As Attenborough shows us, we are entirely out of moments to lose.
Fifteen years ago, I had one of my peak life experiences — enjoying a glass of wine with David Attenborough at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). We were celebrating his winning the Nierenberg Prize, given annually by SIO to the most influential scientists or those who excelled at bringing science into public consciousness. He was, just as you’d expect, buoyant and energetic. You could tell that here was a man of grace and dignity who wanted the people around him to feel like they belonged.
For sixty years, Sir David’s films have expressed his passion for the living world, perhaps like none other. Looking back, one realizes that he was always trying to get us to feel the utter astonishment that is nature’s creativity. How wondrous the forms she has wrought. How nuanced and intricate the behaviors she has sculpted over deep time. He never pointed out the threats much, although surely he knew they were growing. Perhaps he’d concluded that a focus on the beauty and wonder would make humanity want to protect such grandeur. And for some of us, that happened. But not for enough of us.
And so now, given the state of the living world, his demeanor has turned melancholy, but with a remaining glimmer of hope. In A Life on Our Planet, Attenborough shows how much has been lost just in his lifetime. As the human population grows exponentially since his birth, wildlife diminishes by a staggering amount. Now we have reached a point where humans and the animals we raise for food account for 96% of the mass of all the animals inhabiting Earth. A mere 4% of the world’s animals are wildlife as the living world has fallen to deforestation, palm oil plantations, industrial-scale agriculture, and meat production.
Attenborough suggests that our dominance is an illusion, a fleeting moment when it looks like we have mastered the planet. But climate change will move the deserts to the farmlands, withering crops. Water will become scarce in some parts, and drying forests will lead to even more uncontrollable fires. Attenborough touches on the fact that topsoil is eroding from farms. He points out that the planet’s water cycle is contingent on an intact Amazon, where trees pass water one to another for a thousand miles and around the Earth.
Nevertheless, he shows us that reasons for hope remain. Even at this late date, if we make the right moves now, we can avoid a ruined planet followed by inexorable human decline. Attenborough imagines that humanity can thrive if we act now. Stop eating meat, and you can be healthier. Stop burning oil, and cities will be cleaner and quieter. Start regenerating the world’s degraded forests, and they can absorb 2/3 of the carbon we’ve put in the atmosphere.
The good people at Nature and Culture International saw this coming decades ago and heeded the warnings. I don’t know of another organization that’s conserved 21 million acres of extraordinary wildlands, yet we surely must accelerate our efforts. As Attenborough shows us as only he can, we are entirely out of moments to lose.
With hope for our planet,
Charles J. Smith, Board Member, Nature and Culture International
In his 93 years, David Attenborough has visited every continent on the globe, exploring the wild places of our planet and documenting the living world in all its variety and wonder. Now, for the first time he reflects upon both the defining moments of his lifetime as a naturalist and the devastating changes he has seen. Watch ‘A Life on Our Planet’ now streaming on Netflix.