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Sir David Attenborough recently broke the fastest time to reach a million followers on Instagram in September. He debuted on the platform to promote his new book and Netflix documentary by the same title, “A Life on Our Planet.” Although the account is run by team members who worked on the film, the widely-acclaimed naturalist quickly accrued 6.1 million followers. He stated that his platform would be used to share videos meant to educate viewers about the climate crisis. 

27 posts and one month later, the account decided to cease posting, stating on October 31 that “This might be a wrap for this account – we won’t be posting anything else, though the account will stay open for you to watch David’s messages – but we hope it’s a springboard for many others to build on and share ways we might create a sustainable future.” Comments have also been disabled on posts.

The post implied that followers should listen to the new voices of the climate movement, and move on from David Attenborough as their primary source of information. The failure of this statement is ignoring the sheer power of the account, which could be continued on to introduce and amplify BIPOC activists who are at the helm of the climate movement. In short, pass the mic and share the power of his following.

Climate activist and mental health activist Tori Tsui (@toritsui_) called out the problem of Attenborough and his cult of personality, starting a campaign to the #PassTheMic and petitioning the account to be used to further environmental action by centering Indigenous and POC activists. She argues, alongside many others, that the account is a missed opportunity to continue galvanizing followers to act on the climate crisis. Some called the account “a gross misuse of influence” for only being used to promote the success of a single film. Intersectional fashion writer Aja Barber added, “If power were shared in environmental spaces people would actually know the names of BIPOC activists.” 

Tsui reached out to the account, the World Wildlife Fund, Silverback Films, Colin Butfield, Jonathan Hughes, and the Our Planet team – no promises were made yet. She also wrote a letter and posts directed toward Attenborough:

“At this point, all that’s really needed is to loan the space to those who share your messages. To amplify the voices of those who have lived in the shadows but who so deeply deserve the spotlight. Because a legacy is truly immortal when others are allowed to continue the work.”

Multiple activists have filmed videos (here and here) to explain how Attenborough, as someone who inspired their love of the planet, must recognize his responsibility to uplift their calls to action. As a privileged White man, he needs to de-center himself in order to keep the momentum. 

Often, individuals like Attenborough are idolized to the point that they can do no wrong, even if they do have a great narrative voice. These individuals are also by majority problematic White men (think John Muir who was racist.) Focusing on these individuals not only perpetuates harmful narratives, but ignores the work of Black, Brown, and Indigenous activists that work tirelessly to save the planet. Tsui made a post on this and provides a solution to the power imbalance found within the environmental movement: “inclusivity and collaboration!”

Attenborough has been criticized in the past by activists for furthering the overpopulation myth and placing too much responsibility on individuals rather than criticizing the larger capitalist and colonialist systems that allow fossil fuels to reign supreme. In her #PassTheMic post, Tsui wrote “I am disappointed that you focused on overpopulation, without tackling the climate crisis’ roots in overconsumption, colonialism and capitalism.” She also added a list of climate activists to follow and support.

A petition is posted on the Fridays for Future website to collect signatures to encourage Attenborough and his team to share the wealth of their platform to make real change. It concludes, “Instead of allowing your Instagram account to lay dormant we, and the supporters/sign notarize below, implore you to hand it over to youth activists, environmentalists, conservationists and frontline communities to mobilise the audience in the ways outlined in this letter.” 

As of November 11, it has over 1200 signatures, including mine. If you follow the David Attenborough account and want to see more content to learn how you can help fight the climate crisis, add your name! Remember, we need everyone to fix this problem, and not just activists, either. David Attenborough’s documentaries will never be enough on their own.

Sophia Chapin

George Mason University '21

Sophia Chapin is an alumni of George Mason University. Her articles reflect a journey of learning about environmental and social justice issues.
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