"Islands may seem remote and insignificant," David Attenborough says at the close of the first episode of Planet Earth II, which premieres in the U.S. on Saturday, "but they are home to some of the most precious wildlife on earth." By the end of episode one — which is dedicated to islands and the life they hold (sloths, crabs, penguins, and Komodo dragons, to name a few) — it's tempting to zoom out to an even bigger view than Planet Earth's sweeping vistas afford, and look at the Earth itself. Do human beings number among the precious wildlife our planet holds? Or have we proven so destructive a force that we must lose this distinction?
Planet Earth II, like the series that came before it 10 years ago, is often most thought provoking in the moments when it pushes against the human definition of wildlife, of nature, of animals. No humans appear in the series itself, whose lush photography captures the natural world in as close to an undisturbed state as one can reach. But, from the first moments of the very first episode, we are reminded of ourselves.
Watching the initial dramas of Planet Earth II, in which a lovelorn sloth searches for a mate, and a pair of Komodo dragons battle savagely for male dominance, I wondered, basically, if David Attenborough was trolling me. I came to Planet Earth II, like I imagine a great many other viewers did, in search of escape. I'm a little bit tired of humans right now: their power struggles, their violence, their seemingly willful cluelessness in the face of disaster. (I can't imagine why.) So the idea of a TV show dedicated not to corporate subterfuge or overzealous criminal prosecution but to sloths, penguins, and crabs seemed just about perfect.
But in Planet Earth II, there is no escape.
The series' first episode doesn't suggest that human behavior resembles that of the violent, desperate, and jeopardized animals we see on the screen — it leaves it to us to make that comparison, which at this point seems inevitable. Yet the most fascinating component of the series premiere comes not through the question of human vs. animal nature, but the issue of animal vs. environment. Eighty percent of extinctions, Attenborough tells us, take place within island ecosystems. A stable ecology that has remained stable since long before the beginning of recorded time can, with the introduction of a destructive new variable, lose its stability seemingly overnight.
Planet Earth II makes explicit its interest in ecological destruction and extinction. The show leaves it up to the viewer, however, to see themselves not as a violent force, but a member of a jeopardized species. It's hard not to ask this question with regards not only to the environment, but to the political realities of planet Earth in 2017. Have we rendered life unsustainable in this fragile ecosystem of ours? Have we destroyed our own chances for survival? And if so, what meaning does life hold while we are still here?
As beautiful as Planet Earth II is, it is not an escape — nor should it be. We can't escape into the natural world; we can only let it serve as a window into our own natures. And, in this regard, Planet Earth II allows us to countenance not just our potential doom, or our most brutal instincts, but the daily work of survival that structures the precarious lives of the species that lack the human ability — the human need — to exist in the future tense.
"Islands" concludes with a family of penguins, finding sustenance and warmth in one of the harshest environments on Earth. This is not a story about the future, but about locating stability, survival, and love in the present moment — and how this by itself can be enough. Do you really think you're better than a penguin?