Human Planet, the eight-part masterpiece composed by the BBC, is predominantly a documentary about those humans who live most closely with nature and how they have managed to adapt to various challenging landscapes. The series is a veritable collage of these remarkable relationships, some harmonious, others unsustainable, all visually stunning. The range and immensity of the project is impressive and unparalleled: the entire enterprise spanned three years, covered forty countries and filmed seventy stories. The footage, narrated by John Hurt, was then compiled into disparate and colorful geographic categories: jungles, the arctic, deserts, grasslands, rivers, mountains, oceans and urban centers.
Each episode opens with the biological fact that human beings are the only species to have carved out an existence for themselves in every environment on the planet. Although predominantly characterized by the environments in which the episodes take place, the overarching theme of each episode is that of survival techniques and how these techniques often involve ingenuity, ecological knowledge and wildlife. One such fascinating exchange is between Kazakh hunters and their pet golden eagles that team up with one another to hunt foxes in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Another extraordinary story follows Mafoudi, an Algerian who has spent much of his life underground in the middle of the desert in order to dig wells and contribute to a massive aqueduct that eventually flows into a blossoming oasis, replete with fig trees.
The documentary largely focuses on food procurement, and therefore relationships with wildlife are frequently depicted. The emphasis on hunting, however, leaves little time to explore female-centered case studies, which leads to an unequal portrayal of gender in the series. That said, the documentary does depict many charming, harmonious friendships between humans and other species. For example, the great honeyguide, a bird found in sub-Saharan Africa, lives up to its moniker in a delightful way: Maasai boys follow their winged friends to burgeoning bee hives, guided by a bird-call used specifically to communicate with humans. The boys leave a generous portion of honeycomb for their eager assistant, as is tradition. Otherwise, it is fabled that next time, the honeyguide will guide them straight to a lion's den.
Shelter building is another dynamic theme, with examples ranging from the Inuit igloos of Greenland to the Bajau houseboats of Palawan. Sea gypsies, as the Bajau are often called, technically belong to no nation, as they spend all of their lives at sea. They source everything they require from the ocean, and their eyes even adjust to see better underwater than above it. Perhaps the most astounding shelters are the Korowai tree houses, built by hand, as high as one hundred feet off of the ground. A safe haven from insects, floods, and enemies, the Korowai of Papua New Guinea are the epitome of green architects.
Human Planet does a stellar job of producing an anthropological survey of different communities and cultures across the globe, each case study depicting how humans sculpt fulfilling, meaningful lives for themselves from their surrounding environment. Where there are instances of the killing of charismatic wildlife such as whales, or any such practice that could be construed as unusual or upsetting through the lens of a Westerner, the situation is usually described in a prosaic manner, a style that emphasizes the humanity and dignity of potentially misunderstood customs and circumstances. However, there is, at times, the unnecessary exaggeration of certain scenes by utilizing melodramatic music and sound effects; a ploy, I suspect, to better emotionally engage viewers. Admittedly, much of the footage is gripping, but the soundtrack evoked a sensation similar to that of an epic cinematic score and was largely unnecessary.
Also, for the sake of those members of the audience who are not anthropologists, more of an explanation should have been offered as to why indigenous peoples choose to maintain subsistence lifestyles in remote areas. Even a critic for the New York Times left the series with the following question: "Sure, it all makes for pretty filmmaking, but isn't not having to risk your life for a simple meal one of the benefits of civilization? There's something unsettling about glorifying subsistence living for the sake of our high-definition televisions." There are many reasons why place-based peoples choose to retain numerous aspects of tradition, such as being able to employ hundreds of years' worth of ecological knowledge, having the ability to maintain native language and customs, and even the benefit of increased leisure time. Industrialization has become the undisputed solution to the trials of life for many Westerners – living outside of the market economy is thought absurd – and yet there is so much to be gleaned from an indigenous, nature-oriented way of life.
While many indigenous peoples have become urbanized, the brilliant aspects of those continuing to live in communion with nature should not go unstated. Often, the relationships that many of these communities maintain with their landscapes are ecologically sustainable and must be considered by the rest of the planet if we in the "civilized" world are to avoid the devastating impacts of climate change. Need proof? Watch episode six: "Cities: Surviving the Urban Jungle."