Liz Bonnin is all about communicating the facts. Having presented over 50 primetime programmes, including Galapagos on BBC 1 and Horizon on BBC 2, she is careful to maintain certainty in an age of fake news and disinformation. Whether inspiring action in the fight against plastic pollution, challenging politicians to review environmental policies or championing women in science, Liz has a knack for getting people to look squarely at what matters.
“I am, first and foremost, a science and natural history communicator, whose job is to tell the viewer what is happening in the world,” Liz explains of her responsibility as a presenter. “This is what science is telling us is categorically the issue. Now that you’re armed with the information, what are you going to do?”
Crediting her heroes, Sir David Attenborough and Sylvia Earle, as sources of inspiration and a childhood spent in the countryside as the root of her passion for the environment (“I grew up in a little forest in the north of Nice with my sister and we used to play for hours with our two dogs, snakes, spiders, hedgehogs, the whole thing”), Liz has made it her mission to reawaken the public to the wonders of the natural world.
On a rainy day in January, nestled in corner of a garden centre near her home in West London, the conservationist expresses her “hunger to change” the public’s relationship with the environment. Her warmth is genuine but there is a sense of urgency to the stories she must tell. “I have seen the direct result of how we live and enough is enough,” she says. Without sounding melodramatic or “ranting” too much (something she worries is hard not to do at this point), she delves into the realities of the current state of the planet.
THE PLASTICS CRISIS
Climate change and global warming which scientists have been documenting since the 1950s, if not before, have become matter-of-fact in modern society. Last year, the UN’s rather bleak warning of the 12 years left to minimise climate catastrophe was evidenced by a growing number of extreme weather reports across the globe, whether deadly wildfires or increased flooding. Sadly, this is not the only environmental issue at hand, as plastic pollution has become the most visible example of the detriment caused to landscapes and ecosystems. From local beaches to the furthest reaches of the Arctic circle, plastic is now everywhere. “We have been studying climate change for decades,” Liz notes. “We’re only beginning to study the impact of plastics in our oceans and to uncover just in how many ways plastic can harm living things, including ourselves.”
In 2018, the World Economic Forum reported that more than eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, equivalent to a truckload of rubbish deposited into our water systems every minute. And with increasing plastic production, that estimate is expected to double by 2030. Research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has predicted that without an immediate global response, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. As plastic enters every level of the ocean food chain, the implications for human and planetary health are dire. To quote Sea Shepherd CEO and founder, Captain Paul Watson, “When the oceans die, we die.”
“I think it’s time to speak really frankly about everything and not pussyfoot around the issue,” Liz declares. “I don’t have any choice because I don’t sleep properly anymore - since doing the plastics film, everything has shifted.” The “plastics film” she speaks of is the hard-hitting BBC documentary Drowning in Plastic, which aired autumn of last year, bringing home the sheer scale of the crisis threatening the planet to audiences in the UK. Viewers followed Bonnin to a remote island off the coast of Australia, where shearwater chicks had their stomachs pumped, removing inordinate quantities of plastic that were weighing them down. They watched her horror when faced with a dead baby seal, strangled to death by plastic fishing rope, and witnessed her anger at the sight of an Indonesian fisherman resigned to picking plastic out of a river teeming with waste (and no doubt poisoning any life below), to sell for money. “I had to stop filming because I was seeing this young man in this filth - that was the life he had to live because of what we do,” she recalls.
“We need a fundamental change in our relationship with the planet.”
While these problems seem removed from modern society, as the harm to marine life is out of sight and the impact on foreign lands is out of mind, a new wave of research into microplastics (microscopic fragments of plastics) has grabbed international headlines. Aside from drinking out of plastic bottles or eating fish from polluted seas, microplastics are now believed to be entering the human body from air inhalation. The high concentrations of microplastics present in homes, released from synthetic clothing and textiles, pose a health risk for humans. While Liz had already been aware of plastic pollution, having encountered it whilst filming for other shows, the most distressing aspect of the plastics documentary was learning how elaborate the epidemic had become. “To see it with my own eyes was the most harrowing experience of my life,” she admits. “I feel like it’s my responsibility, after what I’ve seen, to help enforce the changes that are needed.”
WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT?
At the start of last year, the finale of Blue Planet II galvanised widespread action and awareness around the plastic crisis. However, a new form of denial was born, one shifting the blame from the West to poorer countries abroad. As Drowning in Plastic picked up where Blue Planet left off, was the response any different this time around? “There were a lot of comments on Twitter, ‘oh it’s all Southeast Asia’s fault, they are the ones who are dumping their [plastic],”’ says Liz, of the audience response to the show. “But actually we send a lot of our plastic waste there. It ends up in their rivers, [so] we are all responsible.” Shockingly, the UK currently exports two-thirds of its waste overseas, and according to the BBC, around 750,000 tonnes of plastic waste was imported into Malaysia from the UK, US and Japan between January to July 2018.
Where most people felt motivated to act after watching the documentary, there were those who felt overwhelmed or “stuck” and others who simply rejected the facts. Interpreting the logic behind her social media critics, Liz explains, “You get responses that are so astoundingly misinformed that you realise that there is a part of the population in every country that will fight something tooth and nail for the sake of it [in order] to push the problem away.” She does express compassion and understanding towards those who feel hopeless by the volume of information presented but has little patience for people who “stick their head in the sand” and are not willing to be a part of the solution. “I understand, it’s difficult. But here’s the thing... we have got the power to fix it,” she smiles. “As much as all of this is terribly grim, and navel-gazing is a difficult process, once you get past that hump, there is empowerment that goes with feeling like, ‘I can actually solve this’.”
Not long ago, the world lived without throwaway plastic. A global shift occurred in the 50s and 60s, propelled by cheap mass production within the plastic packaging market, placing a higher value on convenience culture than conscious consumerism. Some of that plastic has been invaluable to the advancement of the modern world, yet at the heart of the plastics problem is society’s dependence on single-use plastic. Would it be possible to challenge capitalist and consumerist structures that have conditioned the public to consume more and reuse less? Is life without plastic possible? Liz firmly believes it is. “Look, I am aware in my kitchen that it was so much easier with the plastic,” she admits. “A love of all things convenience is understandable but we know what the tradeoff is now.”
Although it requires more thinking, she is adamant that applying a plastic-free philosophy to contemporary life is easier than it seems. “It’s just retraining habits, and it’s not as big a deal as we think,” she insists. “It’s actually small things that you do regularly.” She lists leaving single-use plastic packaging at supermarkets and taking reusable cloth bags when shopping, forcing brands to change the way they distribute plastic. “If everybody leaves all the single-use plastic packaging, what are they going to do? Eventually, they are going to have to get rid of it.”
Ultimately, for Liz, it comes down to a much-needed paradigm shift around the value placed on the environment. “We need a fundamental change in our relationship with the planet,” she urges. “There are not enough adjectives or nouns to describe how incredible, how powerful and how healing the natural world is for us as human beings ... We need to take a long hard look at what we expect from the planet [because] the science tells us in no uncertain terms that we will not survive this way. But we can all [have] enough if we just shift our approach to how we take from it.”
Read the rest of the interview in POSTSCRIPT Issue 2.