We won’t save the world by watching celebrity nature shows | Lucy Siegle | Opinion

It’s been a big month for the planet on TV. Through Judi Dench recently, we discovered these things called trees, a life-sustaining resource to be sure. This came hot on the heels of David Attenborough’s revelations that the oceans are chock-a-block with plastic that might kill baby whales. Who knew this stuff was happening to our precious planet?

Well, everybody knew, or at least we should have done. I’m guessing it was not news to Professor Richard Thompson, head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth. For more than 20 years, he has been researching the accumulation and consequences of litter in the oceans. He coined the term “microplastics”. Nor would there have been shock among the thousands of UK citizens who regularly scoop up plastic litter on beach cleans.

But for some reason we still wait for these rare, prime-time glimpses of the planet to give us permission to act on critical environmental issues. When a national treasure covers the natural world, a starting pistol is fired. Unfortunately, it’s in slow motion.

As tree-huggers, we are supposed to be grateful when “our issues” gain traction, but in reality we’re being thrown crumbs of airtime. This doesn’t add up to fast enough or deep change. Devolving advocacy to a few voices considered unimpeachable is a dangerous game. (Also, I do sometimes wonder how Sir David feels about having the entire Earth-defending genre placed on his shoulders at this stage in his career.)

So, in recent days I’ve been consumed with jealousy as the subject of religious literacy gets airtime in the wake of the BBC review. It seems to be considered rather important. Eco-literacy? Not so much. But without a huge cultural shift in how we approach sustainability, it’s not at all clear how the longed-for activists and disruptive innovators will emerge to solve massive issues such as the climate crisis.

It’s not just about wading through the science – although we do need to elevate the debate from “trees-are-nice-aren’t-they?” It’s about emotion and culture and purpose. Engaged, informed humans don’t design, manufacture and consume single-use plastic and chuck it in the sea in the first place.

If we were more enviro-literate might we be able to apply some ecological first principles to mainstream broadcasting? Healthy ecosystems are biodiverse; variety breeds abundance and resilience. We need loads of content about planet Earth, many different voices and lots of different narratives offering a fresh take on environmentalism as well as tried-and-tested favourites.

Sustainability and activism are no longer just about catastrophising or staring at beleaguered species in wonder. Instead, it’s about navigating the biggest period of change that humanity has encountered, such as the shift from fossil fuel to renewables. It’s an epic narrative, one surely made for TV.

Lucy Siegle is the Observer’s ethical living columnist