If we were asked to nominate the world’s most admired human being, David Attenborough would be near the top of everyone’s list. At the age of 94, Attenborough is a secular saint of the natural world, a figure of immense moral authority. It’s almost inconceivable that anyone could be dismissive of this revered documentarian. Even Donald Trump might struggle: “Crazy Dave – he wants to save the planet! He goes around hugging gorillas!” I’m not sure the base would buy it.
And so, when Attenborough makes a film he calls my “witness statement and my vision for the future”, it’s sure to attract attention. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, is the first feature ever released by the great naturalist, as all his previous work has been for television. It is the summa and testament of a unique career, and a passionate polemic on behalf of biodiversity.
In its autobiographical aspects the film tracks back over the same ground as Attenborough at 90, a tribute shot with Michael Palin in 2016, but now the emphasis is on the dramatic changes in the earth itself that Attenborough has oberved on his travels. The first two-thirds of the movie take his story from 1937 to the present day, charting the accelerating degeneration of nature, as carbon levels keep rising, wilderness disappears, and ever more species become extinct.
One of the surprising things about Attenborough’s career is that he came late to the wildlife documentaries that have made him a household name. When his breakthrough series, Life on Earth went to air in 1979, he was already 53 years old. His follow-up series, The Living Planet (1984), appeared when he was 58. From that point, TV series and one-off documentaries have followed in bewildering profusion. Along with the programs he has personally written and presented, Attenborough has provided numerous voiceovers for other people’s films, the sign of a man making up for lost time.
Although he has worked with dozens of producers and directors, Attenborough’s most important collaborators may have been the cinematographers that have brought so many startling images to the TV screen. He discussed his debt to others and his early career at the BBC with Michael Palin. In the current film he cuts to the chase, beginning with a potted history that lays out, in the simplest possible terms, the importance of biodiversity for the survival of life on this planet.
To give a dramatic flourish to his presentation he starts in Chernobyl, a rubbish-strewn ghost city, destroyed by human error and bad planning. He notes that this isolated disaster pales into insignificance in relation to the “true tragedy – unfolding across the globe, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet’s wild places.”
For the next 45 minutes Attenborough will reveal the full dimensions of our self-inflicted malaise. Over the past four billion years the earth has been through five great extinction events, in which all the “achingly intricate labour” of evolution has been undone by a climate catastrophe. The dinosaurs fell victim to the last great upheaval, some 66 million years ago, which is now believed to have been precipitated by a meteor.
Our own era, known as the Holocene, has been remarkably stable, with average world temperatures varying by less than one degree for the past 10,000 years. This stability has enabled humanity to prosper and grow, but it has taken us less than 200 years of rampant development to make an impact on the thermometer.
Attenborough trawls over the wreckage and explains the dangers we now face, looking in turn at the consequences of deforestation, overfishing of the oceans, the reckless extermination of other species, and the melting of the polar ice caps. His explanations could hardly be more lucid, with each sequence illustrated by spectacular footage from his documentaries.
The statistics speak for themselves. We’ve already cut down half of the world’s rainforests, we’ve removed 90% of the large fish from the oceans. Human beings account for one third of the weight of animals on earth, a further 60% belongs to the animals we raise for food. Everything else – “from mice to whales” – makes up just 4%.
There’s a lot more like this, but what’s most powerful is the emotion Attenborough brings to his task. “This is now our planet run by humankind for humankind,” he says. “There is little left for the rest of the living world… We’ve destroyed it. We’ve not just ruined it, we’ve completely destroyed that world. That non-human world is gone…”
Giving every indication that he’s veered off-script, Attenborough hangs his head. When he looks up it is to deliver two alternative visions of the future. In the first, we carry on doing what we’re doing. Within 20-30 years the Amazon jungle becomes a dry savanannah and the coral reefs have died. Fish and animal populations collapse, food production fails. As the rate of global warming increases exponentially, large parts of the world become uninhabitable.
Attenborough’s other scenario calls on us to take steps to raise global standards of living, arguing that improvements to health and education lead to a natural lowering of the birth rate. He shows how rapidly rainforests regenerate once we stop cutting down trees, and how quickly fish stocks are replenished with the establishment of ‘no fishing’ zones. Above all, he calls for a rapid abandonment of fossil fuels in favour of renewables. It’s our duty, he says, to “re-wild” the planet.
“Why wouldn’t we want to do these things?” he asks, with a trace of exasperation. For the short-term profits of a few we are risking the entire future of humankind. What is this but pure selfishness, pure stupidity or pure evil?
If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s the hollowness of the rhetoric we hear from politicians as to why we can’t afford immediate measures to curb emissions and advance the cause of renewables. A massive health crisis has proven that governments can find the extra billions they need in times of dire necessity. What’s missing is the will and vision to recognise climate change as an emergency, not an abstract political talking point. A pandemic burns money and jobs, but to invest in renewables is a way of creating wealth and new employment.
In this film Attenborough comes across not as a climate evangelist, but as the voice of common sense. The secret of nature, he says, is that “a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too… If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.” He believes we are completing a journey that began 10,000 years ago when, as hunter gatherers, we had no choice but to live a sustainable life. Today we are in the same position.
Attenborough’s final warning is bluntly pragmatic: “This is not about saving our planet, it’s about saving ourselves.” Even if we go the way of the dinosaurs, unsentimental nature will bounce back once the destructive force of humanity is removed. Attenborough’s “witness statement” pits a lifetime’s experience of the natural world against all the bad politics pushing us towards the abyss. This film takes us to the brink and lets us peer into the gloom, but there’s a road to redemption if we are willing to take it.
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet
Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes, Keith Scholey
Written by David Attenborough
Starring David Attenborough
USA, rated E, 83 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 September, 2020