‘A Perfect Planet’ proves the power of data storytelling

Nature programmes are often a source of inspiration, but not always in the way you expect. Rupert Cornford shares what happened to his thinking about climate change during a recent episode of A Perfect Planet, and why sadness turned to hope, when looking at a computer graphic of a forest.

Have you been watching A Perfect Planet on the BBC recently? With everything going on in the world, the latest series from David Attenborough illustrates nature at its most beautiful. It unveils forests as living things, with billions of animals involved in their natural cycles. Ocean currents carry shoals of fish to predators and incubate the micro-organisms they depend on. In deserts, trees and shrubs resistant to heat, provide a safe haven for animals in extreme conditions. And the mountains, well, they are just awesome environments full of mystery and intrigue.

Watching life in its natural habitat can be calming for humans. While our connection with nature has been called into question, the evidence of what happens when we absorb our surroundings, suggests the world outside is more important than we give it credit for. Our natural reaction during the pandemic has been to get outside, feel the wind on our faces, and spend time in the one place we actually can. We know it intuitively, of course, but sometimes we have to be reminded of its value.

So, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch the final episode of the series. The programme was about humans, and something told me we weren’t going to come out of it very well. Our species is so dominant that our actions have disrupted other life forms and the natural balance of the climate. We all know about the impact of burning oil, gas and coal. Cutting down forests also ravages the habitats of animals and increases the risk of disease being passed on. And all of the carbon dioxide being released as a result? Some is going into the atmosphere, and some is being absorbed into the oceans, which is making them more acidic and impacting life below the water line.

From sadness to hope…

It’s a natural response for humans to start feeling bad about what is happening. If our actions have been causing such destruction, then our connection with the very thing that keeps us in balance, has faltered. Our mental health is bound to suffer because nature is suffering, and everything is connected, of course. I even felt sad recently when I was walking through the town where we live and saw an old oak tree getting chopped down.

But in the face of constant bad news about our climate and ecosystems, our stress response isn’t best equipped to find solutions for this warming world. Fear creates fear and avoidance. Ultimately, if we are not careful, apathy then kicks in. As a family, we are conscious of the plastic we use, but we also try to instil a sense of wonder in our children about the natural world and pick-up litter in our local area. We do what we can, but like everyone, we are learning all the time. I also realise that the systemic challenges of how we eat and farm, and the energy we use, are very complex.

So, as I sat there staring into the abyss, and watching my daughter with tears in her young eyes, David Attenborough thankfully changed tack. He shared some examples of projects that are helping to make a difference. There are ocean reserves, aimed at protecting against over-fishing, and indigenous communities in the Amazon harvesting seeds to regrow swathes of barren land. But it was another initiative that really got me thinking.

For the first time, a team of scientists has been able to fly over the forests of the world and map the amount of carbon being stored in the trees. Reds and oranges illustrate dense storage, while greens, yellows, and blues, showed lower concentrations. It was fascinating. Something inside me changed. I sat up a little straighter, I knew what I was looking at, and it made sense. The ability to measure and understand the contribution that trees and forests make to carbon storage is an important turning point. The scientists believed that if countries can actually begin to understand the true nature of their carbon sinks, then it will be easier for them to protect them, or at least work with them more carefully.

The power of data, with the right stories

A lot of people talk about the phrase ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ or ‘what gets measured, gets improved’. People can improve their sleep using smart technology, or the way their business develops, by understanding the numbers. There are also books that explore the state of the world, according to data. Factfulness, by the late Hans Rosling and his family, is just one of those that shows how far we have come. The data we create can help us to make very important decisions. It tells us what is actually happening, rather than what we think is happening, or would like to happen.

Because there is more data on climate, there is also a greater awareness about the impact of our actions. We have reached a tipping point in public understanding, and we are also starting to see action as a result. Companies including BrewDog have said they will plant a forest to help the company become ‘carbon negative’. I recently read about IKEA buying up 10,000 acres of woodland in Georgia to prevent it from being developed. In February 2021, a ground-breaking report from Cambridge University economist Dr Partha Dasgupta also suggested we need to reframe our impact on the natural world. Nature, he said, should be viewed as a diverse asset to be measured and accounted for within our economic system.

But during A Perfect Planet, I realised that data still needs help to tell its story. Even though I am someone with an interest in planetary health, a simple graphic of the tree canopy gave me a sense of optimism. It was more than numbers on a page, or a corporate headline; I felt pretty sure it would help more people to actually see the value of forests more clearly. As we transition to a low carbon society, it will be important to show the benefits of the natural world using tangible information. But I also believe that data will need to be presented in a way that brings these numbers to life and reveals the important stories it contains. Only then can we really buy into the positive change we are seeking to make.

What do you think? Please get in touch if you are interested in developing stories from data and share this article if it has resonated with you.