We’re worse off this Earth Day than any before. Watch these 7 TV shows to feel hopeful
Earth Day is 50 years old today, Wednesday, and it is safe to say that in that half-century we have not experienced another like it — and also that, for all the consciousness it may have raised and activism it has inspired, we are in a much worse position now then we were then.
At the same time, as humans have gone inside, we have been given a practical glimpse of what the world might be, or be again, left unmolested: monkeys in hotel swimming pools or wild goats owning a Welsh village. Polluted cities around the world, including the one I write you from, have seen their skies turn blue. The message, which some are disinclined or unable to see, is that we have been living wrong — but might yet live right.
Television has programmed some relevant shows in recognition of the day. Of course, environmental documentaries are no stranger to television the other 364 days of the year, 365 during leap year — there are whole networks devoted to it — but nature’s special branded day adds a soupçon of urgency. I have been immersed in reviewing many hours of it, to prepare the following guide, rocketing between hope and despair — despair and hope, to put those terms in a more optimistic order. But I did it for you, because it’s important.
If there is a superhero in the fight to keep the world aright it is Jane Goodall, the woman who taught the scientific establishment that apes were thinking, feeling, practical beings with distinct personalities. “Jane Goodall: The Hope” (National Geographic, 9 p.m., also on Disney+ and Hulu) concentrates on the years after she turned from research to activism, coming out of the jungle to become a globetrotting spokesperson for conservation, the community stability that makes it possible, and for saving chimps from “the international entertainment and research trade.” In her mid-80s, she is still trotting, traveling more than 300 days a year. Running, in fact. (An associate: “We say, ‘Slow down, you’re getting on’; she says, ‘No, no, time is running out, time to speed up.”)
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The film is a little shapeless and wayward, with a tendency to repeat itself, but at any moment something terribly moving may happen. (Being terribly moved is my baseline with Goodall.) The subject is coltish, with a mature poise; one supposes she is tough as nails, if possibly also sweet as pie. Besides the campaigning and lecturing and sundry acts of inspirational example — Goodall runs an international youth leadership organization called Roots and Shoots — we see her at something like leisure with family and in England, where she stays when off the road, leafing through her childhood copy of “The Story of Doctor Doolittle” — “the first book I ever owned” — missing its dust cover but otherwise in impressively immaculate condition.
You can get another hit of Goodall in “She Walks With Apes” (BBC America, 9 p.m.), narrated by Sandra Oh, in which she’s grouped with fellow up-close ape researchers Dian Fossey, who lived among mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Biruté Galdikas, who studied orangutans Borneo. All were encouraged by paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who believed women made better, more patient observers; each was on the cover of National Geographic. Someone dubbed them the Trimates. (They were also misunderstood, mocked and patronized: “Comely Miss Spends Time Eyeing Apes,” read one Goodall-related headline.)
The film is about bravery, intuition, innovation, going where no woman or man had gone before — but also continuity, as much of the film follows three young women following in their footsteps, sometimes literally, and the continuing work of their mentors, or in a mentor’s name. Fossey, who was killed in 1985, thought the mountain gorilla would have been extinct by now, but their ranks have tripled; ecotourism, including the chance to stay in the hotel room where Fossey slept when she came into town, has helped ensure their survival. Galdikas continues to observe and care for the Borneo orangutans, many orphaned because of logging and poaching. Goodall, as noted, is everywhere.
“The Great Global Cleanup” (Discovery Channel, 9 p.m.), which features “High School Musical’s” Zac Efron and a host YouTube personalities for youth appeal, is mostly about picking up the garbage, from the land, along the riverbanks, even from the sea bed. Segments were shot on Bali and in Brazil, and Efron reports from his town of Morro Bay, halfway up the California coast, where he learns about cigarette butts and microplastics and briefly speaks with Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes, who recalls the Earth Day One, in 1970, when 20 million Americans turned out to voice their concern with the corporate degradation of the planet. (Make less trash, pick up other people’s is his advice for anyone who wants to contribute.) There are also some brief sections about alternative materials: a bicycle built from bamboo, a Nairobi artist who sculpts flip-flops instead of wood, swimwear and surfboard fins made out of recycled fishing nets.
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National Geographic Channel’s “Born Wild: The Next Generation” (8 p.m.) focuses on baby animals, and appropriately enough, accentuates the positive while not entirely eliminating the negative. (We’re here “to see what’s in store for this fast-changing planet we all call home” is a nice way of saying “What’s up with the global systems collapse?”) We visit a thriving multi-generational pride of lions in Kenya and learn that black bears are making a comeback in northern Minnesota; researchers snuggle cubs in their parkas against the cold as they tag them. We watch different species of monkeys hang out as friends in Sri Lanka and curious baby seals on what’s left of the Arctic ice. There is some upsetting footage, notably illustrating the recent Australian bush fires, but it’s followed by “Hollywood superstar” (and Australian actor) Chris Hemsworth handling a little orphan koala with aplomb. (His skills are rated top-notch.) The show’s tone tends to breathlessness: “I’m heading out on the adventure of a lifetime!” “You’re not going to believe what they just found!” “A close encounter of the adorable kind!” But it’s straightforward about habitat loss and extinction.
In the British import “Climate Change: The Facts” (PBS, 8 p.m. ), the great TV naturalist David Attenborough hosts a thorough primer on the why, what and when — it’s now — of global warming, and what havoc it might wreak on the world. “There is still time,” says Attenborough, “if we act now with determination and urgency.” Meanwhile, storms are getting stormier, droughts drier, fires more fiery. Louisiana is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, the ice caps are melting, the coral reefs are dying, the rain forests are burning and species are going extinct. And it’s all our fault. (“We have met the enemy,” quoth Walt Kelly’s Pogo in a comic strip published on the second Earth Day.) The science is well laid out by a raft of experts, along with cameos by those who deny the science: Rex Tillerson, James Inhofe and his stupid snowball, the president and his “A lot of it’s a hoax; it’s a money-making industry, OK?”
Happily, if possibly quixotically — time, what’s left of it, will tell — the program ends with Greta Thunberg and her children’s crusade. “The more I read about it, the more I understood how dangerous it was for everyone,” Thunberg says. “I stopped going to school, I stopped talking because I was so sad… One day I decided that this was enough. My future and everybody else’s future is at risk, and nothing is being done, no one is doing anything, so I have to do something.”
Narrated by NPR journalist Kelly McEvers, and divided into three episodes (“Pulse,” “Civilization” and “Crisis”), “H20, the Molecule That Made Us” (PBS, 9 p.m. and the two Wednesdays following) traces water from its first appearance on the surface of the Earth — a spectacular debut — to what one might call its increasing unavailability; how it shapes the flora and fauna, us included; how it has determined the rise and fall of civilizations. The series has been styled, McEvers says, as a “podcast,” which really just seems to mean that the narrator sounds chirpy and casual and refers to her own situation or reactions.
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It’s a fascinating work, informative, wide-ranging, nice to look at and more than slightly depressing — in 10 years, we are told more than once, the world will need 40% more fresh water than the planet can supply — yet also inspiring. (Earth scientists are cool and unequivocal; consider becoming one.) The news, for now and until we do something about it, is mostly bad. Groundwater is being sucked dry; two-thirds of the world’s rivers, being dammed or diverted, never make it to the sea, while the weight of the water backed up behind those dams has tilted the axis of the Earth and changed the speed of its spin. Rain forests that feed the “river in the sky” that regulates far-flung ecologies are being chopped down or burned, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.
Should you want to share something with your children that will not give them nightmares — or should you be of a similar sensitive temperament — Apple TV+ is streaming “Here We Are,” an animated short based on a book by Oliver Jeffers. Set on Earth Day in a sort of New York City, it follows an evidently Irish couple (Chris O’Dowd and Ruth Negga) as they try to interest their young son (Jacob Tremblay) in the natural wonders of their big city park; the kid would rather be inside looking at rockets at the Museum of Everything, though, and (spoiler) they will end up there eventually, in a huge installation/dark ride narrated by Meryl Streep, who will point out without going into the particulars that “the tiniest change in the atmosphere can have a huge effect on our weather and our lives.”
“People come in many shapes, sizes and colors. we may all look different, but don’t be fooled, we are all people and we all share the earth.” There are animals too: “They can’t speak to us, but that’s no reason not to be nice to them.” As to the planet? “Make sure you look after it, as it’s all we’ve got.”
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