Like me, I imagine you have all been watching Frozen Planet. If not, where have you been? Go at once and watch episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, then come back when you are finished. No, I mean it! Put the kettle on, and get watching. Now, wasn’t that astonishing? I’ve watched many scenes with my jaw scraping the carpet, incoherent ‘ooohs’ interspersed with us turning to each other and saying ‘Surely that isn’t real?!’ Meltwater on the Greenland ice cap in particular looked like advanced CGI, but I’m assured it really looks like that.
I always suspected I was keen on the polar regions. Something about their wildlife captures my imagination more vividly than the tropics, and it may have a little to do with my maintaining that I could cope much better with extreme cold than extreme heat and humidity. The latter you can’t escape from, but at least you can wrap up against cold. Give me winter fieldwork over sweat and mosquito bites any day! Although it is fair to say I was near to freezing solid in Hampshire on Friday in just modestly cold weather, and that I might find one or two more mosquitoes than I might like in the arctic tundra in summer. I can’t win, really, and would likely not do too well at Arctic survival in any season. Nonetheless, scenes of powerful ice over ancient rock, unmatched clarity of light and life clinging on at the edge of things, continue to take my breath away.
One criticism I’ve heard of David Attenborough’s series is that they inspire mere armchair nature loving. That nothing replaces real engagement with the world outside, wildlife documentaries delivering only an army of people mildly interested in fluffy animals and then doing nothing about that interest. To an extent that may be true, though it tends to understate the real power of some of the images offered — and I reckon there’s room in life for both field-based and armchair exploration. Especially since visiting some of these places for real can prove somewhat, well, tricky. Polluting too.
But the polar regions seriously need our help, so I for one will be delighted if a ‘Frozen Planet phenomenon’ suddenly inspires us all into action on behalf of bears, seals, narwhals, killer whales, musk oxen, wolves, snowy owls, vital ice sheets and wooly bear caterpillars.
This is, after all, not the most cheerful time to be a conservationist, or in the wider environmental movement. Nature protection laws are casually attacked by the chancellor (see campaign), climate change questioned or all but forgotten in the face of economic catastrophe, the Arctic likely to be one day lost beneath a field of oil platforms, military installations and newly opened shipping lanes. The good news is that we can do something about it. Even if we ultimately lose, even if, as is quite possible, polar bears vanish and we have to wait half a million years or so for them to re-evolve from out of the grizzly / brown bear gene pool, it will, I promise, feel a lot better if we go down fighting.
You could support Greenpeace in their really quite sensible aim of declaring the poles ‘global commons’, protected and held in trust for all of humanity. You can continue to write to your MP or Chris Huhne about climate change. And as a UK citizen you even have direct responsibility for a few penguins (in the UK Overseas Territories), and you can get involved in the campaign to do something about them as well. Whatever I do, I’m trying to make sure I don’t just watch, spellbound, but then go on living as if nothing had changed. That would fulfill the prophecy of Attenborough cynics, and I’m quite fond of our ‘nation’s grandfather’. Although, when asked recently about his motivation, he simply said that he made such programmes because ‘he thought it would be fun’. He actually enjoys travelling, and wildlife! The message is secondary, even where it is, as he acknowledges, vitally important.
And that’s the key to a successful campaign, I think: don’t do it primarily because we should, or out of guilt, because we think we owe it to wildlife; don’t do it for human survival on an ecologically balanced planet, even though all these are exceptionally good reasons. Do it because wildlife is brilliant, and my life and your lives are immeasurably richer for it. Let’s not allow Planet Earth to become an impoverished place, shorn of frozen wonders — I don’t think anybody could argue with that.