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Scanning the horizons: Our changing environment

Image credit: BBC
For the evening of 7 June 2016, the Watershed was transformed into vaults of the Horizon programme as Horizon editor Steve Crabtree and University of Bristol Professor Jonathan Bamber took us on an environmentally-flavoured tour of the show’s history.

The Horizon programme is one of the BBC’s longest running series. First broadcast in 1964, it provides a gloriously honest portrayal of both the evolution of television and of science. The event, organised by the British Science Association in partnership with the Festival of Nature and the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, meandered through the decades of footage providing a simultaneously amusing and sobering window into the progression of thinking in ecology and climate science.


The evening began with two near-identical snippets of footage; both taken from the bow of an icebreaker crashing through Antarctic sea ice but filmed 50 years apart. The older black and white version, broadcast in 1966, depicted the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The fuzzy monochrome pictures of dramatic Antarctic scenery were accompanied by Phantom of the Opera-style organ music and a narrator with an accent so archaically-British it would put the queen to shame.

The program explored the geology of the Antarctic, walking through the stages of continental drift before ending on the vast coal deposits that can be found in the Antarctic. The thought of coal mining in the world’s last pristine wilderness seems slightly mad by today’s standards but 1966, as Jonathan pointed out, was long before the 1991 environmental protocol was signed protecting the Antarctic from mineral exploration.

The clip was preceded by footage aired earlier this year. Apart from the addition of the swanky new Halley Research Station the only differences between the two were the colour and resolution: The Antarctic has preserved its natural habitat thanks to limited human interaction. The two clips were a great way to kick off the event and provided a stark contrast to the fast-changing world depicted in the rest of the Horizon episodes.

By far my favourite episode was from 1971 entitled ‘Due to lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled’. The footage taken at Lake Eerie comprised scenes of environmental devastation set to lively jazz. The combination drew a laugh from the audience and the dated feel was certainly comical in the context of today’s CGI mega-productions that air in the prime-time BBC slots.

Despite this, it was surprisingly progressive; even in the 70s the BBC was reporting the long term, global effects of human interactions with the environment with an apocalyptic twist. As someone who grew up in the 90s I felt like the worst effects have only been realised in recent years, yet footage like this reminds me that these issues have been knocking around for decades.

The Horizon clips revealed just how vital the late 60s and early 70s were in the development of the environmental movement- suddenly it was fashionable to be interested in ecology. Jonathan attributed this in part to the 1968 Apollo space mission that took the first photograph of the earth from space. After the mission astronaut William Anders said 
we travelled all this way to explore the moon but the most important thing is that we discovered the earth"
In this era, Jonathan said, we developed a sense of the earth as a single place that we all inhabited; and a place we must look after.
The famous 'Earthrise' photo from Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. The crew entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts held a live broadcast, showing pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Image credit: NASA.
In a further Horizon airing in 1971 ‘Vox pops’ (short interviews with members of the public) filmed on the streets of New York revealed the scale of the environmental movement coupled with footage of marches and protests. So prevalent was this voice that in 1970 President Nixon stated that the “price of goods should be made to include the cost of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment”. How, I wonder, have we regressed so far from these aspirations of 40 years ago?

The 80s were all about energy production. As the decade progressed, the greenhouse effect was gaining recognition and the Horizon content mirrored this. An episode in 1982 revealed impressively large wind turbines built by Boeing in collaboration with NASA as a clean and sustainable energy solution. Rather comically, Britain’s only wind turbine at this time was a slightly decrepit looking windmill which paled into turbine-insignificance in comparison to the highly engineered US turbines. A further episode later in the decade, provided a snapshot of UK’s sources of carbon emissions immersed in a description of the carbon cycle. Despite humankind being in possession of knowledge of global warming for over a 100 years, public interest grew around this time; something that Jonathan attributed to the formation of the IPCC in 1988.
Wind turbine created by Boeing in 1982 with NASA. Image credit: Boeing.
Moving into the 90s and 00s, the television style underwent the change to digital content. As Steve described, special effects were now in the hands of TV-makers, not just big Hollywood producers. The appearance became more recognisable, although episodes in the early 90s definitely had an aged feel to them. The thinking was more modern, working on the assumption that climate change is already happening rather than convincing the audience of its authenticity. An episode in 2003 discussed not just the scientific implications of a changed planet, but the economic, political and social ones. The film, named ‘The Big Chill’, discussed what might happen if parts of the UK began to freeze. Steve commented that the content of the episodes was sometimes motivated by big Hollywood movies; in this case the blockbuster epic ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was due for release the following year.

In all, the event was a wonderful glimpse into rarely seen BBC archives. While the evolution of thinking on climate change was what carried the discussions, I particularly enjoyed watching the interviews and narration from an era of television long gone. It made me realise what an invaluable tool it is in documenting past generations and I hope we are able to preserve much of the BBC content from the last five decades. As Steve pointed out, TV viewers in 40 years will probably look back at TV from today and laugh at the styles and fashions. Let’s hope they laugh at us from an even more progressive and sustainable future.  
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara


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  1. Do you know when this episode is going to be broadcast?

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