Steve's Herpetological Blog

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#SteveReviews: Breaking Boundaries

I’m not entirely sure how this one passed me by, I guess I was too busy running around Norfolk catching grass snakes. However, having the time to now sit down and watch Breaking Boundaries, I am pleased to say that it departs from Attenborough’s usual format. It is extremely unusual as it features very little of Attenborough himself, instead deciding to focus on the science and scientists, studying planetary decline. The main narrator is Prof. Johan Rockström from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who in 2009, helped to identify nine natural processes upon which all life on Earth depends (hence the name of the documentary). Rockström and others explain the limits of these, and the consequences to our planet, if they are exceeded. To me, it is great to see science getting more than a fair share of the representation within this documentary. This is especially true given last year’s A Life on Our Planet, which was quite depressing and didn’t really offer any real solutions to the ongoing issues of climate change, deforestation and defaunation etc. Like most of Attenborough’s work, Breaking Boundaries has it’s own companion book, that you can find here.

Given the heavy involvement of Rockström, the idea of theses planetary boundaries acts as the structure of the documentary. It is great to see such a diverse assembly of global experts, even if they are in tears at times. The research they have been conducting has been significantly impacted by anthropogenic change. One of the fundamental ideas to the nine planetary boundaries, is the existence of an irreversible tipping point for each. Unfortunately, in the case of at four of these (climate change, biodiversity, land-system change and nitrogen and phosphorus imbalance), humankind is already in the high-risk zone. This isn’t surprising to me, given that as a species, we release billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and use copious amounts of fertilisers and pesticides on our crops annually. To me, the emotional breakdown of some of the scientists upon seeing the destruction anthropogenic change has caused to their study systems, acts as a necessary bridge between scientists and the general public. Most people forget that we’re actual people with emotions, and envision us just wandering around in lab coast 24/7. As fun as that sounds, it isn’t how most conservationists operate. I can imagine that wearing a lab coat, would significantly hinder my ability to capture grass snakes, when in the field. However, when I’m in the lab of course, it’s part of the necessary PPE.

The entire documentary is extremely densely packed with scientific information, which in my mind is extremely ambitious given the way that wildlife documentaries have generally been dumbed-down in recent decades. As always, there is a large number of sequences showing animals in destress, and ice sheets calving. The most upsetting sequence to me, is when we learn more about the 2020 Australian wildfires, being shown the charred carcasses of the animals that were not able to escape the flames. As depressing as the topic is (and continues to be), Breaking Boundaries does offer some glimmers of hope, from Rockström himself. It is clear that the documentary is building up to a moment where the viewer is left with the feeling to act, despite the huge scale of the challenge we all face. Rockström is right in that this is a challenge that humanity faces together, we need to work as one if we are to overcome the issues with our lifestyles, that threaten our very existence. We’ve acted in the past with environmental issues, just look at whaling or the hole in the ozone layer. Importantly, there is still time to act and Breaking Boundaries serves as the wake-up call that the entirety of humanity needs if we are to restore the balance of the nine planetary boundaries, on which we depend.

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