5 sustainability communications lessons from David Attenborough’s Extinction: The Facts

David Attenborough's latest BBC documentary has been called both "heartwarming" and "gut-wrenching" since it aired on Sunday evening (13 September). But beyond the striking facts and shocking images, it provides viewers with several lessons on how to get environmental communications right, edie's senior reporter Sarah George explains.

5 sustainability communications lessons from David Attenborough’s Extinction: The Facts

Since I started reporting full-time for edie back in 2018, we’ve hosted several events centred around communicating sustainability – be that to busy executives, colleagues simply working through their long to-do lists or to the general public. The key issues faced by attendees are numerous, ranging from an abundance of jargon; to difficulty communicating urgency; to a lack of good data and statistics. And then, of course, there’s the age-old problem of ‘the environment’ being framed as separate from humanity (which The Guardian is aiming to address by accompanying climate-related coverage with fewer images of polar bears and more of people).

Trying to tackle all of these challenges simultaneously and design a great narrative in a digital world (hello, shortening attention spans and the possibility of your every word being twisted on Twitter) is a tall task. But every now and then, a certain film or campaign emerges which cuts through the noise and captures public attention on a national scale. In 2017, it was Blue Planet 2. In 2020 – a year in which much television has been put on pause – I’m willing to bet that it will be Extinction: The Facts.

Attenborough’s documentary acts as many things – a universal wake-up call; a panel discussion between experts; a chance for the 94-year-old to share reflections on his career. It illustrates how drastic and far-reaching nature loss is; explains why we are in this situation; and offers suggestions of what can be done to fix the crisis. All in all, it’s something of a masterclass in sustainability storytelling. Here are five of my key takeaways:

1) Make the numbers visible

One of the first statistics highlighted in the film is the UN’s 2019 finding that one million species – around one in every eight known to man – are facing extinction. But the first graph shown is the image that got Twitter talking and was chosen as a key takeaway by the likes of Caroline Lucas.

Logically, the fact that extinction rates are around 100 times higher due to human activity should be shocking. But there’s something about the way that the graph, produced for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IBPES), looks like an extreme rollercoaster, that really hits home. In a world where we’re presented with more information than ever on a daily basis, this kind of visual storytelling is needed to capture hearts and minds.

2) Go global and local

If you were watching with the sound off, you’d still be struck by the juxtaposition of images shown. Aerial shots of forests being cleared for agriculture and pan-outs showing some of the world’s largest factories and industrial equipment are shown in-between images of a single pangolin, a solo conservationist with the world’s last two white rhinos and small groups of people walking through their hometowns.

The problem of nature loss is, in this way, shown as a global issue that will have local impacts. Viewers are immersed as they gradually realise both the sheer scale of the issue and the effects it will have on the day-to-day facets of life. Nature loss isn’t just down to the loggers in the Amazon, the show implies. It’s down to all of us when we choose what to buy and how to travel.

 3) Acknowledge the complexity of the situation

Thought leaders have often concluded that the world is more polarised than ever and, as a result, we’ve become more prone to black-and-white thinking – looking for simple cause-effect stories and either downplaying the situation at hand or frantically panicking.

‘Extinction: The Facts’ does not feed this beast. The panel of experts discuss how population growth is fuelling rapid industrialisation, but also how some segments of the population are consuming a disproportionate amount of resources. We are invited to question whether resource scarcity would be a problem if there were not so much affluence and willingness to export production in the Western world, learning that Americans consume seven times as much annually as those in India, with the UK-India ratio standing at 4-1.

Moreover, the actions of businesses, governments and individuals are not pitted against each other or ranked in terms of effectiveness. The film follows, instead, the IPCC’s narrative that the time for “either or” discussions has passed and that action on all fronts is now necessary.

4) Offer solutions and inspire imperfect action

I’m hard-pressed to think of an Attenborough documentary which hasn’t been called ‘depressing’ by TV critics and Twitter-addicted climate deniers for failing to give adequate screentime to solutions and success stories. And, once more, the solutions-focused portion of the programme doesn’t start until more than two-thirds in.

But it’s to-the-point, offering practical steps which can be taken by policymakers, businesses and the general public. National mandates on the use of certain materials are posited alongside stronger voluntary corporate targets and different shopping habits.

“Nature can bounce back if given the chance,” Attenborough says. “What happens next is up to every one of us.”

5) Time it right

Of course, the timing of the documentary release was impeccable. It comes just as the nights are starting to draw in and as schools and offices are reopening, meaning that many will spend less time in nature than we have been in recent months. According to data from Natural England, 57% of UK adults spent time in nature at least once a week in April, and the general consensus is that many wish to keep up this habit.

For those working in the sustainability space, the release also came just days before the UN released its fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook, revealing that no progress has been made against 14 of the 20 international biodiversity goals set in 2010, and in the run-up to the international convention on biodiversity. 

Amid news that deforestation in Amazonia has skyrocketed under lockdown and with most key sustainability events postponed or moved online, there had been an air of worry that predictions around 2020 being a ‘year of nature’ may not ring true. But ‘Extinction: The Facts’ brings the information, inspiration and motivation which is so desperately needed to the table.

Comments (2)

  1. Jim McRobert says:

    Great commentary well done much appreciated

  2. ian curtis says:

    but if we know how to do this communication why are we still struggling so massively to get the biodiversity challenge on the road? Surely Attenborough was signalling that biodiversity champions are yet to master the comms challenge? The scoreboard has a tricky but critically important message: "time to change"?

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