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David Attenborough’s ‘witness statement’ for the planet (commentary)

Sir David Attenborough. Image courtesy of the BBC.

  • By the time Sir David Attenborough had reached his 50s, the human population had doubled in size from when he was born, multiplying our species’ impacts on the planet.
  • Famed for documentary films that reveal the natural world in startling detail and beauty, he’s also received criticism for these depictions, which some see as hiding the true level of the global environment’s startling decay.
  • In a new documentary, A Life on our Planet, Attenborough expresses the dire status of the planet and points to solutions.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

David Attenborough’s latest nature documentary on Netflix may be his greatest yet. Apparently stung by criticism about the false impressions his documentaries have provided on the state of our natural world, Attenborough has produced a witness statement outlining the changes to the environment over his 94-year existence and solutions to the biodiversity crisis he has lived through. At last, Attenborough clearly illustrates the devastating impact humanity has had on our planet.

Attenborough has lived through the initiation of the crisis – when he was a small boy exploring the extinct species found in quarries in 1937, 66% of the planet was wilderness. This was a world of stability – humanity’s Garden of Eden – that led to the Agricultural Revolution and our ability to expand our populations and distribution. By the time Attenborough filmed his Zoo Quest series in 1954, 64% of the planet was wilderness.

When Bernard Grzimek illustrated to the world in 1960 that wildlife needed huge areas, like the Serengeti, to persist, the planet’s wilderness had dropped to 62%. Soon after, missions to space showed the Earth as a lonely, isolated rock covered with water, and we began to recognize that we needed to look after our home.

In Attenborough’s words, “Our home was not limitless. We are ultimately bound by and defined by the resources on this planet.”

When Attenborough showed the world how similar we are to some of our closest relatives, mountain gorillas, in his Life on Earth series in 1978, wilderness had dropped to 55% of the planet. His interactions with the habituated troop of a species with only 300 individuals remaining, remain unforgettable. But to Attenborough, he was reliving the same phenomena he had observed as a child in the fossils he found at his local quarry – extinction, during his very lifetime.

By the time Attenborough had reached his 50s, the human population had doubled from its size when he was born. Our predators were eliminated, our diseases cured or treated.

“There was nothing to stop us, unless we stopped ourselves,” he says in the new documentary – and sadly, we have not. Vast swathes of forest have been cleared, waters polluted, species driven extinct. Even our oceans are wrought having been treated as humanity’s toilet bowl for the past millennia, 90% of fish are gone and corals are being bleached white. By 1997, only 46% of the planet’s wilderness remained. 70% of the birds on the planet are domestic – we’ve “replaced the wild with the tame” as he says.

Our past impacts on the species we share this planet with are reprehensible, and the future on this trajectory will be bleak. A Life on our Planet paints this picture with enough clarity to have my 12-year old daughter in tears.

See related: Biologists warn ‘extinction denial’ is the latest anti-science conspiracy theory

Humpback whale breaching in Alaska’s Inside Passage, Alaska United States. Photo by Rhett Butler.

However, this future does not need to eventuate – we can avert this disaster if we want to, and Attenborough implores us to. There are solutions – whaling almost sent the great whales extinct, but its cessation after society changed its perspective to this being unacceptable has led to one of the planet’s greatest wildlife recoveries. Mountain gorilla numbers now exceed 1,000 individuals thanks to concerted conservation efforts. We urgently need society (and the politicians we elect) to recognize the broader destruction of our natural world by a thousand cuts, and refuse to accept this any longer.

There are solutions to avoid this. Education leads to increased wealth and reduced birth rates – a solution to humanity’s overpopulation problem. We waste the majority of stuff we consume, be it food, electricity, or space – so Attenborough implores us to reduce waste if we do nothing else.

Nationalism must end – we need to recognize that we are all inhabitants of this planet and humanity will be devastated unless we address climate change and the biodiversity crisis.  Another potential solution is to get the generations communicating. Old people are much better than young people at recognizing the loss of biodiversity the world has seen over the past few decades, so communication between the generations could reinforce the impact of this intergenerational inequity.

Finally, Attenborough urges us to listen to experts – scientists may have been illustrating the problems for several decades, but politicians have preferred to play the short game and ignore the evidence.

Walking through the ruins of a school evacuated after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown (perhaps the most devastating environmental impact on the planet), Attenborough illustrates that all is not lost – nature can bounce back if we give it a chance. The removal of people from this area has seen forest take over the town, and rare wildlife has returned. Nature is resilient, if humanity’s foot is removed from its throat.

So who should watch A Life on our Planet? This is a fundamentally important documentary by a man trusted around the world, so ideally, this documentary should be seen by everyone, but the brevity of the biodiversity crisis, the potential impacts and the solutions would be educational to politicians worldwide. While some countries recognize the crisis we are facing, other recalcitrant nations prefer short-term profit over long-term calamity.

The great man has spoken. It is time for us to change our ways.

Dr. Matt Hayward is Associate Professor of Conservation Biology in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia.

View all of Mongabay’s coverage of conservation solutions here.

Banner image: Sir David Attenborough, image courtesy of the BBC.

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