I2P: Can you tell us a little bit about the show, Natural Curiosities, how you got involved and what your role is?
David Attenborough: There are lots of different kinds of natural history shows but actually I think this is a new kind. I don’t think there’s any other show like it. I mean the history of the way in which we discovered animals, the myths there have been about animals, the way we’ve solved problems that we know about animals, all those things we’ve rather neglected in other programmes. What these programmes do is to look at questions: how do birds find their way? how do pigeons find their way? how did turtles/tortoises develop their shells? Those sorts of questions are never covered by other programmes and those sorts of questions are the ones we deal with in the Natural Curiosities.
I2P: I watched one of the episodes on the ‘pizzly’ bears and killer bees and how humans are arguably somewhat responsible for their existence.
D: With Polar bears, we are concerned, because we know that the Arctic is shrinking and that the area of ice and snow where polar bears can catch their seals, which is what they live on largely, is shrinking. And we also know that south of that area, the Tundra, which is where grizzly bears live, that’s expanding.
So these two animals are meeting and we know now that they interbreed and polar bears and grizzlies are now producing ‘pizzly bears’.
Pizzly bears are bears that have half the characteristics of polar bears and half the characteristics of grizzly bears. We look at this problem and speculate about what’s going to happen in the future. Because of course human beings are responsible in some degree for the way in which that Pangea that is between the Tundra and the Arctic is actually moving.
I2P: So climate change is quite a big issue in that episode. Does it worry you?
D: Yes, I think everybody ought to be worried because there is no doubt that we are by far the most influential species that the world has ever seen by a long way. We are so clever, I mean we can do all sorts of things, we can sell a whole forest in a couple of days. We are so powerful and we’re so ingenious. And we are so numerous. It is extraordinary to think that just in the time that I’ve been making natural history programmes, which doesn’t seem to me to be very long — the human population has tripled in size. That’s fifty/sixty years.
All those new people naturally expect to have what we all expect to have, food to eat and places to live and places to educate their children, and all the rest of the things that we require. Now nearly all those things take space and where does the space come from?
To some degree we could be using brownfield sites, which we abandoned as wasteland. But by and large all that new space has to come from the natural world, which means there is less space for the other creatures with which we share this planet. And that ought to be of great concern to us. And I think people all over the world are realising that.
I2P: Population growth is quite a controversial issue though isn’t it. I worked a little bit with Population Matters, the charity that you support, and it feels like it’s such an obvious issue that we need to talk about but one that is quite prickly.
D: Well it’s very controversial because the right to have children is one of the most precious rights that we all have. Yet at the same time, if you’ve got a population that’s expanding as big as that, it can’t go on doing it.There’s an expression saying, anyone who thinks you can have infinite growth in a finite circumstance, is either an economist or mad!
The one piece of optimism that you can take from this one particular argument is that in those societies where women are in control of their own bodies, where they have a chance of their own voting, where there is proper medical facilities, where there is proper educational facilities, where women can decide whether or not they’re going to have children, in those circumstances the birth rate falls. That is not just in Europe, that is in many other parts of the world, where you can demonstrate those things. Invariably it happens. That’s the only consolation that I can find when looking at the future.
I2P: What issues do you think are most pivotal for us to look at and deal with in order to not completely destroy the planet?
D: Of the huge problems that are facing us, the one that we know about of rising temperatures and putting carbon into the atmosphere is a huge one. One of the most important things to do is get together the technologically advanced nations of the world and draw a road map to see what the problems are about generating energy from renewable resources — from the sun and from the tides and from the winds. You’ve got to solve how you can store that energy, how you can transport it over long distances, but we know the fundamental science of all those things. And what we need to do is to deal with the technological & engineering side and solve it so that within the next decade it would be that energy is available more cheaply from those renewable resources than getting it from oil and coal. Once it’s cheaper the problem is solved.
So that is an optimism that it is a problem that can be solved within the next ten years.
This interview was originally published by Impossible to Print on 21st May 2018.