02 Apr 2007 THE ABUNDANCE OF LIFE
My pet archive spin-off project is the idea of a documentary series about biodiversity.
That was my reason for attending Wildscreen 2006. It was the opportunity to meet producers and senior TV executives and talk to them about my concept, which has the working title The Abundance of Life.
It was always the longest of long shots. As a last throw of the dice, I today sent the concept to the Head of Development at the BBC Natural History Unit. In my covering letter I made it clear that I wanted to entrust the concept entirely to the NHU because I feel that it is uniquely able to make the kind of series I have in mind. Moreover I have no desire to be a filmmaker or cinematographer, even though I would be happy to help develop the concept and possibly be involved in other ways.
Should anything happen you’ll hear about it. Meanwhile I am publishing the material on this site: ‘You read it HERE first’.
THE ABUNDANCE OF LIFE
Planet earth is teeming with life. Only a fraction of all the species (about 1.8 million) have been named by science, out of a total figure which ranges from a conservative 13 million to a wild 111 million. These myriad species belong to a number of major groups or taxa which are the key to explaining the abundance of life. And the only word which encapsulates the totality and interconnectedness of species – is biodiversity.
Until now all natural history documentaries have been about aspects of biodiversity. This documentary series for an international viewing audience – THE ABUNDANCE OF LIFE – will venture into uncharted territory by having biodiversity as its subject matter.
Biodiversity is a seminal word which is now widely used in the media and in conversation but is far less widely understood. The series will bridge the gap in understanding by not only explaining the basic science of biodiversity’s ultimate and compelling inclusiveness, but by also enabling the audience to appreciate what it is like to live cheek by jowl with outstanding biodiversity. Like it or not, biodiversity is the only game in town. It is inescapable, ceaseless and everywhere.
There are millions of people worldwide who are interested in biodiversity and are concerned about the threats to its sustainability. Their numbers are rapidly increasing and it is high time for them to be better informed about a subject which they sense is crucial to the well-being of our planet. These millions alone would provide a ready-made audience for the series, justifying its blue chip designation. By simultaneously addressing both the audience’s interest and concern, the series would have two powerful hooks with which to lure the viewer.
This landmark series will challenge certain conventions of the natural history documentary, for instance, concerning the range and number of species shown, the criteria for selecting locations, and the series’ emphasis – what is regarded as important.
“The Abundance of Life” series is about the remarkable presence of the incalculable number and variety of species with which we share our planet, from microbes in the soil, air and water, to the mightiest trees and whales. It is about how we make sense out of this vast presence by identifying and grouping each species as it becomes known to science and by studying the key ways in which species relate to one another. And most tellingly, it is about how the abundance of life reveals itself in one small place on earth.
I am an artist. My medium for the past 12 years has been digital video tape and my subject has been filming the biodiversity where I live. Further information about me can be found on my website www.biodiversity.com.au by clicking on PRESS on the bottom information bar.
April 2007 – revised January 2010
THE ABUNDANCE OF LIFE
CONCEPT DISCUSSION PAPER
The purpose of this paper is to argue the need, at long last, for a wildlife documentary series which will go that step further and tackle the subject of biodiversity head on, rather than continue to focus on aspects of biodiversity, and to consider some key requirements for and major implications of, making such a series.
The idea for a documentary series on biodiversity resulted from an ongoing video archive project of mine which I began in 1998, recording the biodiversity of Tamborine Mountain, my home in mega-diverse, sub-tropical South East Queensland, Australia. My published archive to date is on 12 DVDs (issued in late 2005) comprising thousands of shots showing rainforest, fungi, earth, orchids, plants, vegetables, fruit, the weather, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, marsupials, grasses, lichen, moss, vines, frogs, worms, leeches, snails and more. In late 2009, Supplements 1-3, filmed in HDV, were issued as a 3 disc set. The combined running time is 21 ½ hours.
Since first publishing the archive, I realised that in as much as it is about the Mountain’s biodiversity, which is on a par with that of nearby World Heritage-listed wilderness areas, it is also about presenting biodiversity as a subject on digital video (at least as far as embracing all the species is concerned). I have been engaged on the subject of biodiversity in this way now for twelve years.
THREE KEY REQUIREMENTS
A key requirement for making the series will be to explain in a basic way, the science of biodiversity.
Linnaeus’ system of species identification, dating from the eighteenth century, still holds good with its binomial method of naming species – which cuts across the variability and unreliability of common names – and its placing of species into a heirarchy of ever larger groups, now culminating in domains or superkingdoms, via genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom. A consequence of the enormous increase in the number of species known to science has been the addition of numerous ranks to Linnaeus’ original heirarchy. Identifying and naming species conforms to four strict, internationally agreed codes of nomenclature, each maintained by its corresponding learned body.
The renowned American entomologist and inspiring conservationist, Edward O. Wilson, who, in 1988, was the first person to use the word biodiversity in print – is extremely helpful when it comes to surveying the totality of recorded species. According to him, all the earth’s species known to science can be gathered into 8 groups, dominated by insects and higher plants and including viruses and bacteria. His species-scape, which excludes viruses and some minor invertebrate groups, yields 19 major groupings, of which mammals are the least numerous – meaning that there are more species of amphibians, bacteria and sponges. For good measure, Wilson also identifies 6 major higher plant groups and 18 major groups of animals.
Only 1 of the 19 groupings, Echinodermata, in Wilson’s species-scape is exclusively oceanic, although two more are overwhelmingly so. But within these groupings there are freshwater sponges and Hydra. The terrestrial groupings occur on most of the earth’s land, although not all occur in true desert and the frozen world of perpetual ice. Only 1 of the groupings, Amphibians, is exclusively terrestrial. Insects are overwhelmingly so, but there are some dozen genuine marine insect species. Most of all known species are land-based, thanks to the insects and higher plants, which account for more than two thirds of the total.
RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN SPECIES
Just as all species can be placed into a number of broad groups, the countless ways in which species interact with other species can be deciphered from just 5 pivotal kinds of relationship, namely: predator/prey, symbiotic, parasitic, co-operative, competitive. The series will cite examples of the relationships which commonly occur between different flora or fauna species and between flora and fauna species – such as that between plants and frugivores – and will touch on the myriad relationships Homo sapiens has with other life forms, so that the viewer will be able to sense the interconnectedness of all the species.
Another key requirement will be to present an overview of the conditions in which biodiversity exists on earth
– from ocean bed to mountain peak, on and deep below, the surface of the land, in the soil, the air and in the built environment. Indeed a theme of the series will be the way biodiversity makes use of man-made structures and objects.
A third key requirement will be to enable the audience to appreciate what it is like to live cheek by jowl with outstanding biodiversity.
Success here depends on the choice of a principal location.
Because of its subject matter the series will challenge certain conventions of the natural history documentary, for instance concerning the range and number of species shown, the criteria for choosing locations and the series’ emphasis – what is held to be important.
Range and number of species
The long and fascinating history of the Linnaean system of species identification is worth recounting, since it remains the starting point for how we make sense out of the presence of all the species.
Edward O. Wilson’s groupings, whether of all known species, or of animals, or higher plants, or his species-scape, provide a manageable context for defining the range of species from which the series will select the examples it brings to the screen. By emphasising relationships between species based on the pivotal kinds of relationship, rather than life cycles, the interconnectedness of species which is at the heart of the meaning of biodiversity, will be revealed.
Criteria for choosing locations
In order to indicate the conditions in which biodiversity exists on earth, the series will need to be filmed in many different locations – at the polar regions, on shore, prairie, ocean floor and mountain peak, in mangrove, mine, cave, volcanic crater, desert, forests, river, lake and sea, in the soil and the air and in the built environment.
But, in order for the audience to appreciate what it is like to live cheek by jowl with outstanding biodiversity, imagine instead of choosing some vast river or marine park, as the principal location for the series, choosing a separate and mega-diverse place which can be seen in its entirety from 1500 metres in the air. A place with which the audience can all the more readily identify because the biodiversity co-exists and interacts with a human population living in much the same way as the audience. A place where the biodiversity can be revealed in its complete setting, an island in the sky, allowing the viewer the realisation that all the species shown, occur, crucially, in this one small place on earth.
What is important
The series cannot be about ‘picking favourites’, the stock-in-trade of so many natural history documentaries. It is axiomatic that each of life’s varied and abundant forms in a series about biodiversity, is as worthy of inclusion as any other, even though some species play a crucial role in maintaining variety within a given ecosystem and others don’t.
There will neither be the need nor the time for the series to dwell on another stock-in-trade, what I call death as a spectator sport. Instead, the series will show examples of the key relationships between species, of which predator/prey is but one.
A profound reality about biodiversity is that it is everywhere, where you expect it to be and where you don’t. It is present and active 24 hours a day, every day of the year. One of the exciting challenges of making the series will be to take this reality to heart. In terms of the principal location, if not all locations, it will mean devising a shooting schedule to cover nocturnal species as fully as diurnal species.
April 2007 – revised January 2010
NB The 2011 BBC series ‘Wonders of the Universe’ had a strong basic science content.