Why the Planet Earth II Episode on Cities Is So Startling

It gives us a glimpse of our strange future.

Jim Dyson / Reuters

It used to happen a lot: Teetering home drunk and disconsolate late at night through the shadowy semi-suburbs of north London, I would turn a corner and find, staring placidly at me on the street, the silhouette of a fox.

Looking directly into the eyes of a wild animal is a haunting, almost religious experience. The late John Berger describes it in one of his most tender passages: that sense of recognition, the sense that, even though this creature is looking at you across ‘an abyss of non-comprehension,’ it sees you in exactly the same way that you can see it. ‘The animal,’ he writes, ‘has secrets that, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.’

London foxes are smart, irreverent, and have little fear of humans; even when they do run away from us it’s slowly and mockingly, turning back to fix you with a sneer over their shoulders. Often they’d just simply watch, half-distracted, curious but not too interested in this strange creature briefly interrupting their territory. Foxes don’t care.

I was young, unhappy, and unfree, set half-adrift on a rolling and indifferent city, but the foxes were entirely at home. Humans build cities, shape and reshape them according to their wishes and fantasies, and then find themselves deeply alienated by the result; wild animals move in and are completely at ease with themselves.

Not every city has foxes. When I lived, briefly, in Los Angeles, people were astounded to hear that I used to share my streets with the creatures, but not as surprised as I was when I first saw a coyote padding insouciantly down Sunset Boulevard in the pink and bleary dawn. Crows are the same: While other birds preen and warble and beg for crumbs from our hands, crows don’t seem to care for us at all; they’re in the city to wait for us to all die out, and then they’ll take over. A city with wild animals in it is always one just on the conceptual edge of being without humans.

This is the hidden message in the last episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth II, throatily narrated by David Attenborough and broadcasting in the United States this month. Most of the series is gorgeous and disappointing. In each episode we’re introduced to a different type of habitat—islands, jungles, deserts—and shown how the various living things have adapted themselves to it in tiny six-minute vignettes, as if biological life were made up of little stories. But the final episode, showing animals in the city, is spectacular. The natural world is no longer out there, in the eternal wilderness, divided from our own lives by an absolute ontological barrier, and interacting with humanity only insofar as we destroy it. Instead it’s rising up from underneath with a mocking challenge to the world we think we’ve built.

We learn, for instance, that the greatest concentration of wild leopards is not in some last besieged scrap of pristine jungle, but in Mumbai. The world’s highest density of wild peregrine falcons, meanwhile—which precious kids like myself will remember as the fastest animal in the world—is in New York City. Rural peregrines nest on cliff-crags and soar on the thermal currents rising from sheer, exposed rock; without meaning to, humans have recreated a perfect environment for them on Manhattan Island. In the wilderness they’re scarce and territorial, roaming vast areas to find food; one falcon will hunt alone across over twenty-five miles of territory. In the city, there’s so much prey and so many places to roost that it can support dozens of breeding pairs.

Animals do something to the city and its spaces; they remind us that we’re not really free. The space of a city doesn’t just consist of its physical structure, but the infinity of codes that determine how we use it: this is a street, your street, this is your garden, fortified with fences, this is the quickest route to work, as handed down by GPS satellites out in orbit around the planet, these are the parts of town you never visit and the alleys you know better than to walk down late at night.

It’s so hard, these days, for many young people to find somewhere affordable to live; the city is foreign to us, controlled by strange and impersonal forces. Sometimes there are moments of riot and revolt: We build barricades across the street and take freely whatever’s behind the shuttered-up sores, until the cops arrive and start enforcing socially produced space with clubs and water cannons. Urban space is political, arranged by a certain configuration of power, and while animals might sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of its discipline, shot or poisoned by quota, for the most part they’re given the freedom of a mutual indifference.

In the first scene of the Planet Earth II episode, we see a territorial battle between langur monkeys in Jodhpur: an alpha male with his harem on the roof of a residential building, defending his territory from a gang of predatory bachelors. The langur’s territory is a spatial product mapped onto the same physical substrate as the human city, but it’s different in every way. Streets are chasms. Telephone and power lines, strung between buildings, are passages; the monkeys leap between them or crawl along with their prehensile feet. Territorial consistency extends horizontally, along the roofs of multiple buildings. The langur-city is dense and wild, the raw information of its material form decoded and recoded in the shifting interactions which which they remake the city every day.

But what the documentary constantly skirts around, what it mentions very briefly and then darts away from, to show us some more pretty creatures behaving oddly, is this: Animals that live in the city are simply not like animals that live in the wildernesses. They’re different things entirely—not more human, they still have very little in common with our subjectivities, but more urban. Animals that live in cities are smarter than their cousins to the point of having measurably larger brains, they have more children, they spend more time at play, they evolve faster. Living in cities presents difficulties that are not present in the wilderness; there’s pollution and disease, disorientating lights and sounds, the direct danger of human predation and the far greater danger of human indifference.

Animals are run down by cars or crushed by trains, they’re in constant peril from powers they can’t possibly understand. (Towards the end, we see newly-hatched turtles on a beach in Barbados. Instead of scuttling for sea, guided by the light of the moon, they’re dazed by the lights of a tourist town and head inland, to fall into storm drains and die.) These pressures force animals to change. Their social groups are larger, more complex, and more structured. An urban environment constantly changes, and encompasses far more physical variation in far less space than any other—after all, it incorporates versions all the others; every city has its splinters of woodland and steppe, recreated deserts where industrial areas turned to flat and contaminated concrete, the artificial forest-canopies of smaller buildings and the mountainous skyscrapers. Living here requires not just intelligence but an ability to pass on information to others and across generations. A langur is born knowing how to exist in the jungle. In the city, acting on instinct will get you killed.

There’s also an incredible bounty. The langurs in Jodhpur are revered locally for their identification with the Hindu god Hanuman; every day they descend on the local temples and are rewarded with vast piles of flowers and vegetables. In Jaipur, the macaques get no such favour, so they steal, darting down into a fruit market and snatching up the produce. And not just fruit; we see them snatching packaged snacks in their foil wrappers, carrying them up to the rooftops for lunch. These urban populations are exploding, because animals in cities are plugged in to capitalist relations.

The macaque that knows it can reliably steal fresh food from the fruit market in Jaipur is the end-user in an intercontinental supply chain, and its presence will inevitably be factored in to all the transactions that constitute it. In the end, capitalism is entirely indifferent to life and species; it has a logic all its own, and human beings are only elements in its production process. We never invented capitalism; it just happened to us first.

Every day, there are fewer animals living in the wild, because every day there’s less wild for them to live in. We’re killing them, extravagantly and catastrophically, burning up whole species in a geological instant, destroying what has existed for millions of years and will never exist again. Of those undomesticated animals that survive, more and more will—like us—live in cities. And all those factors that make urban wildlife different can only intensify. Cities are incubation chambers for particular kinds of behavior. A buried, tentative conclusion: if animal sentience develops, it will do so here.

We still don’t know exactly how human consciousness developed. There are some, like the late Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, who controversially argue that it didn’t actually emerge until well into the historical period, around the time of the Bronze Age Collapse five thousand years ago, when humans already had cities, social structures, language, and literature—all of which, to some degree, we share with our animal cousins. (As Jacques Derrida points out, a dog pissing against a tree is involved in a certain form of writing.) The forms of social and biological life, even in the hinterlands, are determined by what goes on in cities: their productions of space, their emanations of power.

The modern, rational human being, the one that knows it once descended from animals but along the way turned into something completely different, did not create cities. They created us. And it’s only chauvinism that lets us imagine that we did all the heavy lifting alone, that every jaguar’s lair or falcon’s roost isn’t as much a part of the city as the shopping centers and apartment buildings that have official planning permission. We all constructed these things together. And if humans find themselves alienated, it’s only because we were just the first phase, here to lay the groundwork for something far richer and stranger than we could imagine.