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Book cover - A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough

Review: A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future - David Attenborough

I spent a good portion of this weekend reading the book and watching the accompanying documentary featuring Sir David Attenborough. They are the reflections of a national treasure coming to the mid-point of his tenth decade on Earth and it is no understatement to say that they make compelling reading / viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the issues facing our planet.

Sir David is now 94, and as he attests himself has had “the most extraordinary life”. He is of course familiar to almost all of us as the presenter of nature series such as Life on Earth, Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and Wildlife on One. Something I didn’t know was that he first ended up on camera by accident - after the first episode of Zoo Quest the original presenter fell ill, and as the only other person with the requisite knowledge Sir David was asked to step out from his role producing behind the scenes to presenting in front of it.

A Life on Our Planet is broadly split into three sections. The first is Sir David’s witness statement and recounts his journey as an 11-year-old collecting fossils in a disused quarry near his home in Leicester, through his travels around the world making documentaries for the BBC. 

In particular, he writes movingly about being in the studio when Apollo 8 made it’s voyage around the moon, and just before Christmas 1968 the astronauts were the first people to photograph the Earth in its entirety, vividly illustrating that “our home was not limitless - there was an edge to our existence.”

He also talks about a trip to New Guinea in the 1970s when he encountered a previously uncontacted tribe:

“I had a vision of how all human beings had once lived - in small groups that found all they needed in the natural world around them. The resources they relied upon were self-renewing. They produced little or no waste. They lived sustainably, in balance with their environment in a way that could continue effectively, for ever.”

Sir David then goes on to paint a picture of where we could be headed if we continue down the path we are currently on. The Holocene - the name given to the period of the last 10,000 years - has provided an incredibly stable environment in which we, and nature, have flourished. But we are now entering another epoch - the Anthropocene - where in the space of only 200 years we have wrought untold damage on the natural world. There is a running count of three key statistics, world population (2.3 billion in 1937 to 7.8 billion in 2020), parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere (280 in 1937 to 415 in 2020), and the percentage of remaining wilderness (66% in 1937 down to 35%). Several other damning figures are revealed:

  • We have already cut down 3 trillion trees
  • Half the world’s rainforests are gone
  • Summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years
  • Half of the fertile land on Earth is now farmland
  • 96% of the mass of all the mammals on Earth is made up of our bodies and those of the animals that we raise to eat. All the wild mammals, from mice to elephants and whales - account for just 4%

Should we continue along this destructive path a bleak future awaits us - runaway climate change, the Amazon rainforest transformed into savannah, mass crop failure, and the death of all our coral reefs. As he succinctly puts it:

“We can’t cut down rainforests forever, and anything that we can’t do forever is by definition unsustainable. If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates ultimately to a point where the whole system collapses.”

Sir David explains the reason why we don’t necessarily recognise the changes in the natural world by introducing the concept of the shifting baseline syndrome where each generation defines normal by what it experiences:

“A shifting baseline has distorted our perception of all life on Earth. We have forgotten that once there were temperate forests that would take days to traverse, herds of bison that would take four hours to pass, and flocks of birds so vast and dense that they darkened the skies. Those things were normal only a few lifetimes ago. Not any more. We have become accustomed to an impoverished planet. We have replaced the wild with the tame. We regard the Earth as our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world. The truly wild world - that non-human world - has gone. We have overrun the Earth.”

Sir David’s central point is that the true tragedy of his time has been the loss of biodiversity on Earth. And ultimately this is a tale with an optimistic slant because he reminds us in the final section that all we need to do is restore this biodiversity and rewild the world - and that the solutions we need already exist:

“It is all too easy when contemplating sustainability to focus on what we lose and miss what we gain. But the reality is that a sustainable world is full of gains. In losing our dependence on coal and oil and by generating renewable energy we gain clean air and water, cheap electricity for all, and quieter, safer cities. In losing rights to fish in certain waters, we gain a healthy ocean that will help us combat climate change and ultimately offer us more wild seafood. In removing much of the meat from our diet, we gain fitness and health and less expensive food. In losing land to the wild, we gain opportunities for a life-affirming reconnection with the natural world both in distant lands and seas and in our own local environment. In losing our dominance over nature, we gain an enduring stability within it for all the generations that will follow.”

He reminds us that there a success stories from the past we can draw hope from - collectively we have brought species back from the brink of extinction before, most notably mountain gorillas and whales, and countries like Morocco and Costa Rica have respectively swapped dependence on imported oil and gas for domestically generated renewable energy and reversed the decline of their forest cover.

He reminds us:

“Everything is set for us to win this future. We have a plan. We know what to do. There is a path to sustainability. It is a path that could lead to a better future for all life on Earth. We must let our politicians and business leaders know that we understand this, that this vision for the future is not just something we need, it is something, above all, that we want.”

And of the potential reward:

“If we do make the transition to renewables at the lightning speed required, humankind will forever look back on this generation with gratitude, for we are indeed the first to truly understand the problem - and the last with a chance to do anything about it.”

Essentially, the solutions are all there, it is the will to implement them on a global scale that is lacking. We are probably the only species with the ability to imagine the future but instead we spend too much time dwelling on the present - it is not for us to plunder Earth’s resources purely for our own benefit, in doing so we are depriving other species of their very existence. We must think of ourselves as custodians of this planet for future generations - both our human descendants and the rest of the living worlds. We need to stop replacing the wild with the tame, and instead “finally learn how to work with nature rather than against it”.

Sir David concludes with a call to action:

“It seems that, however grave our mistakes, nature will be able to overcome them, given the chance. The living world has survived mass extinctions several times before. But we humans cannot assume that we will do the same. We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom.”

In other words, we homo sapiens (or ‘wise man’ in Latin) are supposedly the smartest species on the planet. Why then have we not been enlightened enough to sustainably manage the abundance of resources this planet provides us with and maintain its biodiversity, instead of plundering all we see in a race for short term riches? There are those that know full well what they are doing is unsustainable, yet they do it anyway. If we believe in a different future it is incumbent on us all to speak up.

Sir David has been a tireless advocate for the natural world and has brought the great outdoors to our living rooms for over 60 years. But you get the sense that he would trade all that for wilderness being accessible to us all wherever we live, rather than having to be experienced on television.

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future - David Attenborough is available in bookstores and the documentary can be viewed on Netflix.

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