David Attenborough has spent his entire career making documentary films about life on our planet. Series like Life on Earth, and The Blue Planet set the standards for outstanding film-making and educated hundreds of millions of people about the beauty, diversity and fragility of our world.
A Life on Our Planet
By David Attenborough
Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2020
The witness statement, which takes up roughly the first half of the book, is mostly autobiographical. In it, Attenborough chronicles his career and key moments from filming some of his documentaries. But alongside his biography he also tells us about the changes he’s witnessed in the natural world during his lifetime. He describes the bleaching of coral reefs, deforestation in the Amazon, the decimation of fish stocks, and the worldwide collapse of biodiversity — all due to human activity.
“Since the 1950s, on average, wild animal populations have more than halved. When I look back at my earlier films now, I realise that although I felt I was out there in the wild, wandering through a pristine natural world, that was an illusion. Those forests and plains and seas were already emptying. Many of the larger animals were already rare. 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.” [p. 100]
He calls the loss of biodiversity our greatest mistake.
“The natural world is fading. The evidence is all around us. It has happened during my lifetime. I have seen it with my own eyes. It will lead to our destruction.” [p. 7]
Attenborough reviews some of the important scientific writing about what we must do to live sustainably on Earth. This includes the idea of planetary boundaries developed by Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center and his colleagues. (You can learn more about planetary boundaries from Rockström’s book Big World Small Planet which I reviewed here.) Attenborough also cites Oxford University economist Kay Raworth’s doughnut model describing a safe and just space for humanity. (I reviewed Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics here.)
Above all, Attenborough calls for rewilding the Earth. Rewilding is a fairly new idea. It’s about humanity restoring and retreating from significant portions of Earth’s land and seas. To restore stability we must restore biodiversity, he says. Earth’s ecosystems are resilient. If humans just got out of the way nature can recover effectively and surprisingly quickly.
Attenborough cites the famous example of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the US. The restoration of this apex predator, absent for 70 years, had a profound affect on the animal populations of the park, on its vegetation and even on its physical geography.
There’s a short video about this that’s worth watching if you’ve never seen it. Go watch it now. I’ll wait right here.
I must have watched that video at least a dozen times and it still leaves me awestruck.
Attenborough makes a compelling case for rewilding as a way to rectify much of the damage that humans have done to the Earth.
It’s not that he thinks climate change is a less important problem — he’s all for moving away from fossil fuels and reducing our carbon footprint. In fact he says that “the living world has never been able to deal with significant increases of carbon in the atmosphere.” More ominously,
“A radical change in the level of atmospheric carbon was a feature in all five mass extinctions in the Earth’s history and a major factor in the most comprehensive annihilation of species — the Permian extinction, 250 million years ago.” [p. 88]
Yet he emphasizes rewilding because it can help reduce atmospheric carbon as well as restore biodiversity. Healthy forests and oceans can capture enormous amounts of carbon — if we let them.
What would rewilding look like? What would it mean? Attenborough looks at some successful small-scale examples around the world and then extrapolates.
Let’s make all international waters a no-fishing zone, he suggests. Sounds crazy? Well he argues that letting fish stocks in the open ocean regenerate will seed the coastal fisheries that provide protein for over a billion people.
What about allowing farmland to revert to wilderness? Techniques like vertical farming urban farming, and adopting a more plant-based diet, could reduce the need for farmland. Letting it go wild and letting forests regenerate would not only provide new animal habitat, it would also help remove carbon from the atmosphere.
These and many other ideas make up Attenborough’s vision for the future. None of them are impossible, and none require radical technological breakthroughs. Taken together they form a revolutionary vision for how we live on Earth.
“The rewilding of the land is within our gift, and it is undoubtedly a valuable thing to do. Creating wild lands across the Earth would bring back biodiversity, and the biodiversity would do what it does best: stabilise the planet.” [p. 188]
However, we cannot achieve sustainability with a continuously growing human population. Population growth is already slowing, as he and many other authors have observed. We need to encourage that slow-down to happen all over the world as quickly and as justly as we can. For Attenborough that means educating and empowering women so they have the freedom and the security to choose to have smaller families.
Although this might sound a little flippant, I think you could boil down Attenborough’s recipe for achieving sustainability to just two points: add wolves, educate girls.
A Life on Our Planet is a great book. If you’re never read anything about sustainability, I highly recommend it. I was familiar with most of the ideas from prior reading but I still enjoyed it immensely. Attenborough writes really well and speaks with both authority and humanity.
What a life he’s had! Attenborough is 94 years old. He has seen so much of the world and witnessed so much change during his lifetime that his perspective is invaluable. I’ll consider myself lucky to live that long, let alone have the physical energy and mental capacity to write books and go traipsing off around the planet.
His warning is clear. we’re approaching a tipping point beyond which we may not be able to recover. We don’t have much time.
If biodiversity loss is our greatest mistake, then rewilding represents our greatest opportunity.
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If you’d like to share your thoughts on A Life on Our Planet or any other books on sustainability, please leave a comment.
Thanks for reading.