Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Living Planet (1984)

David Attenborough's first Life series, Life on Earth, covered the evolution of living things, starting with the earliest and most primitive forms of life and then advancing through the ages to the most recent (and theoretically most advanced).

The Living Planet instead addresses life by biosphere.  It begins with what was perhaps my favourite episode: an investigation of volcanic and tectonic activity and how those immense forces shape the world in which all known life exists.

We then go on a world tour, starting at the icy ends of the Earth and moving through the boreal and temperate forests to the equatorial jungles.  These are all the kinds of exotic locations you expect of such a series, and we're given an introduction to many strange and interesting forms of life (animal and plant alike) en route.

In the fifth episode, Attenborough takes us to the grasslands, his narration foreshadowing the climactic episode when he references how vital grass is to human existence: rice and wheat are both grasses after all.  It's also the episode with one of the creatures I found most interesting: a type of ant that harvests grass, then feeds it to a fungus found only in the ants' hive.  The insects then eat the fungus, making them the world's smallest farmers.

We move on to deserts, and the creatures of the air, before moving through the aquatic biospheres: fresh water lakes and rivers, brackish estuaries, and oceans, with a diversion into islands en route.  You might think that would just be lots of fish, but considerable time is devoted to marine insects, arachnids, birds and mammals.  The island episode was another favorite of mine, as the isolated populations they house have led to some of the most varied and unusual spurs on the evolutionary path.

The series climaxes with an examination of human habitats: cultivated agricultural land and urban locations alike, as Attenborough explores the only creature to shape its environment as much as its environment shapes it.  He ends with an impassioned and cogent argument for the need for humanity to safeguard the world we live in; an argument that alas seems to have fallen on deaf ears over the three decades since the show first aired.

This is excellent stuff.  Highly recommended if you are at all curious about the world around you.

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