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TV review: Extinction: The factsThe Romantics and Us with Simon Schama, and Opera Mums with Bryony Kimmings

18 September 2020

BBC/Sam Barker

Sir David Attenborough presents Extinction: The facts (BBC1, Sunday)

Sir David Attenborough presents Extinction: The facts (BBC1, Sunday)

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.

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