PBS' "Race to Save the Planet" is something of an anthropological primer for post-modern America. The first of its 10 hours gives a basic lesson on the development of mankind, trying to make you understand that we did not always have the same relationship with the environment that we now have.
"The Environmental Revolution" begins by following a tribe in Botswana still living as the earliest humans did, as hunter-gatherers. It then shows how man left his nomadic ways, established permanent residences and thus took up agriculture and herding.
That stability led to increases in population and certain environmental problems as various areas were over-exploited for popular resources, be it wood for fuel or limestone for plaster.
But the damage was slight compared to the next revolution, the industrial one, bringing people together into huge communities around factories, belching chemicals from smokestacks, beginning to fill the waters with sewage and waste, the air with pollutants.
The hour ends with a hopeful note, claiming that about 20 years ago another revolution took place, that of the title, the environmental one. In that revolution, mankind first became aware of the damage his practices were doing to the world and the possibility that its ecosystem could be broken beyond repair and began to figure out how to have a healthier relationship with the environment.
"Race to Save the Planet" is part of PBS' Showcase Week, this week's premiere week. It debuts tonight at 8 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67. It is also the major stunt of next week, PBS' third week of its new season, following "The Civil War" and Showcase Week.
The series will run in weekly one-hour installments in this Thursday time slot, but it will also be broadcast in its entirety over five nights next week, in two-hour chunks beginning Sunday night at 9 o'clock.
Sunday's second hour, "Do We Really Want to Live This Way?," looks at the environmental consequences of the modern consumer society on two specific parts of the ecosystem -- the air of Los Angeles and the water of the Rhine river.
"Race to Save the Planet" -- which brought out the stars with Meryl Streep as host and Roy Scheider as narrator -- avoids the alarmist, doomsday tone that often accompanies such documentaries, instead presenting its case in a straightforward, slightly scholarly manner that assumes once you know all these facts, you will do the sensible thing and modify your lifestyle.
That might be a dubious assumption, but it seems aimed at young people who are more malleable than those of us who helped get the globe into this mess. As one of the scientists studying the hunter-gatherers notes, the tribes' well-being totally depends on an understanding of its environment.
Which could be said of the rest of us, too, it's just that too few of us understand that. "Race to Save the Planet" is trying to do something about that.