David Attenborough and Today’s Economy

December 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sir David Attenborough provides us with a perfect metaphor for our economic times – but a consolation as well

From the vertiginous Arctic cliffs the young guillemot prepares for his virgin flight. Teenage wings are stumpy, yet poised on the 1,000ft ledge he looks plucky, game-on. And as he descends, less flying than a Buzz Lightyear “falling with style”, you urge him to reach the sea. Oh, but he doesn’t … A soft baby body bounces on rock. But wait, he’s alive! Well, until the Arctic fox, seeing his chance, snaps the winded fledgeling in his jaws.

This week’s Frozen Planet was hard to bear. Not just because its soaring score left us expecting triumph rather than horror. Or that, watching with my teenage sons, I identified too well with guillemot mothers releasing tenderly raised chicks. But because the news all that same day was devoted to the plight of our nation’s fledgelings. One million young people unemployed: excitedly leaving nests only for crash landings and predators. A whole generation who may never reach the sea.

This series is not only among the finest in television history, but an accidental allegory of our times. It feels we are entering our own Arctic winter. The economy frozen, growth stunted, Britain battered by icy katabatic winds blasting off the eurozone, we are entering a perhaps interminable darkness. In economics news stories I keep catching the word “Armageddon”: from a report about doomed Britain by the brokers Tullett Prebon and in reported conversations with bankers who think that Europe is an insoluble disaster and are shiftily relocating their wealth, buying land in Canada or New Zealand, just in case.

Even taking into account hyperbole or black humour, it feels for once in my adult life that no one knows what they are doing. Even the clever people are flummoxed. Their solutions are comprised of gaffer tape and bluff. Italy and Greece put technocrats and economists — the geniuses who invented the euro, who persuaded us to trust unleashed markets — in charge of solving the crisis they created. Labour suggests a cut to VAT costing £12 billion to kick start consumer spending. Shop our way out of recession? Seriously? Again?

Visiting New York this month, I was struck less by the few voluble anti-capitalist protesters in Zuccotti Park than the long, silent queue of the hungry waiting for food handouts a mile away in Tompkins Square Park.

All across the West, the snow crystals are forming, the money rivers grow sclerotic, the separate outcrops of ice solidify into a single impenetrable sheet. “Some winters,” says the God-like voice inFrozen Planet, “whole colonies can be lost.”

And yet, this series is curiously soothing. Sir David Attenborough has remarked about the great solace of Nature. “In moments of deep grief, the only consolation you can find is in the natural world,” he told Radio Times. “People write to me and tell me this — people of great distinction … ‘When so-and-so died, the only thing that made life tolerable was to watch programmes on plants and animals.’ And I thought, ‘That’s true for me, yes.’ Because we are part of a big, enduring thing.”

For the most part, I’m indifferent to Nature, content to know that elephants or grey crowned cranes exist without rising at dawn to be jiggled in a Land Rover on safari or visit a hateful, penetentiary-like zoo or even turn to the Discovery Channel. So why, on blue afternoons, do I find that nothing rallies my spirits like poring over silly feline photos on Lolcats.com? Oh bless, a kitten snuggled up asleep with a rabbit: my heartbeat steadies. It is why newspapers intersperse grim new stories with a baby wombat in a teacup or the world’s biggest puppy. They transport us beyond our own species: we are freed, momentarily, from thinking about ourselves.

And Frozen Planet is all that:

lush, expansive, revealing fresh wonderment in every snowflake, each surfacing whale. It makes us feel both microscopically insignificant and part of a mighty, unfathomable plan. But it is also a parable of life, the heaviness of its burdens, its brief joys. “At the frozen ends of our planet the struggle for survival never eases,” warns the God-voice even as wolf cubs enjoy a rare meal. “If she can raise them all to independence it will be a rare achievement,” he says of the polar bear mother of three cubs who, in the next sequence, has only two.

While Nature in the tropics or savannah seems lewdly abundant, in the Arctic each creature makes you boggle not just at how it can exist here, but how it does so with apparent joy. Why does a poppy bother to bloom iridescent yellow in the momentary summer? Why do white whales travel a thousand miles into an icy inlet each year just to scratch their backs on gravel banks?

How can the woolly bear caterpillar endure 14 long winters of hibernating in the ice, its blood freezing solid, for a few days of fluttering reproduction before death? How did the narwhal with its unicorn spike, more mythic being than whale, appear to have flouted evolution itself? Against the white-out of a polar ice cap the most basic urge within us is revealed in its perverse, stubborn glory. Life force.

And let’s hear it for the creature that should be the mascot of this economic winter, who has more of that life force in one flipper than all the world’s politicians and economic sages. What couldn’t we learn from the emperor penguin? Dapper at all times, comically upbeat, doughtily waddling through ice, like the weary commuter who is out of the house before first light, huddling on the ice with a thousand others, like stoic passengers stranded by Southeastern trains; for their lifelong partnerships, love in extremis, months waiting, trusting the other will return, for their magnficent co-parenting in which the penguin couple solemnly push the egg from one to the other without letting it freeze, then take turns to trudge down to the sea to feed, for their monumental forbearance, the penguins are our heroes, our hope.

This week there is controversy that the seventh episode of Frozen Planet, a documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough about global warming, will not be shown by arch-polluters such as China or America. But really, if I’m honest, I don’t want to watch it either. My head is bursting with inconvenient truths.

I want to imagine this place is one that humans haven’t yet screwed up. I want to relish the pure white wilderness, to swim with seals and romp with polar bear cubs. I want to lose myself in Nature. And believe that eventually summer will come.


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