David Attenborough: Why Retire?

At 94, David Attenborough isn’t finished with his life’s work: celebrating the natural world in ambitious, stunning documentaries, from the groundbreaking 1976 television series Life on Earth to the heartbreaking yet hopeful 2020 tour de force, A Life on our Planet.

This recent release is Attenborough’s “witness statement,” a powerful retrospective of the changes he has observed in the natural world during his own extraordinary lifetime. It’s a film that everyone should see, a compelling and urgent call to action.

A Life on Our Planet begins and ends in the Ukrainian city made uninhabitable by the explosion of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. Within 48 hours of that disaster, 50,000 residents were forced to evacuate, and no one has lived there since. Attenborough speaks of the bad planning and human error that caused this unprecedented catastrophe, but stresses that it was a single event. “The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding across the globe,” he says, and it too will lead to a place in which we cannot live – that is, if we do not take action now.

The film is filled with the stunning photography viewers have come to expect from an Attenborough production, including fascinating black and white footage from his early days as a BBC broadcaster and astonishing shots of tropical birds and other wildlife in their natural habitats.

But this film also shows the destruction caused by human activity: massive deforestation, a 40% loss of arctic ice in 40 years due to climate change, and an ever diminishing wilderness as the human species explodes in numbers never before seen in nature. These manmade forces have caused tragic loss of biodiversity on land and sea, which in turn threatens the very existence of human beings on Earth.

The power of this film lies in Attenborough’s thoughtful, passionate commentary, its feast of both gorgeous and disturbing images, and the science clearly communicated in numbers. A revolving “scoreboard” periodically flashes the following statistics through successive decades, beginning in 1937 and ending in the present day:

  • World population:
  • 1937 – 2.3 billion
  • 2020 – 7.8 billion
  • Carbon in atmosphere:
  • 1937 – 280 parts per million
  • 2020 – 415 parts per million
  • Remaining wilderness:
  • 1937 – 66%
  • 2020 – 35%

In his early career as a naturalist and broadcaster, Attenborough broke tradition by showing animals in their natural habitats rather than in television studios, and over his 60-year career he has traveled to every part of the planet. “I’ve had the most extraordinary life,” he says.

Even in those early days, however, he noticed that humans were impacting these wild places in dramatic, observable ways. For example, he notes that half of the world’s rainforests have already been cleared for lumber as well as to facilitate enormous monocultures of oil palms and soy. Rainforests are incredibly diverse habitats “where evolution’s talent for design soars” and are critical to regulating climate for the planet as a whole. “If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates – and the whole system collapses,” he says.

During the production of The Blue Planet (2001), his film crew documented the phenomenon of coral reefs bleached white by loss of the algae within them, now known to be caused by warming oceans. He comments that a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives, and bleached coral is a sign that the Earth is losing the delicate balance that keeps the planet healthy.

“The reef turns from wonderland to wasteland.” – David Attenborough

Attenborough notes that the stable temperatures and predictable seasons of the Holocene epoch in which we live have allowed the human species to expand in numbers and influence until we have “overrun the world. We’re replacing the wild with the tame,” he says, and he adds:

“We must re-wild the world.”

If humans don’t make changes in the way they interact with the natural world, the predictions are dire: catastrophic destruction of rainforests and species, loss of arctic ice (increasing the rate of global warming), death of coral reefs and fish populations, a global crisis of food production, unpredictable and violent weather, and extreme temperatures that would make large portions of the planet uninhabitable. The sixth massive extinction in the history of the planet would be imminent – and humans would be unlikely to survive.

But Attenborough doesn’t leave the viewer without solutions. He insists that we can help create an alternative future, one in which we treat nature as an ally and an inspiration. He says we must:

  • implement population control through education, healthcare and the elimination of poverty
  • phase out the use of fossil fuels and run our world as nature does, using solar power, wind, water and geothermal
  • safeguard the health of the oceans, which help reduce carbon in the atmosphere and provide food if managed sustainably
  • convert to a largely plant-based diet, which would require less land for raising meat
  • learn to farm more efficiently, without expanding farmland into wild places, which need to be protected
  • immediately halt deforestation and replant areas that have been decimated

In Attenborough’s opinion, these actions are not only possible but essential if we want to save ourselves. “The living world will endure,” he says. “We humans cannot presume the same. We’ve come this far because we’re the smartest creatures that have ever lived. But to continue … we require wisdom.”

“We’ve come this far because we’re the smartest creatures that have ever lived. But to continue … we require wisdom.”

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