There’s no question that Bruce Parry is a people person. The presenter of the hit BBC shows Tribe and Amazon travelled around the world almost non-stop from 2002 to 2008, meeting a diversity of people from the inhabitants of the Asian rainforests to the nomads in the heights of the Himalayas. He was restlessly breezing through this global socializing until one tribe in Malaysia really got him thinking.
The Penan hunter gatherers form a strongly egalitarian society, without any notable social hierarchy, and with a strong culture of fair distribution. ‘I’d lived with loads of hunter-gatherers before, and all of them had cultures of sharing… but these people just seemed to go beyond…’ He theorizes that one of the reasons the Penang were so grounded and generous could be because they shun accumulation and exist very much in the moment: in fact, he says, they didn’t even have many words to articulate precise moments in time. ‘I would ask them, “when will that tree bear fruit?” and they would say: “when the bird flies over the tree that way”.’ Despite the language barrier, an important message was conveyed by his experience there: it made him realize that after flitting from one tribal experience to another, perhaps it was time for him, too, to slow his frantic schedule and live a bit more in the moment.
‘Everywhere we went in Amazon, we found issues: oil, logging, poaching... and these are some of the same we can see in the Arctic. But of course, the Arctic’s environment is changing faster than anywhere else’
After a two year hiatus spent mainly meditating and chilling out, Parry felt he had at last been able to absorb the incredible experiences and lessons he received whilst making previous shows. Still, his inquisitive nature and desire to highlight issues that are affecting indigenous people around the world inspired him to pack his bags once again, this time to visit entirely different groups of people: those in the Arctic.
One feature of Arctic is a clear statement about how global warming is now an undeniable reality, most keenly felt in the North Pole. Of course this is not the first series Parry has made with a focus on this matter. ‘We’ve always highlighted environmental issues,’ he says. ‘Everywhere we went in Amazon, we found issues: oil, logging, poaching… and these are some of the same we can see in the Arctic. But of course, the Arctic’s environment is changing faster than anywhere else. I’d been to the Arctic before, and I could see the changes myself.’
In his inimitable style, Parry immersed himself amongst the indigenous peoples of the North Pole, hunting on thin ice, munching seal eyeballs, and dressing in polar bear pants with them. He discovered that whilst each different group faces unique challenges, they are all united by the fact that these are mainly of a socio-ecological nature: global warming is impacting their traditional ways of life. Certainly, Parry admits, people are flexible, and are attempting to adapt to climate change the best they can, but he stresses that this flexibility often offers only a short-term solution, or carries a very heavy social cost.
Having to adapt to modernity has severed the connections they had between their traditional cultures and their land, thus throwing their sense of identity, and even their very survival, into doubt
‘It’s very sad,’ he says. ‘The landscape is absolutely integral to the cultures of these people.’ He explains how the indigenous people he became closer to over the course of filming Arctic expressed their frustration and worry about how quickly global warming is affecting them, and also how they feel that having to adapt to modernity has severed the connections they had between their traditional cultures and their land, thus throwing their sense of identity, and even their very survival, into doubt. Parry is certain that by viewing the tribulations of the people of the north, we are in a sense, looking a bit into our own futures: ‘what happens in the Arctic affects all of us,’ he states. The Arctic is changing: with the warming of the land, industrial expansion is both offering economic opportunities and ecological threats for one of the Earth’s last relatively wild areas. ‘It is only if we choose wisely that I believe the future of coming generations will be assured,’ he concludes.