Synopsis: Naturalist David Attenborough’s witness statement based on decades of observation and study: an alarming loss of the Earth’s wildlife & wild spaces. He outlines how to help stop the environmental destruction.
If there is one documentary you see this year, let it be David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet. Sir David has an urgent message for all of us, delivered over footage of magnificent wild spaces and glorious wildlife.
Sir David, nearing a century since his birth, has declared this film his witness statement. Typically, witness statements don’t recount cheery events like birthday parties. More along the lines of I saw this thing happen that was so horrific that people may not believe it: but I was there and it’s true. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat what he calls humans’ “blind assault on our planet.”
But don’t be scared off. The docu is much like the pharmaceutical commercials wherein regulators make the drug companies recite all of the potential awful side effects. But you don’t get alarmed by the voiceover, because the scenes are all of healthy looking, clearly happy people doing fun things. They may have mentioned that these meds designed to clear up your skin might kill you, but our eyes tell us that doesn’t happen. I mean, look at this person at yoga class– alive and well, thank you!
And so it goes with Sir David’s testimony. We’re treated to scenes of dazzling coral reefs (now dying because of global warming), exotic birds doing delightful courtship dances (facing extinction due to habitat loss) and so on. While we’re hearing about massive ice loss in the polar regions we’re mesmerized by colossal glaciers. O, and walruses! Big, fat, jolly walri. But they aren’t on icebergs, because those are pretty much gone. Now they have to haul their tonne-sized selves onto rock outcroppings, even ascending cliffs to find a free space. As you might imagine, evolution hasn’t suited them to climbing and rapelling and it is breathtakingly perilous for them.
Thankfully, we also get to go back in time to when humans hadn’t yet quite wiped out every last creature and blade of grass. We’re back in the 1950’s before David was Sir David, and just a strapping, optimistic scientist-adventurer. Flying above Africa, semi-plentiful with elephants (sadly, they have been longtime targets of human hunters). And here he is perched on a boat, rocking above a sea semi-chockfull of fish (already heavily exploited as a food source).
The naturalist has been visiting wildernesses and observing the animals therein for well over half a century. His delight is clear as he spies on a bowerbird or lounges near a seal. He was particularly intrepid when, well into his eighties, he was willingly lowered into a bat cave all the while chattering about the amazingness of the bats swooping around him. But this time he has really outdone himself. He goes to Chernobyl , site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and roves around, from the spooky deserted schools and houses to the streets where vegetation has taken hold. I mean, I know there are no long term risks to a nonagenarian…but still! Nonetheless, I did appreciate seeing the foxes, moose and Przewalski’s horses that now have the run of the place. And, no, the animals don’t glow.
Time for some hard facts… Sir David tells us that in 1937 the World Population = 2.3 billion people… Carbon in the Atmosphere= 280 parts per million…Remaining Wilderness= 66% of the planet.
In 2020 the numbers are downright scary… World Population = 7.8 billion people… Carbon in the Atmosphere= 415 parts per million… Remaining Wilderness= 35% of the planet.
Re. World Population…Obviously the planet can’t produce enough food or provide enough water for such a huge and fast-growing population. Easy to understand. David tells us that our planet can’t support so many carnivorous diets; using land to grow plants can feed more people. Remember, a panther can’t live on veggie burgers, but you can. With supplemental chocolate, of course.
Re. Remaining Wilderness…Many animals will die out and many species will go extinct without green spaces. Now I would be happy to host some aye-ayes and nenes, but I don’t think that will solve the problem. Fortunately, David informs us that studies show increased access to healthcare and education leads to people choosing to have fewer children. Not increasing the human population leaves room for animals and biodiversity. Got it!
Re. Carbon in the Atmosphere… The super science-y stat was intimidating. I figured that the alarm about the higher number meant that lots of carbon dioxide in the air is bad. It turns out it is! Carbon dioxide, released from modern industry like power plants and transportation, is the main contributor to the greenhouse effect (heat from the sun is trapped in Earth’s atmosphere instead of radiating back out into space). Sir David tells us that, prior to the Holocene Era, most mass extinctions were related to meteor smashes (bye, dinos–so sad) and volcanism. Volcanism is not to be confused with Vulcanism: the daily activities of Spock and his fellow Vulcans. Volcanism is volcanic activity and the film shows us lots of awesome lava-spewing that is hopefully related to creating new island vacation spots for us, rather than accelerating the doomsday clock.
Rest assured there is hopeful news. If we change our ways and advocate for laws that slow down destruction, we can restore the health of the planet. While David offers encouraging words, the screen is flooded with images of green rainforests and thriving wild animals. It’s actually very emotional. I wanted to throw my arms around a snow leopard crying We can do it! (I’ve read that they are not nearly as aggressive as most big cats–or your average housecat, probably.)
Great august conservationists like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough aren’t just spending their twilight years sounding the alarm, they are showing us a way forward. So raise your voice! If they can be brave and work hard, so can we.
P.S. Orangutans are shown in some of the most striking footage. The endangered great apes live in Borneo and Sumatra where they are starving due to destruction of forests for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is used in a wide variety of processed foods and other products. For more information about orangutans and sustainable palm oil production click here.
Mini Bio of David Attenborough: Born in England in 1926…received a degree in Natural Sciences, Cambridge, 1945…served in the Royal Navy in WWII… begins producing, writing and appearing in natural history programmes at the BBC,1950’s … becomes controller of BBC Two, 1965… Studies social anthropology @ the London School of Economics, 1960’s… Knighthood for services to Broadcasting,1985…Knighthood for contributions to television broadcasting and conservation, 2020…married to Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel, 1950 – 1997…the couple have two children, Robert and Susan.
Sir David’s notable nature documentary series include: Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984), The Blue Planet (2001), Planet Earth (2006) and Frozen Planet (2011).