things like global warming seriously — without putting it front and centre about any show you’re making about the natural world, because how could you not — then pretty soon they’ll be nothing left to film so beautifully. — GQ

Where [Our Planet] differs from BBC shows is in no longer ignoring or minimizing the threats facing all the environments and animals on display. — The Guardian

This is the resounding message of “Our Planet”: It will not, necessarily, be O.K. And humans — the unpictured but omnipresent part of “our” in “Our Planet” — are the reason. — New York Times

If there is just one problem with most nature docuseries, it is that they tend to depict wildlife as if it exists in a world separate from ours. But Our Planet does not have that problem. — Vanity Fair

But while reviewers have lauded Our Planet for its direct confrontation with humans’ impact on the natural world, there remains a glaring question: Where are the people? They are, as the New York Times reviewer suggests, “unpictured and omnipresent.” The series continues to fall short in overcoming one of our biggest challenges in conservation and sustainability programming — identifying the who, what, and why behind the problem in order to pave the way toward solutions.

We need to tell a story that answers: What are humans doing to impact the natural world, and, even more importantly, how can we effectively address those behaviors?

It’s no longer enough for us to show degraded landscapes, shrinking populations of animals, and melting glaciers, or simply say that we need to ‘do our part’ to save the earth. We’ve seen time and time again that even the most heart-wrenching scenes or eloquent narratives do not necessarily translate into action. In these challenging times for people and nature, we need to tell a fundamentally different story — one that shows positive examples of what people are doing for the planet and uses behavioral insights to motivate action. We need to tell a story that answers: What are humans doing to impact the natural world, and, even more importantly, how can we effectively address those behaviors?

Like a classic detective story, viewers are being asked to visit the crime scene, figure out what happened, and who did it; but without understanding the motive, we can’t stop the crime from happening again. We also make a lot of assumptions along the way, which leave us vulnerable to following red herrings or getting distracted.

In a recent blog, Rare highlighted how the coastal seas episode of Our Planet brought much-needed attention to the consequences of coastal overfishing: coral bleaching, declining fish populations, hoards of invasive jellyfish. We even see a success story from Raja Ampat, Indonesia, where coastal seas have recovered due to the creation of marine sanctuaries.

But to a behavioral scientist, this investigation is still full of holes: What, specifically, do humans do that causes the problems? What is the precise behavior we want to change, and who needs to change it? What challenges and motivations are driving the behavior of that target audience? When trying to address complex conservation and development challenges, like overfishing, we must consider all audiences and their motivations. While some people may want to “save the planet” because they love nature, others have subsistence needs that drive their behaviors, such such as putting food on the table and preserving cultural heritage.

If we don’t answer these questions about causes and motivations, we continue to leave viewers without the tools or evidence to solve the case. Successful interventions depend on understanding the behaviors that need to change and designing solutions with people as the central protagonists; vague answers or clues leave us unempowered. Here are two ways to fill in the gaps:

  1. Focus on what’s working: Highlighting the behavioral solutions to environmental challenges not only combats our ongoing guilt-ridden and depressing narratives (which only work for certain audiences, usually those who already care about the issue) with something hopeful, but they also provide teaching moments. We’ve learned about the power of positive emotions like pride, joy, and gratitude in bringing a community together; about how symbolic, rather than material incentives can lead to lasting change; and how simply making a seemingly invisible behavior more visible can draw attention to doing something differently. At Rare, we work on identifying bright spots and then scaling those to realize similar success elsewhere.
  2. Develop a playbook of best practices and common patterns: We’ve found it’s helpful to have something that gives us some “tells” about what the problem is and what others have done to address it. For example, when we learn that there are many barriers to a behavior, we look for ways to reduce them, either by simplifying a complex process or finding ways to reduce the time or energy spent. Or when we learn that sustainability isn’t important to an audience, we explore ways to connect to them through an alternative entry point. By identifying patterns of where particular insights can be paired with specific behavioral strategies, we can create recommendations for paths that could drive behavior change.

To end with our own call to action: let’s strive to be more specific and behavior-focused when we talk about problems and solutions. Let’s interrogate our assumptions and ask more questions about what worked and what didn’t. One of the greatest abilities of the human mind is to learn second-hand, to build knowledge based on others’ experiences in addition to experiencing something ourselves. Let’s use this to our advantage. With a goal to reach 1 billion people, series like Our Planet have the opportunity to make their messages really count. Our ability to ‘save the earth’ just might depend on it.

Stay updated on Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment news by subscribing to the Behavior Beat.

Katie Williamson

Written by

Behavior change enthusiast at Rare, environmentalist, baker, traveler, writer

In Rare Form

Stories and insights from the frontlines of community-led conservation

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade