David Attenborough's Career In Brief
David Attenborough passionately states the documentary, A Life on Our Planet (2020), is his personal witness statement of his life and the future. The film recounts the accumulation of Attenborough's life and career together with the evolutionary history of life on Earth, and grieves the loss of wild places offering a vision for the future of the planet. Having visited every continent on the globe during his lifetime, Attenborough has seen first-hand the monumental scale of humanity's impact on nature.
If you can't trust the earned wisdom of David Attenborough about the natural sciences he has brilliantly authored, documented, produced, and educated us over a 70 year span, who can you trust? Bowled over as a 10 year old boy in 1936 by a lecture at the University of Leicester in England where his father was principal, presented by a self-proclaimed First Man, conservationist, Grey Owl, who aimed to save the beaver, it handed Attenborough the idea that mankind was recklessly spoiling and plundering its riches, unheard of at the time. But it wasn't until the turn of the millennium that Attenborough's authored documentaries were adopting a more overtly environmentalist stance. These include such titles as State of the Planet (2000), The Truth about Climate Change (2006) and more recently, Climate Change-The Facts (2019).
Attenborough won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge in 1945, where he studied geology and zoology and obtained a degree in natural sciences. Throughout his career he has received numerous honorary degrees and prestigious rewards. At least 20 species and genera, both living and extinct, have been named in his honor.
We have all seen at least one of the documentaries David Attenborough has narrated and collaborated with to produce, if not dozens. We easily recognize his distinguished pleasant voice. His earliest works date back to the early 1950s with The Patterns of Animals and Zoo Quest to the launch of his 1979's Life on Earth authored series including nine themes containing 74 titles with the BBC Natural History Unit which shared the Life strand name and spanned 30 years. In his later career, he has voiced several high-profile, high-definition BBC wildlife documentaries including; The Blue Planet, Frozen Planet, The Great Barrier Reef, Planet Earth, and Green Plant. Keep in mind this is not a complete list of his body of work.
Today A Life on Our Planet (2020) is available on Netflix. As I watched it, I was bowled over by this moving film, just like the 10 year old David Attenborough was when listening to a lecture given by Grey Owl. I felt inspired to present the facts and figures in a condensed form in order to spread the word and simply to retain the information for myself or for you as the reader who has already seen it or plan to see it later as time allows. I encourage everybody to watch this inspirational documentary to get the full effect.
Note: I've included my own photography along with several photographs taken from old National Geographic magazines to reflect the beautiful photography in the film.
The Holocene Epoch
The film briefly introduces us to our current geological time period, the Holocene. Attenborough states that the Holocene has been one of the most stable time periods in our planets history. For 10,000 years, the average temperature has not wavered up or down by more than 1 degree Celsius or 33.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
Attenborough explains why:
"Phytoplankton at the ocean's surface and immense forests straddling the north have helped to balance the atmosphere by locking away carbon."
"Huge herds have kept the grasslands rich and productive by fertilizing the soils."
"Mangroves and coral reefs along thousands of miles of coast have harbored nurseries of fish species that when mature, then range into open waters."
"A thick belt of jungle around the equator has piled plant on plant to capture as much of the suns energy as possible, adding moisture and oxygen to the global air currents."
"And the extent of the polar ice has been critical in reflecting sunlight back off its white surface, cooling the whole earth."
"The biodiversity of the Holocene helped to bring stability, and the entire living world settled into gentle, reliable rhythm . . . the seasons.
Attenborough states, "The Holocene was our Garden of Eden".
World Population: 2.3 Billion
Carbon in Atmosphere: 280 Parts Per Million
Remaining Wilderness: 66%
"We learned how to exploit those seasons to produce food crops."
"Our intelligence changed the way in which we evolved. Our ideas could be passed from one generation to the next. We were transforming what a species could achieve."
"If we keep it up at this pace, if we do things that are unsustainable like cutting down rainforests - the damage accumulates ultimately to a point where the whole system collapses. No ecosystem is secure, not even the vast ocean."
World Population: 2.7 Billion
Carbon in Atmosphere: 310 Parts Per Million
Remaining Wilderness: 64%
"Human pace of progress isn't like anything ever seen before. After WWII the pace of industry and technology was getting faster and faster. It was inconceivable that humans could have the power to threaten the very existence of the wilderness!"
World Population: 3 Billion
Carbon in Atmosphere: 315 Parts Per Million
Remaining Wilderness: 62%
"Every species has critical roles to play. More than 1/2 the species on land live in the rainforest."
"Where tree diversity is key, we're turning into a monoculture of palm oil trees, dead in comparison. We're replacing the wild with the tame. Half the wilderness on Earth is now farmland. 70% of bird species are domestic with the vast majority being chickens."
By the turn of the century, half of the tropical forest in Borneo (habitat to the orangutan) has been reduced by half . . . the first place Attenborough witnessed devastating habitat destruction during the late 70's.
To date worldwide, three trillion trees have been cut down by our blind assaults cutting down 15 billion trees each year dwindling species numbers to the critical point of extinction.
World Population: 4.3 Billion
Carbon in Atmosphere: 335 Part Per Million
Remaining Wilderness: 55%
"Our predecessors eliminated the worst diseases and got them under control, we worked out how to produce food to order; there was nothing left to restrict or stop us unless we stopped ourselves. We would keep consuming the earth until we had used it up. Whole habitats would soon start to disappear."
Attenborough was shooting his Life on Earth documentaries about the evolution of life and it's diversity during the late 70's, visiting 39 countries, filming 650 species, requiring over over a million miles of travel.
"It was noticeable some of the animals were becoming harder to find."
"90% of large fish in the sea have been eliminated. Without the large species and other marine predators, the oceanic nutrient cycle stutters. The predators help to keep nutrients in the oceans sunlit waters, recycling them so that they can be used again and again by plankton. Without predators, nutrients are lost for centuries to the depths and the hotspots of activity start to diminish. The ocean starts to die."
"We have over fished 30% of fish stocks to critical levels."
"By damming, polluting and over extraction of our rivers and lakes, we’ve reduced the size of fresh water populations by over 80%."
"Wild animals from mice to whales make up only 4% of all animals."
"We account for over 30% of mammals on earth and a further 60% of the animals raised for us to eat."
"This is now our planet run by human kind for human kind with little left for the rest of the world of wild animals which have more than halved since I started filming in the 1950s. Humans have over run the world."
"The ocean no longer is able to absorb the excess heat caused by our over activities. The Earth is one degree Celsius warmer which is a speed of change exceeding any other in the last 10,000 years."
Attenborough expeditions have been able to reach remote islands in the Polar Regions that were once impossible by boat because of locked ice.
"Summer sea ice in the artic has been reduced by 40% in 40 years. Our planet is losing its ice heading us toward disaster. Our imprint is now truly global."
World Population: 5.9 Billion
Carbon in Atmosphere: 360 Parts Per Million
Remaining Wilderness: 46%
In 1998, a film crew discovered never seen before coral turning white. We now know coral bleaching has been caused by warming from burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Scientists had warned against it back then.
"A marked increase in carbon has always been incompatible with a stable earth. It was a feature of all five of Earths mass extinctions. In previous events, it had taken volcanic activity up to one million years to dredge up enough carbon from within the earth to deliver a catastrophe. By burning millions of years' worth of living organisms all at once as coal and oil, we have managed to do so in less than 200."
"The global air temp had been relatively stable until the 90’s, but the ocean masked the impact."
World Population: 7.8 Billion
Carbon in Atmosphere: 415 Parts Per Million
Remaining Wilderness: 35%
"This is my witness statement . . . a story of global decline during a single lifetime."
"But that’s not the end, If we continue at this pace on our current course, the damage that has been done “the defining feature of my lifetime” will be eclipsed by the damage coming in the next".
Science Predicts the Following
If David Attenborough were born today, science predicts if we continue at our current pace . . .. . .
The amazon rainforest will be cut down so it can no longer produce enough moisture and degrades into a dry savannah, bringing catastrophic species loss and altering the global water cycle.
The arctic becomes ice-free in the summers. Without the white ice-cap, less of the sun's energy is reflected back out to space and the speed of global warming increases.
Throughout the north, frozen soils thaw, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change dramatically.
As oceans continue to heat and become more acidic, coral reefs globally die. The fish populations crash.
Global food production is at a crisis as soils become exhausted by tilling and overuse.
Pollinating insects disappear.
Weather is more and more unpredictable.
Our planet becomes 4 degrees Celsius warmer.
Large parts of earth are uninhabitable.
Millions of people are rendered homeless.
The sixth mass extinction event is well underway.
"Within the next span of next lifetimes, the stability and security of the Holocene “Our Garden of Eden” will be lost."
"The longer we leave things the way they are, the more difficult it will be to do something about it".
"To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing that we’ve removed. We must rewild the world. Simpler than we might think. A century from now we can." How . . .
"Every other species on earth reaches a maximum population in time, the number that can be sustained on the natural resources available. With nothing to restrict us, our population has been growing dramatically through David Attenborough’s 93 year life time."
"Current population projections by 2100 will be 11 Billion, but it’s possible to slow it."
"For example, Japan’s standard of living climbed rapidly in the latter half of the 20th century. As healthcare and education improved, people’s expectations and opportunities grew and the birth rate fell. During the 1950’s, they averaged 3 children per family and by 1975 it fell to 2 children per family on average. The population has stabilized."
"As nations develop, people decide to have fewer children. The amount of children worldwide, the number of children people are having is about to level off. Experts predict the population will peak soon . . . raising people's standards of living can make it peak sooner."
"The living world is essentially solar powered. Plants capture 3 trillion kilowatt hours of solar energy each day. That’s almost 20 times more energy we need, just from sunlight."
"Man needs to phase out fossil fuels by relying on natures sources of sunlight, water, wind, and geothermal energy."
"Morroco uses 40% from solar energy. Within 20 years, we could all rely on solar energy solely."
"It's crazy that our banks and pensions are investing in fossil fuels, the very thing jeopardizing our future."
"Renewable energy will be more affordable, never run out and cities will be cleaner and quieter."
"The more healthy and diverse our oceans are, the more carbon it absorbs and food it provides."
"As a result of no fish zones in the Pacific Islands of Palau reliant on the coral reef for tourism, the healthy come back spilled over into fishing zones while allowing the reefs to recover. 1/3 of coastal seas with no fish zones worldwide would be sufficient to provide us with all the fish we would ever need."
"The United Nations is attempting to create the biggest no fish zone of all in international waters from exhaustive fishing fleets."
Change Our Diets
"When we chose to eat large amounts of meat, we demand a huge expanse of land space. By choosing a higher plant based diet, we would need only half the land we use at the moment. We eat more meat now than any time in history."
"The planet can't support billions of large meat-eaters. There simply isn't enough space."
Netherlands is a heavily populated country covered with small family farms who have become experts at getting the most of every hector sustainably, using less water, fertilizer and pesticides, producing less carbon in the atmosphere. Despite their size, the Netherlands is now the world’s second largest exporter of food.
"We can produce indoors in cities with high tech practices."
"No till is another evolving technique leaving grass to keep in micronutrients in the soil and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere at the same time."
"Forests are the center of biodiversity making them more efficient in absorbing carbon. Instead of deforesting new land, we can use land already deforested long ago, there’s plenty of it to plant palm oil or soy."
"A century ago, 3/4 of Costa Rica was rainforest. Today only 1/4 of it remains by uncontrolled logging during the 1980’s. The government decided to act offering grants to land owners to replant native trees. In 25 years, the forest has recovered to 1/2 of the forest it once was. On a global scale, similar action would be astounding absorbing 2/3 of carbon emissions we have pumped into the atmosphere to date by our activities."
"With all these things, there is one overriding principle; Nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration! We have to do what nature has always done. It worked out the secret of life long ago. In this world, a species can only survive when everything else around it thrives too. By embracing this reality, we can solve the problems we now face. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us."
"To establish a life on this planet in balance with nature, we need to rediscover how to be sustainable like the hunters and gatherers 10,000 years ago. We need to move to being a part of nature once again."
"It’s not just about saving the planet, but saving our lives. Nature will come back with or without us. We require more from intelligence, to continue we require more from wisdom."
© 2020 Kathi Mirto
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 29, 2020:
This is an important article. It's very worrying to think about what's in store for the Earth and its inhabitants if we don't make major changes very soon.
I've liked all the David Attenborough shows and series that I've seen. The film that you've described sounds like another excellent creation. Thank you for sharing the information about it.