When David Attenborough joined Instagram at the end of September last year, he reached one million followers faster than any other account in history. In fact, he reached 6.2 million with relative ease. But by the end of October, he announced his permanent departure from the platform.
Attenborough’s decision is perfectly understandable. Social media can be overwhelming and draining, even for those of us who have grown up with it and feel comfortable using it. Getting to grips with a new platform whilst being flooded with followers, likes, and messages is stressful. He doesn’t even really need the exposure. The account was primarily set up to promote his new film and book, both entitled ‘A Life on Our Planet’. Their predictable success is a perfect example of Attenborough’s ability to consistently reach millions with his environmentalist message.
However, there is a growing call for Attenborough and his team to #PassTheMic and feature the work of other environmentalists on his page now that he is no longer using it. Climate activists on social media want Attenborough to share his platform, particularly with people who do not have his privileges and who will likely never reach the numbers of people he can. They see this as the perfect opportunity to share with the public the climate justice movement, that focuses on those most affected by climate change. This is a side of eco-activism rarely seen in the mass media.
Part of Attenborough’s unique charm is his ability to appeal to Brits who would otherwise not engage with the climate crisis. People listen to him because he talks about the environment in a way that is both hopeful and accessible. By contrast, the climate movement on social media can feel overwhelming. A partnership between Attenborough and these climate activists could be the perfect way to bring intersectional environmentalism into the mainstream. His seal of approval for a new wave of activists could rally the public around the climate justice cause, in the same way he has rallied Britain to protect the planet.
When Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of a photo with other young activists last year, seemingly because she was black and her counterparts were white, the bias of the media was highlighted. Newspapers and television focus heavily on white, middle-class vegans as the pioneers of the climate movement when historically this is just not accurate. The public should know about the indigenous activists that have been fighting to protect land all of humanity relies on for decades, or the working-class Brits fighting for a reduction in air pollution because it’s already causing thousands of deaths a year.
Attenborough has also been labelled an ‘eco-fascist’ by some on social media for spreading the message that overpopulation was a primary cause of climate change. This is a racist narrative, as it places blame on predominantly formerly colonised countries whose carbon emissions do not even come close to those in the UK, the US, Australia etc. Furthermore, this narrative has used as justification to sterilise marginalised women against their consent.
It might be time for Britain’s most-beloved environmentalist to #PassTheMic and uplift the work of his colleagues across the globe, whose message and ideas will never reach the millions of followers he gained so effortlessly. While Attenborough’s efforts should not be undermined, an emergency like the climate crisis needs the passion and devotion to justice of these activists. At the end of the day, the real crisis is not ecological climate change but rather the catastrophic devastation to human life that will occur (and already is occurring) as a result. The focus needs to be on those people.