In his latest programme, David Attenborough takes us on a journey through his remarkable life and, alongside it, the decline of the natural world he loves. It’s part obituary and part call to action to save what’s left, and ourselves. Who better to ignite the environmental movement than nature’s greatest narrator?
Sir David Attenborough has devoted his life to telling nature’s stories and is loved by millions of people around the world, topping everyone’s dream dinner party guest list. His recent arrival onto Instagram broke records. But he’s not without critics. In the past, he’s faced criticism for only focusing on the natural wonders left and by doing so creating a false impression that everything in the natural world is okay.
In response to those critics and the change in public mood, his programmes have increasingly begun to feature environmental warnings alongside the usual cast of turtles, whales and wildebeest. A Life On Our Planet (and what a life it’s been by the way) is his “witness statement and vision of the future”. It begins with a warning from the remains of Chernobyl: if we fail to act now and fix our mistakes, the Earth will soon be uninhabitable.
The witness statement
At 94 years of age, Attenborough can perhaps best be described as a global village elder. A contender for the most travelled man amongst us, the show features some famous scenes from the archives. His moving encounter with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, of course, and his favourite dancing birds-of-paradise. There’s a memorable shot of him as a young man leaping shirtless onto a crocodile, much like Steve Irwin would do many years later. It’s also funny to hear how much his voice has changed over the years, from clipped BBC English to the warmer, softer tones we all try to imitate today.
The statement begins from his childhood and doesn’t shy away from facts. When he was a boy, searching for dinosaur fossils in the English countryside, there were 2.3 billion people alive, carbon levels were at 280 parts per million (a ‘safe’ level), and 66% of natural wilderness remained. As the show ticks through the decades, the first two numbers increase dramatically whilst the third, sadly, does the opposite. As he puts it “this is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind.”
He notes that, as time went by, the wildlife for his documentaries became harder and harder to find. Polar ice that he’d walked on decades before was no longer there. Rainforests and their inhabitants had vanished. In short, he’s a man who’s witnessed, first hand, the end of the Holocene. On the one hand blessed to have witnessed so much nature in all its glory, on the other grieving its decline.
As absorbing, articulate and passionate as ever, that soothing voice that we’re so used to narrating the grand migration of wildlife across the African savannahs, accompanied by soaring classical music, now tells of the global decline of the animals and habitats that he loves over a dark, mournful adagio. If it’s hard for us to watch it must be devastating for him. He even goes as far to say that everything he’s enjoyed up until now wasn’t real “it was an illusion, those forests and plains and seas were already emptying.”
— Since the 1950s, wild animal populations have halved
— Since the 1960s, half of the world’s rainforests have been lost
— Atmospheric carbon levels are now at 415 parts per million
If in the past he was criticised for not confronting our impact on the planet, he pulls no punches now “our blind assault on the planet has finally come to alter the very fundamentals of the living world”. He also makes it clear that it’s not just animals that are in danger, the loss of biodiversity impacts us too “we rely entirely on this finely tuned life support machine.”
One of our favourites, the orangutan, features in a particularly distressing scene examining their decline due to habitat loss. Acres upon acres of jungle destroyed for agriculture and timber, leaving the orangutans homeless and exposed. But, if things are bad now, they’re about to get even scarier.
Two visions for the future
After the witness statement, we’re given a vision of the future that’s far from ideal. The Amazon is a dustbowl, there are no summer ice caps, we’re running out food, and large parts of the Earth are uninhabitable for animals and people. A series of “one-way doors” that lead to a harsher, less beautiful world. You’re left wondering if there is any hope left, has even David given up?
Thankfully, no. “If we act now, we can yet put it right."
Just as the problems have arisen from biodiversity loss, therein lies the given solution. The message is clear. Through changes to the way we live and consume, we must restore biodiversity and rebalance the world.
Rewilding will revitalise natural processes that lock away carbon, regulate the Earth’s temperature, produce freshwater and improve food stocks, just as they’ve done for the last 10,000 years. A ‘renewable future’ based on clean energy and sustainable food production.
We’re taken to Palau, Morocco and The Netherlands to see how it can be done, and treated to another vision of the future in which we are once again in balance with the natural world. As we’re reminded again “this isn’t about saving our planet, it’s about saving ourselves.” Nature, as the final scene back at Chernobyl shows, can and will bounce back after we cease to exist.
— Restoring lost trees has the potential to absorb ⅔ of our carbon emissions to date
— If we preserve ⅓ coastal waters as ‘no fish zones’ it will mean we have enough fish to eat
— Going vegetarian would mean we only need half the amount of land for farming
This is an important piece of filmmaking. Who else needs to see it?
Go vegetarian to help save the planet
One aspect of our lives the show focuses on is the impact of meat farming on habitat loss. To illustrate his point he uses the example of big cats on ‘endless plains’ of the Serengeti, and how for every individual there has to be 100 prey animals in order for them to have enough meat to eat. Scale this up to human population levels and the amount of land required is enormous.
Switching to a vegetarian diet significantly reduces the amount of land used for farming and allows it to become wild again. Our carbon footprints would be reduced, and biodiversity would be restored.
Today, October 16th, is UN World Food Day, a day for recognising the impact of food on the environment and promoting an agricultural system that works for people and the planet. What better way to celebrate than experimenting with a new vegetarian or vegan recipe? Even better if ingredients are organic and locally sourced too. Let us know what you cook up!
We hope you found this fun and informative. If you have any questions or ideas about this (or anything really) feel free to get in touch with Emilia Cullborg, Editor and Head of Communication & Community Outreach.
Feature image: Lev Radin/Shutterstock
Headline image: Stephen Wickenton/Shutterstock