Nature Fakers

Shows like Planet Earth bring us further from the natural world than ever

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In the opening pages of Dark Ecology, philosopher and eco-theorist Tim Morton writes about “a 12,000-year structure” that has led us into the maw of the current climate crisis. This structure, they argue, is “the slowest and perhaps most effective weapon of mass destruction yet devised” — something so ingrained into the way we interface with the world that it has instilled in us a teleology of ecological ruin. The culprit: “nature” itself.

They’re not referring to the trees, bugs, elephants, water lilies, birds, and others that we encounter when we step outside. Rather, their target is the idea of nature: the conceptual expanse that contains all those elements and is always, in Morton’s words, “‘over there,’ underneath, just round the corner… definitively outside the human.” Morton isn’t alone in their view; over the past few decades, a skeptical eye toward nature-as-concept has been finding an ever-growing base of support among those seeking environmental justice.

Cutting-edge techniques allowed us to look “closer than ever before,” implying a link between looking and preservation

Framed as something that exists outside the human domain, this concept has made it easy for us to neglect and exploit the world around us. After all, if nature lives outside of us, what have we got to do with it? Of course, as we look at our impact, it’s clear that we have everything to do with it. There never was a separation between humans and nature. Instead, we are, and always have been, tangled up in it, part of it such that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. The advocates pushing for recognition of the Anthropocene as the current geological epoch hope to emphasize precisely this entanglement when they argue that we are in an ecological moment primarily defined by human impact on the climate and ecosystem.

This concept of nature is sustained by the media that surrounds us. My understanding of planet Earth was formed not just through direct experience of the outdoors, but through the books I read, the art I engaged with, the films I digested. It took shape when I first watched March of the Penguins, gained solidity when I was introduced to the paintings of the Hudson River School, and established its edges as I flipped through the image-saturated pages of National Geographic. It’s a concept we’ve largely inherited from the Romantics, who viewed the natural world as a space of transcendence, separate from the human world, where we could catch glimpses of the sublime by engaging with aesthetics — “mend[ing] the bridge between subject and object” severed by industrialization, as Morton summarizes.

Today, the transcendent view of nature is still linked with, and disseminated through media and aesthetics. The “transcendent” representational mode — one that reinforces “nature” as boundless, expansive, separate from human affairs — has become standard, adapting and refining itself with each media paradigm, from painting to print to TV. In this moment of ecological collapse, it becomes critical for us to engage with these representations, to understand the ways of seeing that have led us here, and to explore how new representations could take their place. From filmmakers to artists to hobbyists, there are those seeking to articulate new ways of seeing in the Anthropocene. In doing so, they’re working to dissolve the conceptual boundaries that have led us to the precipice of cataclysm, constructing new visions of ourselves enmeshed in the world we live in.

In 2016, some friends and I crammed into a room together to watch the first episode of Planet Earth 2. As we readied the popcorn, Sir David Attenborough — with his familiar, sagely voice — came onscreen. Flying above an icy mountain range in a hot air balloon, draped in a blue puffer jacket, he began the show with a promise: “We can now show life on our planet in entirely new ways, bring you closer to animals than ever before, and reveal new wildlife dramas for the very first time.” The world had changed in the 10 years since the first Planet Earth, he went on; the stakes were higher than ever before, and technology had improved. The natural world had fallen into a new state of precarity, while cutting-edge techniques allowed us to look closer than ever before; a link was implied between looking and preservation, ignoring the link between technology and this state of precarity.

The program we were about to watch, Attenborough said, would take us to “every corner” of the globe and show us the wildernesses that remained. As he spoke, the score crescendoed into a majestic peak, and clips showing savage dramas of survival filled the screen: a lioness hunting a giraffe, colossal waves crashing against a rocky cliff, a battle of snow leopards. I got goosebumps. Now here was nature, not the mundane stuff I saw when I looked outside, but the real deal — and served to me on a silver platter, in the comfort of my own home.

Nature, Planet Earth wants us to believe, is a space filled with mythic struggles that transcend time, bearing greater resemblance to a Greek epic than a day at the national park

This transcendent style of “nature” programming is not wholly new. Before technology had progressed to the point where producers could reliably film wildlife, novelists like Ernest Thompson Seton and Williams J. Long wrote gripping stories about animal life in fantastic form, leaning on suspense, drama, and charm at every turn. Because these stories were written as if purely observational, they were able to position themselves as research and align themselves with the sciences. Debates around this form of representation are not new, either: Then president Teddy Roosevelt called it an “outrage” that these stories were presented as truth rather than as “fables,” and railed against the “nature fakers.” At heart was a concern that these stories would create a fundamentally flawed relationship with nature itself.

As print transitioned into video, the equation of dramatized accounts with empirical observation only solidified. Seeing was believing. Disney’s True-Life Adventures series, started in 1949, promised a “story strange as fantasy, yet a story straight from the realm of fact,” while purposefully downplaying the extent to which their narratives were constructed. Like Planet Earth, these Disney productions featured a narrator speaking over wildlife footage, structuring raw and unrelated footage into easily digestible narratives and morality tales. “Nature writes the screenplays,” they claimed, and “we add the words for the narrator to say.”

If this “nature-transcendent” genre has a torchbearer today, there’s little doubt it’s Sir Attenborough and the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Though the BBC NHU was founded in 1957, it would gain unprecedented popularity in the 2000s and 2010s with its Planet Earth and Blue Planet series, and dozens of imitators and lookalikes would follow in its wake.

Flourishes vary by series and episode, but the style the NHU honed more recently is defined by a few consistent pillars. First, its aesthetic: Grounded in realer-than-real imagery, the NHU style promises to give us “never before seen” sights at every turn. This perspective would be impossible to capture without the aid of ultra-HD lenses, military-grade night vision, and millions of dollars in funding. As a result, we get an effect that is, as Emma Marris writes in the Atlantic, “impossible to achieve in person with our soft, imperfect, biological eyes. What I am watching from beneath my blankets is in some measurable way more beautiful than real life.” The camera here doesn’t aim to make it feel as if you were there. Rather, it strives for omniscience, a perspective in which nothing is out of reach, nothing too distant, veiled, or small to remain unseen. We soar through skies, stalk the brush, glide across seemingly impossible scenes, slicing through the wild with an effortlessness unattainable in any embodied experience.

Another of NHU’s pillars is its narrative style: As Luis Vivanco writes, this is an “entertainment-driven mode of cinema existing somewhere between representation and simulation.” Here, drama reigns supreme. If you’ve ever gone camping after watching one of these programs, you might be shocked at the sheer mundaneness of the natural world. In Planet Earth, the hunt, the chase, life and the possibility of death saturate every move with meaning — with the occasional light gag to keep things from becoming too morose. Nevermind that clips of different animals are often edited together for narrative continuity, or that musical cues and orchestral backing are used to elicit predetermined emotional responses, or that diegetic sounds are often added after the fact by sound designers. Nature, the program wants us to believe, is a space filled with mythic struggles that transcend time, bearing greater resemblance to a Greek epic than a day at the national park. We can bear witness to them thanks to the show’s producers and their cutting-edge technologies.

While the “transcendent nature” genre has a long lineage, the NHU brings it to its apex, crafting a vision of nature that is “hyper-real.” That is, a vision of “nature” above and beyond any encounter we’re likely to have with nature, overflowing with beauty and conveniently free of mosquitoes, boredom, or feet sore from hiking. In doing so, however, it severs us from the natural world, our human experience forever falling short of the constructed/simulated nature we’re assured is out there. As Sean Cubitt notes in his 2005 book Eco Media, where he analyzes contemporary popular media through an ecological lens, “the model of pristine nature is as politically responsible for the division of humans from nature as humanity’s assaults on the green world.” In watching, we are assured that despite our continued decimation, these spaces still flourish in an Edenesque state, teeming with activity. We can sit back and let “nature” do its own thing, a world apart from ours.

It doesn’t help that these series rarely, if ever, depict any actual people, or the destruction they leave in their wake. In fact, it’s only toward the end of Planet Earth 2, in an episode titled “Cities,” that we see any humans that aren’t Attenborough, an exception that proves the rule. Despite the occasional reminders of man-made climate change that bookend many episodes, everything else (visually, narratively) seems to urge us to forget the human — going from the episodes alone, you wouldn’t even know that we existed on the same planet.

As Vivanco notes, this style, with its “decontextualized visions of sublime nature devoid of humans,” encourages the viewer to situate themselves as an “observer, not an interpreter” — a passive viewer, not an active subject tasked with critically engaging with the scene at hand. Satiated by these images of a prelapsarian nature that appears to be thriving outside the domain of human life, we easily forget those ecosystems that actually surround us, the network of responsibilities that we are implicated in everyday. As William Cronon puts it, we begin to believe that “the place where we are is the place where nature is not,” and “if this is so… then also by definition [human life] can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us.”

What would an alternative mode of seeing look like? When we look at the field of alternative eco-media today, we see a manifold approach, situated in different contexts, mediums, and responding to different concerns. Yet one thing ties these approaches together. They all center the greatest natural disaster the planet has witnessed in millennia: us.

A critical challenge facing us in the Anthropocene is the simple difficulty of seeing ourselves at scale. Western thought has long focused on carving us out as individuals — the Christian soul, the Cartesian ego — a self-formed subject first and foremost, with relations falling secondarily. Understanding ourselves and the role we play within this ecological moment, however, requires a radical reversal in self-perception. Morton articulates this challenge well:

Every time I start my car or steam engine I don’t mean to harm Earth, let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet… Furthermore, I’m not harming Earth! My key turning is statistically meaningless…. But go up a level and something very strange happens. When I scale up these actions to include billions of key turnings and billions of coal shovelings, harm to Earth is precisely what is happening. I am responsible as a member of this species for the Anthropocene.

Thinking about the magnitude of what we’ve done — and are doing — to this planet isn’t just hard because it forces us to reckon with the wrongs we’ve committed. It’s hard because our brains are poorly equipped to conceptualize large numbers, a fact that underlies our inability to grasp concepts like federal budget or Covid deaths as well as our role in climate change. But a corpus of films, arising in response to the “transcendent” mode encapsulated by Planet Earth, tackles this representational challenge by visualizing human life in a way that gives us a glimpse of the massive organism we collectively belong to.

Koyaanisqatsi  — a Hopi word for “crazy life,” as we are told at the end of the film — opens with flames, the awesome and terrible conflagration of a rocket launch. Though we may have seen rocket launches from afar (on TV, the camera a safe distance away), director Godfrey Reggio takes us close. Images of hellfire fill the screen, while a score by Philip Glass, composed of chanted repetitions of the word “Koyaanisqatsi,” accentuates the sublime horror of the scene. As the rocket launches, we cut to a mountain range as grand as anything we might find in an NHU production. Mythic shots of clouds, sky, sand, earth, and water fill our vision. Suddenly, an explosion, a cascade of rubble, and the elemental shots give way to images of steel and glass. We’re whisked away to man-made towers as massive as those mountains, and the images resonate in uncanny synchronicity: buildings referring back to windblown carved rock, rivers that echo against the mass movement of human bodies.

There were some, like the late Roger Ebert, who thought the film an overly sentimental “mankind bad/nature good” film. For him, the fact that these images of nature and humankind stood in parallel, rather than in contrast, was an unintended flaw. “All of the images in this movie are beautiful, even the images of man despoiling the environment,” he writes. “The first shot of smokestacks is no doubt supposed to make us recoil in horror, but actually I thought they looked rather noble.” Yet I’d argue this is the point of Koyaanisqatsi. Rather than present a reductive view of the man/nature dichotomy, the film challenges the validity of those categories.

The film takes many visual elements from the “transcendent” mode of nature representation — the emphasis on scale, the realer-than-real imagery, impossible perspectives that hint at omniscience — and applies them to humanity. It positions our human creations in the same way that Planet Earth might position its mountains, forests, and jungles. In doing so, it elevates us to the realm of the sublime, thought to be the purview of nature, and gives us glimpses of the “hyper-object” (as Morton coins it), that “massively distributed thing” that is our species. Scaled up, humanity is seen as a force of nature, with all the wonder and horror that entails. Koyaanisqatsi is a nature documentary about humans.

This filmic strategy has been repeated through the intervening decades. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, released in 2018, uses a similar visual schema to show the ways human activity is impacting the Earth at a truly global scale. Though this film is more structured than Koyaanisqatsi, and shows the occasional interview along with voiceover, the backbone is also composed of massive imagery: industrial machinery carving the Earth more powerfully than any river or volcano, a poetics of steel and flame that ties us to geologic forces. What Koyaanisqatsi did through poetry, Anthropocene does more linearly, through a mix of visual marvel and exposition.

While this strategy of “humanity-as-nature” filmmaking can help us collapse the human/nature divide, this mode has its flaws. In relying so heavily on a non-embodied, non-human perspective, it can alienate us from our own affairs, just as nature-transcendent documentaries can alienate us from the natural world. When I see shots of highways as wide as any river, an assembly line of faceless men and women roaring down the paved road, I may acknowledge rationally that I am one of them, while finding it hard to locate myself in the mass. I feel a fissure between myself and the whole, and these alien images only inspire despair. To internalize these scenes, we need a medium that emphasizes the minute, the banal, the everyday.

Michael Wang is a New York–based artist who confronts global, dispersed systems by attending to the local and particular. One of his pieces, World Trade, brought steel from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, sold and recycled in the aftermath of the attack, back to New York, “along the same pathways (container ships, trucks) that it left.” In this way, the local becomes a synecdoche for the global currents of trade and capital that flow through it. His most recent piece, Extinct in New York, applies this logic to the environment by reintroducing species formerly native to New York, but which no longer grow wild in the five boroughs. He cultivates them in carefully controlled biomes, which are presented to viewers in a series of closed-off greenhouses.

When he talks about Extinct in New York — as well as a similar piece, Extinct in the Wild, for which he cultivated plants now grown solely in captivity — he emphasizes the fact that he “wanted to show the double-edged effect of Homo sapiens on other species. On the one hand, nearly all the species’ extinctions in this project are related in some way to human actions. But their survival is also contingent on human preservation.” For Wang, these pieces explore the complicated relations of dependence and exploitation that make up our relationship to the green world. The local leads us back to the complex and systemic.

Wang’s pieces are intensely intimate and place-bound, but interrogate distributed systems as effectively as any grand “humanity-as-nature” film like Koyaanisqatsi or Anthropocene. Moreover, by supporting these organisms with man-made materials (glass, steel) in an “artificial” environment, Wang shows the interdependence of those terms while employing a logic of care. The delicacy of these plants — which we might otherwise ignore on the street or in a park — preserved in special settings shows how precarious they are, and how valuable. Invoking the human labor and care that was necessary to bring these plants (so mundane, so miraculous) to us encourages us to see the world around us differently, take it less for granted.

Despite the occasional reminders of man-made climate change, everything else seems to urge us to forget the human

Care may seem like an overly saccharine or insufficiently radical principle around which to formulate an eco-ethics, but by doing so, Wang attaches himself to a philosophical tradition pioneered by ecofeminists, long attuned to the ways in which false binaries have been used to justify domination. This tradition focuses on an “ethics of caring friendship, or ‘a loving eye,’ as a principle for relationships with nature,” as Margarita Estévez-Saá and María Jesús Lorenzo-Modia write in Women’s Studies. The interpersonal components of care find rhyme and rhythm in Wang’s work, which uses the particular to reckon with the global.

As we look through the fringes of eco-media, care arises again and again as a common thread. Filmmakers like James Benning emphasize it in works like Ten Skies, a 100-minute affair composed solely of 10-minute single takes of 10 different skies in California. By focusing so intently on something we encounter daily, we begin to appreciate the nuance, range, and dynamism of this object we call “sky.” This attention isn’t without political bite, as it lets us begin to notice the ways that “skies and cloud formations chosen by Benning are affected by pollution from an industrial factory, jet trails, and smoke from an accidental wildfire,” as Acropolis Cinema notes. Perhaps that is why the Slow Cinema movement— a school of filmmaking based on long takes, slow plotting, and stylistic opposition to the fast cuts and rapid narratives popularized by Hollywood —  has been so closely linked to Eco-Media. By emphasizing sustained attention and durational immersion, the Slow Cinema style has proven to be a valuable ally when it comes to helping audiences see, and care, differently. As the famous José Ortega y Gasset quote goes, “tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

Interestingly, elements of this “Eco-Care” genre can be found in popular online media, where attention is normally held hostage by speed and spectacle. One YouTube account, Foo the Flowerhorn, has attracted 1.66M subscribers by posting updates on a series of nano-aquariums — small ecosystems populated by krill, mollusks, and fish that read as distant cousins of Michael Wang’s installations. Here, attention and care is applied at a pond-scum-scale (“this guy takes care of his shrimps better than most parents take care of their child,” one top comment reads). Though these videos are often slow, at least by YouTube standards, they have attracted a loyal following.

Viewers often express surprise at just how engaging this content is. “Me usually: has no patience whatsoever / me watching this video: watches the whole thing patiently with no idea of what’s happening,” claims another comment, with 21k likes. There seems to be a thirst for sustained engagement with the “unremarkable” organic world that surrounds us, an unarticulated desire stemming from the sense of disengagement we feel with that world overall.

Artists like Wang, filmmakers like Benning, and YouTubers like Foo might seem to form an unlikely school, but their work enables a perceptual shift that allows us to see the world around us in slightly different hues. Theorists like Scott Macdonald gesture toward this shift when they write that “the job of an ecocinema is to provide new kinds of film experience that… help to nurture a more environmentally progressive mindset.” They remind us that we should care for nature, not because it is transcendent or majestic, but because it performs the simple, everyday miracle of existing.

As we continue to negotiate our visual culture in the Anthropocene, these dialogues help us explore and assess new ways of seeing and relating to the ecosystems around us. The nature/humanity dichotomy has structured our relationship to this planet for so long that unseating it is difficult to imagine. To this day, some of the most popular programming perpetuates this separation. But it’s encouraging to see new provocations, moving out of the insular worlds of art and academia and onto more accessible platforms like YouTube.

The slowness and narrative opacity these alternative modes employ requires a critically engaged audience. Otherwise, these works risk becoming visual furniture, commoditized vibes — one can easily imagine Benning’s films played in a crowded cocktail bar as backdrop. The gravity of the moment might make it seem frivolous to focus on media and art. But little perceptual shifts can add up over time — small changes in what we pay attention to, and how. These alone aren’t enough to collapse the systems that created and perpetuate the climate crisis. Yet by suggesting even the capacity to see and care differently, they gesture toward possibility. Imagining better ways of relating to the natural world, and the possible futures they entail, has never been more important — and that, after all, is what art is for.

Leo Kim is a writer based in New York. He covers film for the zine From the Intercom, and spends most of his spare time wading through contemporary image culture.