The rusted insignia of the hammer and the sickle. Walls rotting, cracking into pieces like soil during a drought. Chairs sitting in abandonment. Among a sea of tattered books and a room of shattered glass, emerges the 94-year old naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Fredrick Attenborough in his new documentary A Life on Our Planet. Standing in the ghost town of Pripyat, abandoned by civilization almost 60-years ago as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, David Attenborough begins an intimate address of his witness statement.
He reminds us that while the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, “a result of bad planning and human error”, was a disastrous event in human history, it is only one tragic example from a long list of errors made by us. Human mistakes, perhaps no less harmful, continuously occur across the globe. These errors have overrun the natural world and led to a steep decline in the planet’s biodiversity. Just as Chernobyl did, is the Earth too heading towards becoming uninhabitable?
Though Attenborough humbly appreciates how extraordinary his life spent exploring the wild has been, his experiences through time have taught him that the wild is finite and needs protecting. He describes how centuries ago humans had arrived at a stage where their “predators were eliminated and diseases were controlled.” Once we felt that there was nothing left to stop us, our wants grew endlessly and we kept exhausting the Earth in an unsustainable manner.
The documentary highlights a trajectory of instances where the growing demand of our species has led to the ruin of the non-human world: deforestation of the Borneo rainforest, the decline of Orangutans, animals pursued to extinction, overfishing, warming of the Arctic summers, depleting freshwater and the turning of coral reefs to white. While the bleaching of coral reefs is mistaken to many as a beautiful phenomenon, it is a tragedy draped in white as it signifies the dying of the reefs. But there’s more to the documentary. It isn’t just another story about the global decline of nature.
Although the documentary begins by acknowledging how we have threatened the stability of our planet, it goes further to show that there is still hope for us. We stand a chance against our own mistakes if we find ways to live sustainably and reintegrate back with nature. Using the comfort of Attenborough’s voice to intimately describe his experiences in the wild, the documentary seems to invite its viewers to be concerned about the environment not out of guilt, but perhaps out of responsibility. The documentary attempts to evoke a sense of collective consciousness toward our planet’s climate crisis.
Throughout history, collective consciousness has played a role in bringing about change in different realms of society. In the environmental realm, such an instance of change is mentioned in the documentary when Attenborough describes how people’s perception towards the killing of whales was changed in the 1970s. Many environmental groups pushed the agenda against the whaling industry which sparked widespread public discussion on the issue. The harvest of whales was eventually made a crime as a result of the formation of shared consciousness revolving around the issue of whaling.
Since the development of collective consciousness can have such a profound impact, it is natural to question how such consciousness is created in the first place. What unites people to form similar beliefs? Are there particular sources that help in the creation of collective consciousness? Have these sources transformed over time? How can we create a collective consciousness in today’s world?
Before attempting to answer these questions, let us first look at the origin of the concept. The French theorist and sociologist Emile Durkheim was one of the first to coin the term. He recognised that while people had individual moral principles, they were often bound to one another by culture and shared a sense of solidarity with each other.
According to Durkheim, the phenomenon resulted in a set of beliefs, ideas and principles which was shared collectively by many individuals in society. One of the biggest driving forces for the development of collective consciousness was the fact that it created a sense of belonging among people.
Over time, the source of collective consciousness changed. In his book The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim suggests that primitive and modern societies followed different models of solidarity. Primitive societies followed a “mechanical model”. People in such societies were united by shared beliefs, religious practices and ideas. This was a time when people’s attributes were homogeneous in nature, they didn’t work in different economic branches. Thus, people in primitive societies were mainly similar to one another. They shared unifying experiences.
The forms of collective consciousness we see today have been influenced by the attributes of modern society. Durkheim terms the social integration of such societies as “organic solidarity”. Modern economies are based on the division of labour and this creates a whole range of classes. People now have different jobs, believe in different gods, practise different religions and in general have very different experiences. However, since people have specialised roles in society, they are bound to be dependent on each other. The dissimilarity, the heterogeneity among people has created solidarity as a result of a high level of interdependence.
Even though it seems that people now lead very individual lives, we still have found ways to express ideas and build collective consciousness. In the early days of modern societies, the advent of mass communication was one of the biggest sources boosting the dissemination of ideas widely and quickly. Different forms of the media gave us ways to not only to express our ideas but also created spaces where we could affirm them. While the media was initially used as a means to distribute ideas, it also became a means to influence the existing ones and create new kinds of ideas that shaped the consciousness of the collective.
Even in the case of whaling, radio, television and print media were widely used to create the collective consciousness. Songs, films and literature on Whales grew to such an extent that Whales became popular personalities. People started viewing whales as creatures that needed to be protected. Thus, the media played an important role in building collective consciousness against whaling. This eventually led to the growth of anti-whaling activism.
As technology progressed, we experienced a shift in the source responsible for the expression of ideas. In today’s world, that source is the internet. In the past, collective consciousness emerged from sources such as holy scriptures, traditional beliefs or big media houses. Now, with the power of the internet, all those with access to the internet have the ability to influence and shape the collective consciousness with varying degrees. Every element on the internet exists with the possibility of being a part of the collective consciousness.
David Attenborough’s documentary A Life on Our Planet, has come out in times where the internet is perhaps the most important source for shaping the collective consciousness. But he started imparting his influence much before the advent of the internet.
Back in the 1950s, people didn’t know what Pythons, Pangolins and most other animals looked like. He was one of the first people to bring documentaries of the wild and the natural world to television screens. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to have regular access to television, we have grown up watching Attenborough’s documentaries and listening to voice. His appreciation of the natural world has been contagious and has inspired many. Thus, when a personality like Attenborough publicly immerses himself in ecological activism, he comes with the powerful ability to push the collective consciousness to care about the planet.
Along with changing times, Attenborough too has updated by taking some of his activism online. He now uses Instagram to raise awareness about climate change. His latest documentary landed on Netflix, a popular streaming platform especially among the youth. Although his activism through these different platforms contributes towards the creation of collective consciousness towards the environment, it is up to us to manifest our consciousness in a way that can bring about change.
Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.
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