Sir David Attenborough in 'Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet' (screen grab).
Sir David Attenborough may be everybody’s hero. But for a long time now, I haven't been able to understand this. The way he talks has always distracted me. Sometimes, the rhythm of his words keeps me from fully comprehending what he is saying exactly. I have always attributed this to me being Indian - and him being as British as it gets.
But setting that aside, Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet, a new documentary with Attenborough and climate scientist Johan Rockström, is top-notch work.
With captivating urgency, this documentary, directed by Jonathan Clay, lays out how we have wrecked the environment and tells us of the simplest ways we can revive it. Having an eco-friendly diet and planting trees are far, far more important than what we thought all along.
Attenborough, one of the world’s most famous broadcasters, has aged since I last saw him on TV. At 95, he is still as lucid as ever, even though the skin around his left eye has fallen over it. Relentlessly quoting fact after fact, he warns us, in dire terms, about the catastrophic consequences for our planet because of climate change.
I have disputes with the animation and special effects work in the film. Some worked, quite a few didn’t. Unusual for an Attenborough documentary, we don’t get to see many animals either; the subject of the film, too, isn’t typical Attenborough.
Johan Rockström, the soft-spoken (but sharp) director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany, takes the spotlight and brings us up to speed on the facts. The runtime of the documentary is just 75 minutes, and it is packed densely with facts and figures. It’s more engaging and ambitious than your average nature documentary, with Attenborough bringing the edge that keeps the viewer going.
The documentary establishes a revolutionary concept of the existence of boundaries - nine of them, in fact. These boundaries are not to be messed with, and if we do, we will ultimately destroy the planet. In fact, we have crossed the danger threshold on four boundaries already, including climate change, land-system change, biodiversity and overuse of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus (use of fertilizers).
Considerable footage is also devoted to the bleaching of coral reefs, with Attenborough warning that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia might soon become a “coral graveyard”.
One of the unusual facts about this documentary is that two experts it recruited are reduced to tears while explaining the intricacies of planetary degradation. Professor Terry Hughes, a leading coral scientist from Australia, breaks down while explaining the bleaching of reefs. Another Australian scientist, Dr Daniella Teixeira, tears up after reaching her favourite spot where she has been studying endangered glossy black cockatoos. (Millions of animals died during the summer of 2019/20 in a massive forest fire.)
Towards the end, the documentary takes a turn for the political as Rockström makes a forceful case for the UN Security Council to take up the issue and implement remedial measures.
Finally, we also get to hear, rather frighteningly, about Covid-19. The pandemic indicates that the planet is not in a healthy place, we are told.
Despite all this, there is no need to panic. Four boundaries have been crossed, but the process is reversible even though we are over the tipping point. We are told about the time when there was a hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s and how world leaders came together to resolve the issue. Will we be able to replicate the same success with other boundaries? That’s the question that remains to be answered.
The animations and special effects in 'Breaking Boundaries' don't always work.
Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet was released on Netflix on June 4.
Nandhu Sundaram lives in the tiny town of Arumanai in Tamil Nadu. He is a freelance journalist who writes on film and politics and the intersection between the two.