Attenborough’s ‘The Year Earth Changed’: Though nature is healing, we’re not necessarily a virus

Photo of "The Year the World Changed"
BBC Studios/Courtesy

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In March 2020, two human pandemics were born: one, the deadly spread of a coronavirus causing a disease dubbed COVID-19; and another, the plague of thoughts surrounding it. Now, in 2021, David Attenborough is here to save us from the thought-demic with his documentary special “The Year Earth Changed.”

The thoughts reproduced faster, further and wider than the virus, as they tapped into a network of minds not bound by space or time. Moving at the speed of light, the thoughts took barely a minute to spawn billions more, infecting, mutating, spreading and dying in service of the single strand of DNA that told their now distant common ancestor to make more of itself. 

One of these mutations, borne by the super spreader that is social media, centered around the notion that the pandemic’s detrimental impact on humanity was to the benefit of the natural world. Images of animals “returning” to cities paired with almost Thanos-esque captions spread rapidly on a volatile thought market. When many were found to be false, we got the “Nature is healing, we are the virus” meme, and the plausible idea that our quieting had positive impacts on our fellow animals was lost to memedom.

Just over a year from March 2020, and vaccines to protect us from COVID-19 are being distributed — the quickest-ever vaccine rollout. And so we finally arrive at the beauty of what Attenborough has done with “The Year Earth Changed.” He’s delivered a fully matured idea, a transcendental anti-meme. A vaccine against underwrought thoughts.

Each segment of gorgeous wildlife footage tells a microeconomic story of nature adapting to our sudden quiet through Attenborough’s trustworthy voice. But the larger story beyond this pandemic microcosm is never lost. Where the original thought went wrong, “The Year Earth Changed” tells fuller stories of the interaction between people and animals across time and the pandemic.

Take the story of the deer in Nara, Japan. Attenborough contextualizes the pandemic story with the 1,300-year-long history of coexistence between deer and humans. The deer’s grazing meadows had long since been taken over by buildings — but the clever deer had overcome their shyness to venture to Nara’s temples, where millions of visitors fed them rice crackers. But when those visitors suddenly left, the deer did something remarkable: The oldest among them led the pack down major roads deep into the city, where they fed on the remains of their old grazing grounds — improving their health. Attenborough sums it up best: “Even when it seems that animals benefit from our presence; in many cases, they’re actually better off without us.”

It’s a bit “we are the virus,” but there’s an important distinction between that attitude and the prescription of Attenborough. It’s a story of empathy and coexistence; never before has wildlife felt more close to home, driven by the same goals that we are. In “The Year Earth Changed,” animals and people are shot the same — all just different species in the wild, observed from an omniscient perspective. 

They’re isolated stories — in no way a representative sample and not a miraculous full recovery of nature either — but can we just have this? Can we shed our cynicism, shed our pain, shed our aversion to hope when the road ahead stretches so much further than we can see into bleakness? Let’s celebrate the reconciliation of a community with its elephant crop ravagers, let’s quiet for a moment while the killer whales chat, let’s listen to Attenborough repeatedly call a penguin a jackass (they really can’t catch a break, South African Jackass penguins). 

We are all the virus — the entire natural world — infecting, mutating, spreading, dying, surviving. Our thoughts are viral too, but untethered from natural barriers. It takes someone like Attenborough to be that barrier, and to preserve the thought that we can all share a natural world that is bound by space and time.

Contact Lachie Wappet at [email protected].