David Attenborough’s Witness Statement

A life spent traveling the natural world only to see the natural world reduced to a fraction of what it once was

Sean Youra
Oct 9, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

“This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world.” — David Attenborough, A Life On Our Planet

Seeing the world change around you

The opening scene of A Life On Our Planet is of the desolate wasteland of what was once the city of Pripyat in the Soviet Union (what is now located in Ukraine). The explosion at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 led to the spread of radioactive particles that traveled hundreds of miles and, by some estimates, caused 90,000 deaths. Vast swaths of land around the site of the explosion are no longer habitable for humans — and won’t be for thousands of years.

The narrator of the film, David Attenborough, walking through the abandoned, dilapidated buildings of Pripyat in this opening scene, recounts his life traversing our wondrous planet and sharing that wonder with the rest of us. Who better to tell us how our planet is doing than the man who’s spent his entire life visiting every region of it?

For much of his life, it was a planet full of rich biodiversity with more species than we will probably ever be able to count.

However, he also noticed that this planet was changing, fast. In a single lifetime, he witnessed our planet transform from a place of infinite wilderness to a planet severely lacking in wild habitats, which are key to nature’s incredible biodiversity.

In effect, what he saw was several mini-Chernobyls happening across our planet over the course of decades, some perceptible and others hidden until more recently.

From widespread deforestation to make way for animal agriculture and palm oil to the rapid warming (that far exceeds natural variability) of our oceans and land, we are losing biodiversity in every region of the world. Biodiversity that we rely on for our own survival as a species.

We have lost half our wilderness in a single human lifetime.

In 1937, when David was just a boy, the world population stood at 2.3 billion with 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and 66% of the planet’s wilderness left. An era of time marked by the relatively stable climate provided by the Holocene period that allowed life on Earth to flourish for millions of years — or as David calls it, “our Garden of Eden.”

Fast forward 83 years, and we have now left the stable temperature range and climate of the Holocene period. This year, there are now over 7.8 billion people on this planet with 415 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and only 35% remaining wilderness. We have lost half our wilderness in a single human lifetime.

He then shows us what another human lifetime for a child born today might be like on our planet if we continue on as we have as a species. And the picture is quite bleak.

A world where the Amazon rainforest turns into a dry savannah. Where the Arctic is ice-free in the summer. Where permafrost melts and releases massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere further accelerating climate change. Where coral reefs die-off due to increasing marine heatwaves and ocean acidification. Where fish and other marine organism populations crash, creating supply shortages for human consumption. Where crop yields decline as a result of increasing droughts and poor management of the soils. Where pollinating insects start to disappear as well as the plants that rely on these insects. Where increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events make life on Earth far more precarious.

In short, a world devoid mostly of life compared to what it once was.

Seemingly taking a cue from Simon Sinek’s recent take on how we should be framing the issue of climate change, David says, “This is not about saving our planet…it’s about saving ourselves.”

This message is evident by the closing scene from the film that once again takes us to the deserted town of Pripyat. Except upon closer inspection, it’s not deserted at all. It is now teeming with life again, just not human life.

Nature always finds a way to rebuild itself. It did so after the past five mass extinctions on Earth. The planet will be fine in the long-run; we may just not be around to see it.

Learning to live within the world around you

What many of us now realize is what David, and many scientists, started realizing decades ago: our planet is changing because of us and now forcing us to change in return.

But not all change is bad. And thanks to nature’s resilience, we still have an open window of opportunity to change things for the better despite what the doomsdayers might say. However, that window will not be open forever; in fact, it is quickly closing.

In order to build a more sustainable future for ourselves, the film recommends the following:

  1. Utilizing natural forces (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal, tidal) to power our society
  2. Divesting from fossil fuels
  3. Implementing “no-fish” (or “no-take”) zones to restore marine life, which would still leave plenty of fish for consumption
  4. Slowing human population growth by working to eradicate poverty and improving access to education and healthcare
  5. Adopting a more plant-based diet to reduce our need for large-scale animal agriculture
  6. Moving towards regenerative and sustainable agriculture that improves crop yields while reducing emissions as well as water and pesticide use
  7. Halting deforestation and reversing this trend, to reforest natural habitats and restore our natural carbon sinks in the process

Most importantly, we must restore Earth’s biodiversity that has been lost over the decades. This task of restoring biodiversity should be something all of us can get behind, because regardless of your ideologies, we are still creatures of nature. That innate sense of belonging with nature will never go away, and we must embrace it to the fullest.

You see, the scene of abandoned buildings in Pripyat surrounded by forest is not just one of destruction. It is a reminder that if humans want to survive and thrive with nature, then we must be a part of nature, not isolated from it.

“Nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration.”— David Attenborough, A Life On Our Planet

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Sean Youra

Written by

Engineer and climate activist | Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Climate Conscious | Envisioning a brighter future emerging from solutions to the climate crisis

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Sean Youra

Written by

Engineer and climate activist | Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Climate Conscious | Envisioning a brighter future emerging from solutions to the climate crisis

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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