By Karen Jones, Editor of Environment and History
The closing days of 2016 provided the usual moments where my environmental historian brain intersects with the material everyday – walks with the dog in the hoar-frosted early morning, garden-bound cogitations on fruit tree varieties, trying to remember where the particularly good patch of horseradish was on that foraging walk in the spring. This year, however, brought two stark moments of cognitive collision, both of which presented a reminder of the importance of our discipline in contributing to a contemporary discourse about environmental ethics and ecological interdependency.
The first, the election of Donald Trump to the office of US President, provoked many questions for environmental historians (and, indeed, for other species of human and non-human animals). What, for instance, might ‘An Environmental History in the Age of Trump’ look like (as the year went on, this idea segued from a point of unimaginable conjecture to imminent reality, conjuring too, the future prospect of a university course circa 2075 brandishing the aforementioned title). For critics, the scenario about to play out augurs nothing short of the end of the world, what Liberation labelled ‘Trumpocalypse.’ Others drilled down into the profile of what Salon called the ‘science averse, climate-denying, fossil fuel friendly President’ with faces drawn as to the implications of the next four years for US environmental policy and international agreements on climate change. Trump’s assertion that climate change is ‘just weather’ and his computation for making America ‘great again’ (prosperity = more economic growth and less environmental regulation) present troubling messages, not only for environmentalists and the biosphere, but for a historical canon that has excavated human-environmental relations to reveal a world of entanglement and (ever-intriguing) complexity in which blind faith in industrialism and technocratic solutions rarely turn out well.
Trump’s promise, meanwhile, to build an ‘impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall’ along the 2,000 mile US-Mexico boundary raises all kinds of questions, not least in terms of the environmental impact of cutting a concrete slice through a delicate ecosystem across which 111 species of endangered animal and 108 species of migratory bird routinely travel. The Trump wall, of course, is only the latest in a long line of border infrastructures designed to keep humans (East/West Germany; the DMZ) and non-human animals (Australia’s rabbit-proof fence; the Namibian red line) apart. Sometimes, of course, wild things respond to these spaces in unforeseen ways, especially when the landscape in question is largely ‘off-limits’ to humans (see, for instance, the transformation of the Iron Curtain into Green Belt). In many other cases, however, the weight of evidence points to a less positive conclusion: artificial borders (whether that be walls, railway tracks or roads) effectively blocking the free movement of wildlife, encouraging habitat fragmentation, a reduced genetic pool and dwindling biodiversity. There have been novel attempts to solve such difficulties – in Banff National Park, wildlife mortality on the Trans-Canada Highway prompted the construction of green overpasses, while further north in Jasper, a wolf corridor allows pack movements across a golf course (the trickster in me can’t help smiling at the possibility, albeit remote, of the reintroduction of Canis lupus to Scotland and a wolf-right-of-way across Trump’s golf resorts). Back in the American South-west, jaguars, dwarf leopards and black bear (the latter of which were reintroduced to Texas in the 1990s) may yet find themselves deployed in an argument to build bridges not walls.
Along with nine million other Brits on a Sunday night, I looked to the reassuring presence of David Attenborough to provide welcome sanctuary from this tumultuous landscape of global politics. The long-awaited nature documentary series Planet Earth II – appearing ten years after its first incarnation – offered up a mesmerising journey across the world’s island, mountain, jungle, desert, grassland and city habitats. Shot in high resolution, and based on more than 2,000 days of camera work across forty countries, the images on screen were simply breath taking, combining grand landscape panoramas and intimate montages, charismatic mammals and enigmatic invertebrates. A visual feast that gloried in the magnetic power of the animal, Planet Earth II also revelled in the power of storytelling, expertly delivered (as always) by Attenborough. Novelist Graham Swift points out that humans are ‘storytelling animals’ and here, in Planet Earth II, were abiding examples of our inclination to tell stories about other species. Set in a familiar narrative of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ we saw a range of ‘head-to-heads’ that made Trump Vs Clinton seem tame by comparison: racer snakes slithering across the sands to try to entrap baby marine iguanas, a lioness leaping at the throat of a escaping giraffe, a tiny glass frog kicking out at wasps who were trying to eat his nursery of about-to-hatch tadpoles. Animals in unusual places (never-before seen images of Araguaia river dolphins swimming amidst submerged tree trunks 1000 miles inland; hyenas fighting for access to the city of Harar and the opportunity to be hand-fed meat scraps) and astonishing examples of species adaptability and resilience (a darkling beetle climbing the Namib dunes to stand suspended in a headstand, channelling precious water droplets onto its back; peregrine falcons diving for prey across the New York skyline) sat alongside the now ubiquitous ‘making of segment’ which paid heed both to the advances in natural history filmmaking over the last decade and also highlighted the evolution of a genre from its early insistence on keeping humans and technology out of the screenshot to fully immersing the viewer in the conundrum of how to capture animals on film.
Planet Earth II has not all been easy viewing. Aside from the trauma of the snakes vs iguana moment (which I won’t forget in a long time) salient reminders of anthropogenic impact on the global biota brought us down to earth (and back to Trump) with a bump. In the final episode, the urban realm was exposed as multi-species free for all, a crowded tumble of buildings, human and non-human bodies, neon lights and plastic. The original Planet Earth ended with Attenborough warning that ‘we can destroy or we can cherish – the choice is ours’. Ten years on, that choice hangs in the balance, especially if we believe the verdict of Resilience magazine that we are living on the brink of a ‘post ecological age.’ Commenting on the new series, and the obligation to talk about environmental damage and the footprint of Homo sapiens, Attenborough points out: ‘I would love to say, “Just look at that… isn’t it wonderful?” instead of saying, “You do realise that because of CFCs we are all doomed”.’ This time round, Planet Earth II ended with sagely comment on the importance of our connection with the natural world and our responsibility to ‘create a planet that provides a home not just for us but for all life on Earth’. Looking forward into 2017, it seems that Sunday night escapism isn’t an option for any of us.