The week in audio: What Planet Are We On?; How to Save a Planet; Reading the Water – review

Miranda Sawyer
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

What Planet Are We On? | BBC Sounds
How to Save a Planet | Gimlet Media
Reading the Water (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds

I’m going to assume that you, dear reader and supporter of the Observer’s journalism, are not a climate crisis denier. Actually, I’m assuming that you’re the opposite, a person who, when awake at 3.30am for the sheer 2020 hell of it, considers global heating to be one of your can’t-sleep worries. The top one, really, of your to-do list, which goes something like this: prevent the world from dying; sort out washing machine leak; change career to something Covid-19-proof, eg YouTuber; kids’ teeth?

Anyway, if the climate crisis bothers you at all, there are a couple of newish podcasts you can try. The first, from the BBC, What Planet Are We On?, came out a couple of weeks ago.In its first episode the show’s host, conservation journalist (and Countrywise presenter) Liz Bonnin, interviewed our nation’s living conscience, Sir David Attenborough. He recalled coming out of the 2016 UN climate convention in Paris with environmental scientists full of hope and joy, “really metaphorically waving flags and saying, ‘It’s done!’” They had managed to get all the nations involved to sign [the Paris climate agreement]. Unfortunately, he continued, “in the end, the nations didn’t agree how exactly it was going to be paid for, the mechanics, the nuts and bolts of how they’re going to do it. This coming meeting [the UN conference originally scheduled for November, now postponed] was going to be the one that sorted that out. It’s so maddening.”

And now, with global lockdown, the momentum for change has stalled: “It’s totally interrupted continuity of thought,” said Attenborough. “It’s a disaster for all of us. All the more international things have just been put on hold. We’re losing time.” Argh! Luckily, the following episode featured Crystal Chissell from Project Drawdown, a non-profit organisation that looks for climate solutions, offering her top tips on what we can do to help. Switch off lights, reduce food waste, cut down on eating meat, leave forests alone, save money, don’t be scared, join up with other people and believe that they are are good. Essentially, live like your grandparents used to, but with the internet.

In the latest episode, Idris Elba and his wife, Sabrina Dhowre Elba, who campaign for the UN’s international fund for agricultural development, talk about food security and climate change. “We look at small farmers as unrelated to us… but food supply links us all,” says Elba. We should get informed and, as Elba says, “each one teach one”. It’s something to do while we wait for the politicians to get their act together..

From the US, the reliable Gimlet Media launched its own environmental show, How To Save a Planet, at the end of summer. Its hosts are Alex Blumberg, Gimlet founder and presenter of StartUp, and Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine scientist and “policy nerd”. This show, too, could seem a little depressing, but I actually find it inspiring. (The production helps: the use of music, particularly, as well as Blumberg and Johnson’s rapport and unpicking of difficult points.) It’s a cliche to call Americans upbeat and can-do, but the interviewees in this programme are just that. The recent episode, How 2020 Became a Climate Election, about the environment and the US election, was just great, describing how young green activists managed to get climate change front and centre of the Democratic nomination race. And then, though Joe Biden was the least radical of the Democratic potentials, how they worked with him after he won the nomination to create a credible green plan of action.

The Black Lives Matter episode is also excellent. Johnson, who is black, opened the episode in sombre mood, by making the point that, fundamentally, racism is a distraction: “I work on one existential crisis, but some days I can’t concentrate because of this other one.” The subsequent discussion – about protest, intersectionality, racism and recent climate change – is fascinating.

Still, this big-issue talk can make your brain seem small, your power tiny. Perhaps it’s time to remember what we’re trying to save. On Radio 4, there was a short piece about carp fishing. In Reading the Water, writer and naturalist Chris Yates told us that he has, for the past 20 years, wanted to return to a secret lake in Wiltshire. He managed to get back in July this year and we spent a day with him in search of an ancient carp “the size of a small submarine”. Yates sits there from dawn until dusk, enjoying the wrens and the wood pigeons, telling us tall and small fishing tales. Lovely.

Three shows about reinvention

The Mentor
David Whitely, AKA DJ Sideman, the guy who quit 1Xtra because of a BBC report that used the N-word, is a great presenter and this new show is a fabulously lively listen because of him. He joins gravelly voiced entrepreneur Ric Lewis, a US businessman who has given £5,000 to each of three young people, Lois, Solomon and Toni, to kickstart their very different ambitions. Lewis is a lovely, positive, gently pushing presence, the kids are great and, for those who want to learn how to change their lives, this is inspiring.

Goodbye to All This
An intimate and moving true story, told by audio buff Sophie Townsend. In her opening episode, she describes her life, hanging out with other mums after dropping her children at school, laughing and moaning about their respective lives, how much (how little) their husbands and partners do at home. But something is about to change for Sophie and her family, something that will mean their easy lives can never return. Devastating in its ordinariness, this is a wonderful show that stays with you for a long time.

This Old Thing?
A podcast about secondhand clothes, hosted – slightly madly - by stylist and writer Bay Garnett. Garnett could do with a little better production (she keeps SHOUTING for no REASON, bangs her mic and waffles when clarity would be better) but this has a lot of warmth and insight. Clothes are fascinating, no matter what boring people say, and thrift shopping is the best way to source your outfits. A must-listen if you like interesting women being interesting: guests so far have been Hadley Freeman, Mary Portas, Chloë Sevigny, Deborah Meaden, Pandora Sykes – all fab.