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Eye on the world

28 April 2017

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WERE we seeing, despite its title, a God’s-eye view of his creation? Man-Made Planet: Earth from space (Channel 4, Saturday) offered us a series of remarkable images of how our planet looks from space, celeb­rating 45 years since that first wonderful picture of Earth, dubbed the “blue marble”, was seen by an astronaut and shared with us all.

But “celebrating” is hardly the right word: what the denizens of the International Space Station observe, above all, is how greatly the surface of the planet has changed. Time-lapse photography demon­strated this process: we saw cities appear and grow, deserts encroach, forest give way to agriculture, lakes dry up; for what it chronicled was the re­­lentless ticking of an ecological time-bomb.

In this not-quite-half century, the human population has doubled, food production has trebled, and glaciers have shrunk by 50 per cent. We saw one Chinese village mush­room into a megacity of 11 million inhabitants, producing 25 per cent of all our smartphones.

The commentary, by the space­men and women themselves, veered from anxiety about what they witnessed to astonishment at the extraordinary ability of our species to make its mark. One criterion for space-station inhabitants is, no doubt, an overwhelmingly positive attitude, and the programme was more relentlessly upbeat than the unfolding catastrophe warranted.

My favourite scene of small-scale hope was the sight of Bishop Frederick Shoo (Evangelical Lu­­theran) leading his people singing joyful hymns as they planted tree after tree (three million so far) as they sought to reverse the decline of the Mount Kilimanjaro glaciers. Of course, the last way God looks at the earth is from space, in distant judge­ment: he engages with his creation from an altitude no higher than a hilltop cross.

There was a different view of our planet in Joanna Lumley’s Postcards (ITV, Thursday of last week). Here she revisits favourite locations and old acquaintances; and the personal encounters are far more sign­ifi­cant than the places them­­selves. She creates something extra­­ordinary — her poshness expressing a vast range of humour: irony, self-mockery, collusion. It is as though they are all sharing an enormous joke, the very opposite of imperialist hauteur. She simply loves them as people, and they clearly love her back.

I had no space last week to mention a third and wholly extra­­­ord­inary engagement with our world. Into The Wind (BBC4, 12 April) followed Tim Dee as he trudged along the Lincolnshire Wash. His passion is for capturing the sound that the wind makes. He likens the recording equipment he bears to a pilgrim’s staff or dowser’s twig.

As he walks, he observes; quotes poetry; muses philosophically, fin­ally, on the greatest eminence he can find; and leans into the cockpit of the wind like a figurehead on a ship’s prow. It was a visual poem in itself: a meditation on the natural world and our place in it.

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