BBC’s The Green Planet Puts Plants in the Spotlight

BBC TV shows presented by David Attenborough were a staple of my childhood and the default setting when a biology teacher wanted to tame an unruly class (a strategy that nearly always succeeded). As well as bringing calm to the classroom, they provided a mesmerizing window into the wonders of the natural world. In the face of Earth’s perilous ecological situation, the tone of these shows has shifted. Now, as much time as they spend highlighting natural wonders they also spend demonstrating how many of those wonders are being lost.

BBC’s wildlife documentaries have been criticized for presenting a romanticized image of nonhumans existing in vast expanses of “wilderness” devoid of human life. However, as part of the recent change in tone, they have begun to include more everyday stories of wildlife interactions, such as the scene of a mother racoon guiding her two-month-old offspring out of a chimney pot and through Toronto in Planet Earth 2’s “Cities” episode.

Photo of David Attenborough with hawk on shoulder is taped to a cardboard sign
David Attenborough’s popular image used on a sign. Photo by John Englart, 2018.

The Green Planet is the latest cutting-edge wildlife documentary from the BBC Studios Natural History Unit. The series, which airs on PBS on July 6, focuses on the taxonomic kingdom that is often relegated to the background of popular representations of the natural world—plants. Recent BBC Natural History programs have shown young iguanas running from racer snakes on the Galapagos (Planet Earth 2), previously unseen creatures lurking in the depths of the ocean (Blue Planet 2), and many other dramatic scenes from the animal kingdom. However, The Green Planet overturns the hierarchy of kingdoms at least as old as Aristotle to place plants at the forefront. Over five episodes, viewers enter into the lives of plants in five different worlds: tropical, water, seasonal, desert, and human.

During the show’s opening montage of scenes, I was struck by the dynamic way plants were presented. The time-lapse clips were particularly captivating because, unlike in previous documentaries I’d seen, the camera was mobile—a notable innovation. Over this opening, Attenborough explains that, until now, some secrets of plant worlds have remained largely hidden from TV audiences. But “now we have new groundbreaking technology that enables us to enter their extraordinary world and see their lives from their perspective.” How do The Green Planet’s technological advancements change public accessibility to plant worlds? Do they have the potential to alter the way humans view plants?

The Plant Awareness Disparity

In 1998, the term “plant blindness” was informally proposed to denote Western societies’ tendencies to overlook and undervalue plants. The botanists who coined the phrase, Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, describe it as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.” Some of the driving forces behind this phenomenon include the close proximity plants often have to each other and their “static” nature, both visual cues that lead humans to overlook plants and to not see them as individuals. As Schussler and Wandersee note, rather than failing to see the woods for the trees, people struggle to see the trees for the woods.

Recently, the term “plant blindness” has come under criticism for its use of ableist language. The disability metaphor that associates blindness with something that should be “cured” problematically assumes abled bodies as “the default.” Kathryn Parsley has proposed an alternative: plant awareness disparity (PAD). While acknowledging that visual aspects have a large role to play in the human undervaluing of plants, PAD highlights that attitude is also a key factor. Unlike overcoming blindness, attitudes of “awareness” can be cultivated through education.

Large sequoia tree stands before a forest of sequoias
Giant sequoia trees, like those in Sequoia National Forest, are a plant that captures human interest. Photo by Matthew Dillon, 2018.

PAD manifests in funding discrepancies, the decline of plant biology courses offered at universities, and a lack of interest in plant conservation. In comparison to animals, most plants’ charisma goes too unnoticed to capture mass attention. Instead, they are viewed as the surroundings, part of the furniture on which animals live out their more exciting lives. While nonhuman charisma has tended to be associated with the megafaunal celebrities of the conservation world (e.g. tigers, pandas, and elephants), only a handful of plants, such as the sequoias of California, are considered charismatic enough to inspire conservation action.

In comparison to animals, Western society frames plants as resources rather than living beings. During colonization, the exporting of species for growth in monoculture plantations transformed plants into instruments of colonial expansion, turning planting into an act of colonial violence. This colonial logic of utility value continues to shape the Western world’s relationships with plants. Indigenous writers such as Robin Wall Kimmerer move beyond this “instrumentalization” mindset by highlighting plants as animate kin rather than a resource. However, as we enter deeper into the Plantationocene, their continued widespread instrumentalization shows that this deeper relationality with plants has yet to become the norm.  

Is the “static” quality of plants a reason why natural history documentaries have tended to overlook them, thereby amplifying the perception of plants as lesser? Natural history TV shows, more often centered around animals than plants, have generally fed into the attitude that animals are more worthy of attention and that plants are less interesting, dynamic, or deserving of consideration and care. This undervaluing of plants, replicated in popular media, seems inextricably linked with the fact that two in five plants are at risk of extinction. Moving plants into the spotlight is more important than ever.

Enter the Triffids

Flagship BBC Natural History programs are noteworthy for their use of technological innovations to provide unique insights into the natural world. The Green Planet is no different. The show includes a number of new technologies, such as scanning electron microscopy, new lenses, and first-person drone fly-throughs. However, the most striking departure from similar shows is the use of robotic time-lapse camera rigs, affectionately named Triffids after the giant carnivorous plants that stalk John Wyndham’s dystopian novel The Day of the Triffids.

Illustrated triffid plant creatures feature on the cover of John Wyndham's novel
Triffid cameras gained their name from the strange plants of John Wyndam’s Day of the Triffids. Photo by John Keogh, 2006.

Developed by ex-military engineer Chris Field, Triffids are able to capture time-lapse video in fluid motion. Unlike static time-lapse film, which 25 years ago made The Private Life of Plants a notable addition to the BBC Natural History canon, the Triffids are able to film time-lapse on the move. They represent the extraordinary dynamism of plant behavior by capturing time-lapse footage of plants moving around their environment, while the camera itself is too. Triffids thereby allow filmmakers to, in the words of producer and director Paul Williams, “film plants in the same way we film animals”—a comment that further demonstrates animals’ place as the benchmark for wildlife shows.

The use of Triffids encourages the viewer to see the lives of plants as anything but static. The innovative camera rigs capture diverse scenes, from a vine grappling onto a Monstera to get the upper hand in the race toward the light to a common daisy bending to follow the arc of the sun. Much like traditional time-lapse, the vastness of plant time is compressed down to a timescale to which humans can more easily relate. However, the Triffids are able to represent plant lives on screen in an even more dynamic way than traditional time-lapse. This compression of time makes the three forms of plant mobility all the more apparent: circumnutation (corkscrew-like growth of plant tips), tropic responses (moving toward/away from potentially beneficial/problematic encounters), and nastic movements (nondirectional responses to stimuli).

Seeing this mobility on a more familiar timescale elicits the awe with which wildlife documentaries are often associated. The Triffids enable the viewer to inhabit the life of a plant in a way that other programs have not. The viewer moves with the plant as the plant moves through its life, all in a timescale comparable to animal movement. Through this movement, the viewer is able to see plants as dynamic, as mobile, and as individuals.

Do plants really have to move at animal speeds to be seen as living?

Lesley Head, Jennifer Atchison, and Catherine Phillips have highlighted recognizing “plant time” as a key step toward realizing plant agency: “At human timescales, the multiple dimensions of plant agency are obscured. . . . If, however, plants are considered within their own lifetimes and scales, their responses become active (in sometimes quite sophisticated ways) rather than passive.” For many, realizing plant agency has meant being present in plant time. This has tended to require slowing down so that human timeframes become more aligned with those of plants. The Green Planet, on the other hand, invites the viewer to be present with plant time by shifting plants’ timeframes to become more aligned with our own. The show moves actions, such as a giant water lily bud swinging like a mace across the water’s surface to clear space for its huge leaf, into a more humanly recognizable speed.

Prioritizing Plant Time

The use of mobile time-lapse cameras conjure wonderful technologically mediated encounters with plants. However, there is a danger that speeding up plants to “human time” feeds into the hierarchy of beings that relegates plants toward the bottom. In a “making-of” segment of The Green Planet, producer and director Paul Williams discusses how they saw the potential to use Triffids “to bring plants alive.” Do plants really have to move at animal speeds to be seen as living? Does The Green Planet’s utilization of Triffids privilege animal timeframes, thereby continuing to position plants as “lesser”? Using technology to fit plants into human frames of perception, even with the intent of brining more attention to plants, veers into anthropocentric territory.

Plant time, and plants themselves, are always beyond human control. Western societies have a checkered record of using technology to control other species rather than allowing them to flourish on their own terms, and viewers of nature documentaries should be wary of this logic of domination. These programs provide windows into the lives of radically different beings, but the viewer must remember that these representations are always mediated by technology, by humans. Where The Green Planet falls short is reminding viewers of this complexity.

A drone flies over a monocrop field of sugar cane, leaving a cloud of pesticides in its wake
A drone sprays pesticides across a sugar cane field, one example of how humans have treated plants. Photo by Herney Gómez, 2017.

Rather, in its discussion of plant–human relations, The Green Planet tends to stick to standard conservation narratives of humans as “the bad guy.” For example, the final episode of the series, “Human Worlds,” contains various scenes of highly mechanized food production, from drones spraying pesticides to huge warehouses producing tomatoes. These scenes demonstrate how plant–human relationships have become more and more extractive, with only a chosen few plants benefiting from highly mechanized care due to their importance to the human food system. At the end of the “Tropical Worlds” episode, the ecological benefits of removing human influence are overtly highlighted. Attenborough stands surrounded by greenery in an area previously grazed by cattle to show how 30 years of removing human influence has allowed crucial ecological connections between plants and animals to re-form.

However, the potential link between the societal attitude that allows for the scenes of endless monocrops and the privileging of human timeframes in the series is not drawn. The onus is left on the viewer to be wary of this human-centered representation of plants rather than the creators explicitly warning of the potential pitfalls.

Stories of Loss and Hope in The Green Planet

While the privileging of human speed is problematic, the record shows that plants struggle to inspire awe on their own terms—or, perhaps more accurately, Western society struggles to recognize them as spectacular. Plant awareness disparity means that they linger at the edges of conversations about charismatic species worthy of protecting. Western society needs a helping hand to see plants as active individuals, a helping hand that The Green Planet provides through its use of Triffids to create dynamic timeframes.

A few yellow flowering dandelions grow  out of a crack in between and cement wall and the paved ground
Dandelions grow up through the pavement, an example of plants flourishing in unlikely places. Photo by Miroslav Bendik, 2014.

The Green Planet represents plants in a way that inspires interest and cultivates response-ability. These representations tell stories about plants that create space to pay attention to them and to learn to be affected by them. Many of these are stories of hope—the fire lily ending its 15-year wait to be the first plant to emerge from the burned South African landscape, sow thistles pushing their way through the cracks of London pavement. These stories of hope, alongside stories of loss, help cultivate the plant appreciation that is a step toward living well with others.

Featured image: At the pace of plant time, a daisy turns toward the sun. Photo by Iurii, 2019.

James Weldon is a Ph.D. student at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning. His research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, focuses on tree diseases, in particular ash dieback and Dutch elm disease, and on the different ways trees are valued. He is particularly interested in how “ruined” treescapes marked by the impending absence, and spectral presence, of certain species of tree are conceptualized. Twitter. Contact.