Nature, Inc. TV series: Exploring the planet’s largest ‘enterprise’!

Nature is priceless -- or is i? The answer might save us all!
Nature is priceless — or is it?

If we put a cash price on the economic services that, say, watersheds or insects or coastal mangroves provide, would we value Nature more? Would we be prepared to change our ways of measuring wealth and economic growth? And if we did, would that slow down the extinctions and collapse of ecosystems?

These are some of the issues that are explored in Nature, Inc., a path-breaking TV documentary series that puts a price-tag on environmental services such as forests, wildlife and coral reefs.

First broadcast in 2008 and 2009 on BBC World News, Nature Inc. broke new ground for environmental programming by seeking out a new breed of investor – those who believe they can make money out of saving the planet.

Watch Nature, Inc. series trailer:

Nature Inc. offers new insights into valuing the benefits of natural systems and biodiversity. It takes its lead from economists who have worked out that ecosystem services are worth more than the total of all the world’s national economies.

The first and second series are now available from TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP). Each series comprises six half-hour episodes, compacting stories filmed in different parts of the world. Broadcast, civil society and educational users across the Asia Pacific may order copies at the cost of duplication and dispatch, and without having to pay a license fee.

The series was produced by One Planet Pictures of the UK, in association with dev.tv of Switzerland.

“There is new green thinking out there and some of it is grappling with pricing renewable assets. As such we felt it was a legitimate new area to take as an organising theme for the new series,” says Robert Lamb, series producer of Nature, Inc. “Perhaps the global recession has made viewers more aware of the ‘eco’ in economics”.

Robert Lamb

The series is based on new research and analysis being done on the subject. Among these new studies is the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a major international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions moving forward.

But adding a price tag to Nature is not something that pleases all scientists or activists. Robert says the producers received “an overwhelmingly positive reaction” to the first series, but there was also a small minority who wrote in to say they hated the premise of the whole series.

He adds: “That’s good, we want to foster discussion in Nature Inc. which is why we are encouraging viewers to contribute ideas for the next series.”

Read Robert Lamb’s reflections on the Making of Nature, Inc. TV series

Here’s a sample episode from the series, titled Coral Cashpoint. In this, Nature Inc investigates a claim that our coral reefs are worth $30 billion a year. In this fourth episode, we go diving on the Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives and to the bottom of the North Sea to find out how coral reefs supply 500 million of us with food and work. But we are destroying the reefs so quickly, they could vanish entirely in less than a hundred years.

Nature, Inc: Coral Cashpoint – Part 1 of 2

Nature, Inc: Coral Cashpoint – Part 2 of 2

Exploring our crowded planet, One Square Mile at a time…

Vasanthi Hariprakash exploring One Square Mile in Kathmandu, Nepal

It’s funny how, more than a generation after most of the world adopted the metric system of measurements, relics of the earlier, ‘imperial’ units still linger in our language and popular culture.

Frequent flyers stlll accumulate air-miles, not kilometres. Disaster managers grapple with the challenges of communicating credible early warnings on that the crucial ‘last mile’ (it’s not yet the ‘last kilometre’). And many among us, including those who have grown up in a metric world, can better grasp a square mile than a square kilometre.

One Square Mile is also the name of an interesting new TV series produced by One Planet Pictures of the UK, and first airing this month on BBC World News. In this series, reporters visit a neighbourhood in different parts of the developing world and try and find out what the residents’ hopes and aspirations

Says its producer Robert Lamb: “One Square Mile is an experiment. So much in television is set up. In this series our reporters explore a small patch of a city with the aim of providing the viewer with an authentic slice of life.”

According to Robert, One Square Mile takes the lid off a neighbourhood. Reporters wander around a marked out section of a town and city and talk to the people they meet to find out what their everyday concerns are.

Of this months shows, two are presented by Zeinab Badawi . In one, she goes walkabout in Juba, capital of south Sudan which is on the verge of becoming an independent state. In the other, Badawi encounters murder on the streets in Guatemala City.

The other two are presented by my friend Vasanthi Hariprakash, whose day job is with India’s leading TV news network NDTV. These two are of particular interest to me as she travels to countries in Asia that are closer to me in distance and closer to my heart.

In one show, Vasanthi travels to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The blurb says: “Despite a recent record of political instability that has seen a monarchy overthrown and an uneasy peace struck with the Maoist insurgents, reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash finds a city population surprisingly upbeat. But a long dawn queue outside the passport office tells a different story – young Nepali men are desperate to get out to find work in the Gulf and Southeast Asia.”

I’m familiar with that city having made multiple visits since 1995, and have shared the pains and anxieties of my Nepali friends as they went through political turmoil and a bloody insurgency. I saluted them when their ‘people power’ got rid of the despotic king in 2006.

Vasanthi did remarkably well in presenting her first-time appearance on a BBC-broadcast show. She came across as informed, eager and empathetic to the people and place she was exploring. Not once did I notice a hint of cynicism or condescension in her voice. This is quite in contrast to regular BBC reporters, many of who are far too judgemental and dismissive than good journalists should ever be. We can only hope vasanthi never aspires to those despicable professional levels…

Amidst political intrigue and uncertainties, life goes on in Kathmandu...

In her second show, Vasanthi travels to a small village in Laos next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail where the dominant concern is unexploded cluster bombs from the Vietnam war. The synopsis reads: “From the capital Vientiane it takes 10 hours for reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash to reach her square mile – a village next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail. Today it’s a peaceful highway for enterprising Vietnamese traders but during the war it was a target for the B 52 bombers with their deadly cargo of cluster bombs. 40% are live – called UXOs – Unexploded Ordinance – and Hariprakesh finds the villagers’ poverty leaves them no choice but to run the gauntlet of the unexploded munitions as they work in their paddy fields.”

This reminds me of a short film I saw in Cambodia many years ago about a poor, rural community who faced a similar dilemma living and working in a countryside littered with unknown and unexploded landmines. The Cold War conflicts in Southeast Asia may have ended decades ago, but local people still live in the shadow of their deadly legacies…

I can’t wait for more real-life stories in One Square Mile, and I hope Robert Lamb will send out his intrepid and charming reporters to far corners of the real world where real people are taking on life’s many challenges 24/7. These people’s resilience and resourcefulness inspire us all.

And that’s what good television is all about. Moving images, moving us all!

Douglas Varchol: Secret of keeping ‘perfectly cool’ in a warming world…

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009


With his wild hair and trendy suits, Douglas J Varchol can pass for a rock star. He is actually an accomplished independent film-maker, currently operating out of Bangkok, Thailand, covering a variety of science and environmental stories in Asia.

Last week, he participated in the Ozone Media Roundtable that TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP organised in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After showing his latest documentary film on ozone, titled Earth Report: Perfectly Cool, which was first broadcast on BBC World News in September 2009, he talked about his experience in making the film.

Perfectly Cool is a 22 minute film looking at the challenges faced in trying to phase out a chemical called Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs for short), a coolant gas used in air conditioners across the developing world. As chemicals go, it’s a double hazard: this ozone depleting substance also contributes to climate change by acting as a greenhouse gas.

But non-specialist viewers watch broadcast television for good stories, not science lessons. The challenge for journalists and film makers is to ‘sugarcoat’ the technicalities by wrapping it up in human interest stories. Douglas recalled how he did this: combining imagination, hard work and luck.

First, here’s the official synopsis of the film which sums up the story:
Air conditioners are damaging the environment. One widely used coolant gas, HCFC, damages the ozone layer. With booming sales of domestic ACs around the world, the problem has grown in recent years, despite vigorous international efforts to reduce ozone depleting chemicals. Under the international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol, HCFC will be phased out worldwide by 2030. An ozone-friendly replacement gas – HFC – is now used in Europe, but that gas is a potent greenhouse gas — which means it contributes to global warming. However, an answer may be at hand. Earth Report travels to China, centre of the global AC industry, to investigate the cost of cool and meets the industry representatives working on a solution – and Sa DingDing, a musician with extreme views on air conditioners.

Watch the first 4 mins of Earth Report – Perfectly Cool

Humanising science stories is hard enough, and when the subject is something people can’t see or feel, it becomes harder. As I wrote a few days ago, the Ozone Layer – located between 10 and 50 kilometres above the Earth, and invisible to the naked eye – is not something tangible like cuddly animals or endangered plants. Moving ordinary people to care for something they can’t see or touch is tough, even if all life on Earth depends critically on it (the Ozone Layer absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet days).

Douglas had his work cut out for him. Throw into this mix the fact that the editorially independent film was being made pooling funds from six development agencies – each with their own agenda – and that the story was filmed in China where filming permission still involve a lot of paperwork, it’s a small miracle Perfectly Cool was completed. And as we saw, Douglas tells a good story without compromising accuracy or balance.

So did he keep perfectly cool during the making of this film, I asked. He revealed that there were moments of panic and despair, although in the end everything fell into place. While the editors at BBC World were satisfied with the film, some technical specialists consulted for the script had felt it was over-simplified.

Ah, I do know that feeling! When I made a film on ozone in 2006 (Return of the Ozone Layer: Are We There Yet?) it took us 18 months to finish, and went through endless revisions. The UN system seems to just love making films by committee…

With his film, Douglas faced additional hurdles. For example, he takes us inside the Gree company‘s factory producing air conditioners. In 2004, Gree became the largest AC manufacturer in the world, but they had never before allowed television cameras inside their plant. That took lots of time and effort to set up.

Sometimes, things not going according to plans actually helps. When on location, Douglas serendipitously came across elements that were not in the original story treatment but enhanced the human interest: for example, a modern day wedding where the new couple gifted reusable chop sticks to all their guests. That was good environmental conduct – but then they headed off to choose air conditioners for their new apartment…

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas paid a tribute to his Chinese researcher Lihong Shi and crew, without whose local knowledge and contacts he couldn’t have made the film.

In the end, Douglas pulls it off. Despite its seemingly esoteric and complex subject, Perfectly Cool is perfectly watchable — and not just for science buffs like myself.

Douglas, who once worked with Wired Science making science programmes for American PBS, said he set out to make a film on HCFCs that even his mom (a high school teacher) could understand. I can’t speak for her, but those of us who watched it in Chiang Mai were enthralled.