A Life On Our Planet: What Have We Learnt From David Attenborough?
For decades, David Attenborough has injected the vibrance of life’s biodiversity into our urban lives, adorning our concrete jungles with the ecstatic sights and sounds of our planet’s ecosystems from around the world. The intricate patterns of life on earth have been carefully disentangled in front of our very eyes and on our screens, as we venture from the variegated organisms inhabiting the deep blue, to the weird and wonderful found in the tropical Amazon. In his most recent documentary, Attenborough takes us on an autobiographical recount of his experiences of the natural world and the formidable decline of life on our planet, in an evocative “witness statement” calling for rapid change in response to our current climate crisis. One month since it was released, how has the world responded to this emotional plea for the future of our planet?
The story begins in Chernobyl, a hauntingly brilliant metaphor for the destruction of the natural world at the hands of humankind, where Attenborough introduces the idea of an uninhabitable world – the poignant reality of what is to come if action is not taken soon. We are taken on a journey with Attenborough, from his experiences of nature as a young boy, to his earliest documentaries, filming the unexplored and unprecedented wonder of the natural world. With each decade that passes, Attenborough introduces his extraordinary stories with a summary of environmentally important statistics: world population; carbon in the atmosphere; and remaining wilderness – numbers that, by the end of the documentary, illustrate how we are on the brink of the boundaries of life on earth, almost to the point of irreversible impacts.
Once we have seen the destruction of life that has occurred in Attenborough’s lifetime, he then explores the future prospects of the earth, and the catastrophic effects waiting for us if we continue living unsustainably: by the 2030s, we see the decline of the amazon rainforest, degraded past the point of saving and resulting in massive species loss; by the 2050s, all wild coral reefs are dead and fish populations crash; by the 2080s, pollinating insects disappear and there is a global food production crisis; by 2100, the earth is four degrees Celsius warmer, and we undergo a sixth mass extinction event. Attenborough explains these events as “a series of one-way doors bringing irreversible change.” These heavy and disturbing scenes are likely what have led to many describing Attenborough’s most recent documentary as “an obituary for the earth”, an unsettling telling of the end of life as we know it.
However, in the air of despondency felt throughout the cinema audience as Attenborough grieves for the planet he has loved, we are met with an optimistic solution; a glimmer of hope. The notion that we could “rewild the world” within the next century for future generations to come is put across by Attenborough, as he highlights some of the most important issues of our world – both environmentally and socially. As we fight for the future of our planet, we must challenge our unsustainable population – fuelled by inequality – our fossil fuel consumption – sustained by political and commercial factors which favour economic value over environmental wellbeing – and our lifestyle habits and diets. Attenborough states, “The trick is to raise the standard of living around the world, without increasing our impact on that world.” The innovation and adaptation human beings could achieve would save both the future of the planet and the future of ourselves, seemingly an unquestionable resolution. The documentary ends with Attenborough wandering among the wild foliage that has grown since the evacuation of Chernobyl, illustrating the resilience of nature against the harsh conditions set by humankind, an evocatively beautiful final scene.
We are being offered an ultimatum for our planet: to save it, or to passively accept the future – or lack of – waiting for us. But, has this made an impression on enough people? There is no doubt that for global climate action, we must call on those in power – those who can influence legislation and policies to fit the environmental needs of our earth
and implement change now. However, this doesn’t mean those of us with no such privilege are powerless. Attenborough has taken to social media platforms to further encourage and inspire change, most recently using Instagram to highlight five ways in which we can all make a difference: increasing plant-based products in our diets and avoiding food waste; favouring renewable energy sources; choosing sustainably sourced fish; requesting for more ethical and sustainable products from local retailers; and using recycled woods and paper, or even planting a tree. Even further, we must call on our governments and world leaders to listen to the science warning us of our future, and learn from past mistakes of ignoring the climate emergency at hand. We must rewild the world, before it is too late.
"It's surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth." – David Attenborough