Cox vs. Attenborough

I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s Wonders of Life series, an exploration of life fronted by physics champ Brian Cox. This has been queued up in my “background watching pile to do while ironing” since it aired last month. I detest ironing; thus the month-long delay.

My conclusion is that – like most of Britain’s national treasure – David Attenborough is tainted coin, and he needs to be retired: immediately.

But if we are to accept his anointed successor, Brian Cox, there is surely a high price to pay. The choppy haired one may try to hide it, but most people I know cringe at his messiah complex. He may wear shades and t-shirts, but a disguise can’t obscure the traditional marks of privilege: white, male, scientist. He is also a fundamentalist, reducing all he shows us to the laws of physics. His style is already a (truly hilarious) parody of itself. But these costs would be worth paying if we could get rid of the old nature toff, Davey A.

For Cox’s 6-episode Wonders of Life did something new. It showed us a glimpse of what the natural world might look like without Nature. Nature, here, is that hackneyed fantasy of wilderness. Exotic lands emptied of people (or at least cleared out while the cameras roll). Programmes full of strange beasts which, despite their radical difference to us, seem to live out very anthropomorphic dramas.

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Hmm… renowned biophilosopher Brian Cox unleashes his reductionist powers on Deleuze et al…

Attenborough’s Africa – the series (Jan 2012), certainly not to be confused with the real place – was dire. It was mired in old stereotypes of conflict or survival of the fittest, and seasoned with dashes of old-school colonial racism. Attenborough is leftover plunder from an era when Nature dared not speak its name.

Instead of a mythic dream of Nature, Cox’s series showed us a thrumming circuit of energy. Entropy, scaled adaptation to gravity, water, shared-but-different sense perception – each of these showed a world made of diverse beings, but united. This wasn’t the same old “we’re just like chimpanzees”. The Wonders of Life showed us beings with different interests, living on different worlds, but who must learn to get on. We need to understand these things. We need to let go of the old myths of the wild.

Cox’s series held out the prospect of a truly insightful nature programme. What is missing is of course politics. Since he is so obsessed by energy, what Cox needs to do is to front a programme dedicated to showing how modern capitalists, in all our greedy, magnificent, ugly, world-bending hunger, have oriented a staggering 24% of the energy of the globe’s forms of life into our service. Starting in Cox’s world, the BBC could make such a programme really count for something. It would be revolutionary. Sticking to Attenborough’s world will doom us all.

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