Last Chance To See Our Planet: 30 Years, 2 Reviews, 1 Earth

Despite his popularity as a science fiction writer, the late author Douglas Adams championed the value of planet Earth. In the late 1980s, he teamed up with zoologist Mark Cawardine for a BBC radio series called Last Chance to See, in which the pair tracks endangered species around the globe. Adams’ 1990 book chronicling the adventures in more detail bears the same name, but could be subtitled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Extinction and Human Myopathy”. It’s one of those rare books that makes you laugh aloud on one page, then punches you in the gut on the next. Each chapter chronicles the search for one species:

  • Aye-aye (Madagascar)
  • Komodo dragos (Indonesia)
  • Kakapo (New Zealand)
  • Mountain gorilla (Zaire, which made me feel rather old because I learned this name in childhood geography studies before it became the DR Congo in 1997)
  • Northern white rhinoceros (Zaire)
  • Baiji river dolphin (China)
  • Rodrigues fruit bat (Mauritius)

51gHREh9H1LDouglas writes about these animals with comedic warmth, but the ones he describes most insightfully are the hairless apes responsible for their demise. From corrupt African officials demanding bribes to arrogant German hikers casually flaunting their superior equipment to obtuse British tourists on a gory cruise outing, the human safari amuses and dismays. No wonder animals are in trouble when they share the planet with such selfish cousins!

There are more compassionate portraits as well, like a grizzled “kakapo tracker” in New Zealand cradling the rare parrot like “a Madonna and child”, and conservationists in Mauritius fighting to save rare birds with almost obsessive zeal. One particularly funny episode finds the radio crew, without any Mandarin speakers among them, desperately canvassing Chinese drugstores for condoms to waterproof a microphone. Sadly, no amount of “rubber-covers” could record the baiji, the only animal Douglas and Cawardine didn’t spot on their journey. A 1997 survey of the dolphin’s Yangtze River range counted only a dozen, and scientists have since declared them functionally extinct, making them the first known dolphin species destroyed by human activity and the first large vertebrate to go extinct since the 1950s.

It would have been nice to finish reading Last Chance to See and think “well, I’m glad we learned our lesson and saved all those animals before it was too late!” Alas, in the thirty years since that expedition, things seem to have gotten worse. By coincidence, around the same time I picked up this book, my Laddie and I were watching the more recent BBC product Our Planet. The 2019 nature documentary reveals natural wonders with its stunning photography while presenting a candid look at how climate change impacts the environment. (If you haven’t yet seen it, escalate it to the top of your Netflix list. It will take your breath away–sometimes in horror, but mostly in astonishment–and you will walk away with a profound sense of wonder at the delicately tuned relationships among living things.)

I grew up watching nature documentaries. My parents eschewed cable and didn’t permit commercial television (besides the nightly news and Star Trek: The Next Generation) until I reached my teens, so PBS dominated my childhood viewing. Many Sunday nights found the family rapt before Nature, Nova, National Geographic, and Wild America. Our Planet initially took me back to that cozy bubble: curled up next to my dad, the scent of his freshly peeled orange adding a vibrant sensory note to the parade of exotic landscapes on screen. Sequences that put animals in danger elicited a little thrill of dread, but they never frightened me as a child, because these were ultimately happy stories where the animals end up okay.

In Our Planet, the animals are not okay. Sublime footage, like a silken sleeve concealing a dagger, stabbed me in the heart when it showed the plight of animals struggling in ruined environments, or when David Attenborough calmly informed me that the magnificent landscape we’d just witnessed was destroyed only weeks after the film crew left. Thirty years separate Our Planet from Last Chance to See. Adams and Cawardine undertook their first expedition in 1985, shortly before I was born. Experiencing the two productions simultaneously provided a snapshot of Earth’s environment across the span of my own lifetime. The picture was devastatingly clear: we’re all in big damn trouble. Did my generation get the last chance to see our planet?

Not if I can help it. Reading Adams’ familiar style in a conservation context reinforced the importance of maintaining environmental themes in my own books. Science fiction writers can bring a unique narrative voice to true science stories, making them more accessible for others. I might argue it’s our duty to do so. Our imaginary intergalactic escapades can never come true if our home planet dies.

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