SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH could not be more passionate about the appalling consequences of destroying our planet’s biodiversity — but is his genial reasonableness adequately arresting for the stark message of Extinction: The facts (BBC1, Sunday)? Savage denunciation might better match the enormity of our undermining of humankind’s future existence which the programme documented in example after example.
Personal greed, short-term profit, refusal to promote unpopular limitations on our material betterment — all the current political trends engender existential despair: can we imagine today’s governments working together to adopt seriously self-denying measures?
Extinction of species is, of course, part of the cycle of nature, but human depredation now forces such extinctions at a catastrophically exponential rate. We can now prove how interconnected and mutually dependent all forms of life are. The huge loss of insects (remember how your windscreen used to fill with dead flies?) has an impact on all larger creatures. A hundred thousand trawlers hoover up the ocean’s fish; so many seas are now barren.
Enough land is under cultivation to feed the world’s human population, but there is quicker profit in destroying rainforest and savannah, producing vast monocultures to nurture the far more rarefied diet that we demand. As we decimate more and more natural habitats, remaining species are crushed closer and closer together; natural mechanisms of adjustment and survival cannot possibly evolve fast enough; viruses jump from species to species; and pandemics will occur more and more frequently. In the bad old days, we thought that a catastrophe was the just retribution of an angry God. Now we realise we don’t need him: our own efforts are enough to wipe ourselves out.
Deposing God from his throne is less an explicit (so far, at least) than an implicit theme of The Romantics and Us with Simon Schama (BBC2, Friday). Its big message is how the 18th- and 19th-century cultural upheaval still defines our world picture. Focusing on the individual, and the exaltation of democracy over privilege and hierarchy, this is us. Schama is not just talking about artists, but about philosophers and political ferment, drawing parallels between, for example, Blake’s London and ours.
Opera Mums with Bryony Kimmings (BBC4, Sunday of last week) was truly awful. The performance artist Bryony Kimmings determines to create an opera about ordinary experience, especially single motherhood. Her whole approach is based on cliché, prejudice, and stereotype: opera’s supposed snobbery and elitism. Then, she actually works with a composer, and singers — and their reality and dedication transforms her. She knew she would be teaching them something new; instead, they taught her. It was truly wonderful.