Image by Emma Kumer

The Audacity of Nature Docs | What Barack Obama's Our Great National Parks Leaves Out

Chanelle Adams

We begin on the beach in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii. Small waves lap against the shore as the camera lands on a recognizable face. “I grew up in Hawaii,” says a barefoot Barack Obama. “This was my backyard.” Unlike his successor Donald Trump, Obama has largely stayed above the political fray. Now, as narrator of Our Great National Parks, a five-part Netflix docuseries that premiered in April, he’s dipping his toe in perhaps the most politically crucial subject of all — control of land. 

The series represents Obama’s first major post-presidency media appearance. Since that tense White House handoff in January 2017, Obama has avoided the spotlight, opting for star-studded private birthday parties and sporadic statements in support of vague principles like “democracy.” He wrote the obligatory post-White House memoir, A Promised Land, published in 2020, and campaigned for Joe Biden that same year. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the former president’s primary avenue for monetizing the presidency will be streaming television. In 2018, he and former First Lady Michelle Obama founded a production company, Higher Ground, to create Netflix content that “won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect, and inspire us all.”

So far, Higher Ground’s productions have included American Factory, a documentary about a General Motors plant reopened by a Chinese billionaire; Becoming, which follows Michelle on her book tour; and the children’s show Waffles + Mochi, in which Michelle is joined by “puppet pals” and celebrity chefs to learn about foods from around the world. Our Great National Parks is Barack’s first foray into voice-over work, and by all available metrics, he excels. The series has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and reviews have been overwhelmingly laudatory. Drones are, as usual, Obama’s friends: the overhead footage is stunning, as are the close-ups of the various animals who appear in the series. And while the writing isn’t Obama’s, the series belongs to his era of politics. Former White House Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan is the script advisor, and a special six-minute trailer features a conversation between Obama and former White House photographer Pete Souza. Wilderness preservation, moreover, is a longstanding interest of Obama’s. As president, he protected more than 550 million acres of land and sea and designated 29 new national monuments, surpassing Theodore Roosevelt’s records in each category.

Narrating a nature docuseries might seem like a relatively harmless thing for a retired politician to spend his time doing. But nature conservation is hardly an apolitical good. Historically, national parks were conceived as part of a colonial program that forcibly removed indigenous peoples from their land. Today, these parks serve as visual propaganda for a fundamentally anti-humanitarian view of the world in which the only land worth preserving is land where extraordinary animals live, never mind the human costs. Our Great National Parks not only greenwashes its subjects’ history, but endorses their enduring ideologies.

The key to saving the planet, the former leader of the world’s highest polluting settler colony tells Netflix viewers, is cordoning off more land under the banner of conservation. By making the “right choices” about nature, we might just be able to not only stave off but reverse human-induced environmental degradation. These right choices are shadowed by an implicit set of wrong actors: farmers, poachers, and above all the local governments that tolerate them. This is a worldview in which local culpability always exceeds global culpability, and it’s only through market solutions, surveillance of park borders, and criminal consequences that governments can become responsible safeguards of nature.

The series’s opening montage boasts seascapes with leaping dolphins, an elephant trumpeting on the savanna, and postcard-worthy shots of waterfalls and ice caps. The imagery pairs well with Obama’s call to celebrate “our planet’s greatest national parks and wilderness,” and to join him on “a journey through the natural wonders of our shared birthright.” But the wonders of nature have not endured because the world’s two hundred nations have imitated the United States’s approach to simultaneously exploiting and conserving them; they have endured in spite of it.

 

The national park is “one of America’s greatest ideas, established for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” Obama explains over dramatic music. “And it caught on, sparking a global movement.” He is talking here about Yellowstone, said to be the world’s first national park. At the time of its founding in 1872, Yellowstone was not untrammeled wilderness; it was the home of several indigenous tribes that served as such effective caretakers of the land that it reportedly looked untrammeled, especially in comparison to nearby homesteads. Nevertheless, President Ulysses S. Grant expelled the region’s residents in order to establish the park, violating prior treaties.

This inconvenient fact, of course, is not mentioned in Our Great National Parks. Instead: “Just over a hundred years ago, American bison were facing extinction,” Obama explains over B-roll of a bison licking amniotic fluid off her calf. “Today, in the safety of the trees: a bison calf, just minutes old.” In fact, bison were only endangered because of a concerted effort by the U.S., before and after the founding of Yellowstone, to drive them to extinction as part of a strategy to cut off supply to indigenous groups who depended on them for food. “The feeling of seeing a bison for the first time is something I will never forget,” says Obama, who triumphantly reports that the founding of Yellowstone inspired a wave of interest in responsible land custodianship. Thanks to the precedent it set, today “fifteen percent of land and nearly eight percent of our oceans have been protected” around the world. Questions like by whom and from whom are never addressed. At one point Obama says, “When humanity started to protect these places, we did not realize how important they would become.” It would be an inspiring story, had humanity not been protecting meaningful places for thousands of years. Land tending and tenure practices predate the conservation movement by millennia; many indigenous peoples have, and still do, set aside sacred sites to be safeguarded. And because the most biodiverse and desirable land is usually where indigenous people once lived or are currently living, creating national parks almost always requires forced removal and exclusion.

 

For the most part, Our Great National Parks is shot from a disembodied God’s-eye view, with voice-over narration by the former commander in chief. Humans are notably absent from the sweeping vistas that appear throughout the series, though each episode is bookended by brief appearances from Obama. The first episode sees a hippopotamus exit a lagoon to swim in the Atlantic surf off the coast of Gabon’s Loango National Park. “His three-ton frame feels lighter in salt water,” Obama speculates. Other happy hippos join in as the sun sets. Suddenly, the series transitions to a whiplash-inducing montage before it arrives at a new destination, as though a finger is being placed on a spinning globe at random. Yet the connection between the various locales visited in the series slowly begins to emerge: they are for the most part sites of biographical importance to Obama (Hawaii, California, Kenya, Indonesia), with some personal favorites (Patagonia) and especially picturesque places Obama doesn’t bother to visit (Australia and Madagascar) thrown in for good measure. 

At the already highly documented Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in Madagascar, an unbothered rock iguana makes its film debut. There’s no mention of the conflict with the nearby village of Bekopaka, whose inhabitants blockaded the park entrance in August of 2018, demanding the 50 percent of ticket revenues they say they’re entitled to under a 1998 agreement. Also invisible are the 20,000 visitors the park receives each year, as well as the local park rangers and trackers who helped scout out film subjects for the production. This is typical nature documentary fare: courting and mating rituals, tasteful animal copulation, somewhat bloody hunt scenes, and sunlit births in grasslands. Brave baby birds learn to fly, a penguin narrowly escapes a hungry sea lion, birds migrate en masse. We’re inhabiting an ostensibly “natural” state of affairs, a world in which there is no human interference — in other words, a longtime colonial fantasy of unspoiled wilderness. 

Friction, peril, and conflict aren’t ascribed to the park system or the challenges of keeping local populations out of lands reserved for wildlife, but rather to the dangers of being an animal living in nature. A long scene also shot in Tsingy shows an endangered Decken’s sifaka lemur with her eight-week-old baby. The baby lemur is sad, Obama explains, because “resources in their forest are running out” — cut to dry-looking trees — and there is not enough to eat, forcing the lemurs to leap across cliffs above “gaping chasms” in search of food. The narration paired with dramatic music heightens the sense that the lemurs are in unprecedented peril… until you remember these lemurs have specifically adapted to live in this very environment, where cycles between wet and dry seasons are normal. Later a sloth caught in the rain is played to similar effect, despite the fact that his natural habitat is the rainforest.

 

The first time the camera stops to linger on a human who isn’t Obama is when we see a local farmer outside Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. “Just 40 years ago,” Obama tells us, “poaching and habitat destruction were rife.” But today, he explains, “Revenue from wildlife tourism is reinvested in local communities, meaning people can live sustainably with nature.” Obama is suggesting Rwanda can heal with help from the ecotourism industry, which is usually billed as a win-win-win solution for local people, the environment, and tourists. The idea, whose efficacy is dubious and difficult to measure, is that by folding locals into the tourism economy, making the people who were displaced to create the parks reliant on them, park managers can disincentivize poaching and undermine the black market for animal products — all while subjecting the local community to costly regimes of policing and surveillance. 

In Chilean Patagonia, meanwhile, Obama ventures an argument in favor of rewilding, a conservation strategy that assumes nature will revert to some imagined former state of wilderness if humans connect patches of conserved land and then take a step back. In the preserve of Torres del Paine, the camera follows a herd of guanacos. “It may look like a wilderness, but until recently it was used to graze sheep,” Obama says of the park. “Now the livestock have been removed, the wildlife protected, and the land is starting to return to its natural balance.” The passive voice — “have been removed” — makes you wonder how many farmers were forced out along with their livestock.

This area is part of the ten million acres of Patagonia that were bought up in the ’90s by billionaire California couple Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and the late Douglas Tompkins, North Face founder and former Patagonia CEO, before they donated it to the Chilean government as a national park system in the 2010s. The couples’ donation vastly expanded Chile’s national parklands, according to The New York Times, “enlarging the area of protection for pumas, condors, flamingos, and endangered deer species.” But nearby farmers have organized a resistance to the rewilding project. They complain that the rise in puma populations is threatening their herds, which they depend upon for their livelihood. Our Great National Parks has a short attention span, however: there’s no time to provide this context before moving on to glamor shots of an Andean condor chick. The narrative turns to a series of parables about how, when human needs are deprioritized, it is possible for animals to thrive. Under the stars, an arboreal opossum eats his body weight in food and drops seeds of hope for reforestation. “Give nature a chance and it will return,” Obama declares. “Balance can be restored.” Materially, what that means is taking land away from poor farmers and converting it into high-end vacation spots. 

No one, of course, is proposing rewilding Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Obama’s destination in the series’s fourth episode. “When I was a kid, this was my playground, the Pacific Ocean,” Obama says. A hotspot for both tourists and wildlife, Monterey Bay is littered with beach homes and kayaks. It’s the first time in the series we see people whose livelihoods don’t rely on land inside a park. Settled in beachside condos or amusing themselves with boardwalk distractions, these Californians are not the readily displaceable farming communities depicted in segments shot in Rwanda and elsewhere. “Can protected places and millions of people coexist?” Obama reads from the script. “Could there be a future for wild spaces where, alongside all of us, nature still thrives?” At no point is it proposed that the Bay Sanctuary be expanded by asking nearby inhabitants to vacate the region. 

 

Obama insists on the significance of national parks as “valuable sanctuaries, for iconic animals as well as rare and extraordinary creatures.” But beyond the photogenic fauna, the justifications for conservation put forth by Our Great National Parks remain muddled. “If you’re not sure why this biodiversity is so important to protect, consider this: a quarter of all our medicines originated in rainforests,” Obama intones against a backdrop of the Costa Rican rainforest. “We’re still discovering new medical advances hiding in plain sight.” In fact, it has been well documented that much of the medical knowledge originating from plants is derived from indigenous and local customs, not stumbled upon in the forest. And these same communities often still rely on plant medicine out of necessity, because pharmaceuticals, even those made from local ingredients, are unavailable due to resource hoarding in over-industrialized nations. No mention of any of this from the man who once promised to rein in Big Pharma. Instead, the camera fastens on a sunbathing three-toed sloth covered in green algae and the diverse microbiotic ecosystem in his coat. “He’s like a tiny pharmaceutical factory. Fungus in his fur produces chemicals that have the potential to fight cancer, malaria, and antibiotic-resistant superbugs,” Obama says. “This sleepy sloth might just save us all.”  

Another reason to celebrate national parks, Obama implies, is the specter of climate change. In Australia, Obama arrives at the subject seemingly prompted by the sight of a sea turtle swimming above a colorful coral reef: “It’s been said that we’re the first generation to feel the impact of global warming, and the last that can do something about it.” Before things get too grim, Obama offers us some of his trademark Hope: “But we’re not powerless. We can turn things around. If we act now.” Some flashing wind turbines and bicycles materialize, and we’re off to our next destination. “Each of us is part of this precious natural world — every breath we take, every glass of water we drink,” he reminds us. “The fabric of wild space connects to our lives in so many ways. It’s up to us to protect it.” Yet interconnection is exactly what the colonial logic of conservation ignores, as if cordoned-off parcels of land can be protected from the industrial pollution that surrounds them. When poaching and other so-called incursions from local residents — and, in many cases, former residents of the land — are presented as the major threat to national parks, it’s easy for the true causes of environmental degradation to fade into the background. As Obama surely knows, whether or not a coral reef is in a protected area, it will be bleached by rising water temperatures. 

Focusing on what happens inside parks is strategic: these relatively small areas are a manageable slice of an otherwise uncontrollable and chaotic world system assaulted by industrialization, emissions, and pollution. And Obama does admit that “every protected wilderness, no matter how remote, is connected to the outside world, through the movements of wind, water, and wildlife.” But this list is far too short. He’s left off a few other factors: nuclear waste, oil dependency, banks, globalization, colonialism, and war — all drivers of environmental change, and all spheres over which Obama held power for eight years.

 

“National parks are one of our greatest achievements,” Obama declares over a closing montage. “But in this world that’s getting warmer and more crowded, we’ve got to do more.” The former president is seen crossing a field with a group of multiracial youth. They look through a telescope. “The time to act is now,” he says.

It’s unclear what “action,” in this context, even means, especially for the people watching the series. As legislation bans plastic bags and straws, disposable masks made of polypropylene take their places in landfills everywhere, and with global attention on war and oil, President Biden has already begun backtracking on goals to move away from fossil fuel dependence. If Russian uranium is banned, the United States might start mining in protected sites. In the meantime, it has already resumed auctioning leases for oil drilling on public land — which makes you wonder whether these areas are being preserved in perpetuity, or merely as national reserves to be used in moments of crisis.

In Our Great National Parks, Earth is a place of wonders; nature can heal itself if we allow it; parks need to be big and nationally controlled; and humans and animals can coexist through a mix of market solutions, surveillance, and borders. What the series takes pains to ignore is that the pursuit of a mythical wilderness, and a time when humans did not exist, comes at the expense of the actual inhabitants of these so-called “wild spaces.” It’s also not a meaningful response to climate change. Stepping outside the colonial logic of conservation offers a better sense of what effectively protecting the environment might look like.

Currently, less than one percent of the funding allocated toward fighting climate change goes toward indigenous and local forest management. At the same time, by the Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas Consortium calculation, almost 30 percent of the world is currently being conserved by local and indigenous peoples. What would happen if, rather than kicking people off their land to convert it into more tourist destinations and reserves for future exploitation, the conservation industry followed the lead of people who are already practicing preservation?

This kind of nuance is lost in the force of Obama’s charisma. “The first time I visited Kenya,” he says, “I was a stranger. This was the land of my father who had passed away and who I barely knew. But I met my family. I visited the village they had come from.” As always, Obama tells us why his story isn’t merely personal; it’s universal. To visit a national park in Kenya is “to see the place where ultimately, all of us come from.” Never mind the fact that our common ancestors likely originated in southern, not eastern Africa: Obama was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good speech. 

Chanelle Adams researches, translates, and writes. She currently lives in Switzerland.

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