by David Attenborough
There can be few people around the world who have not heard of David Attenborough. He has been involved in nature broadcasting for around seventy of his ninety-four* years. During this time, he has probably seen more of the planet than anyone else alive today. This book, A Life on Our Planet, is a personal statement of his life and experiences, and a stark warning we must all listen to.
‘We have become a global force with such power that we are affecting the entire planet. The Anthropocene, in fact, could prove to be a uniquely brief period in geological history and one that ends in the ultimate disappearance of human civilisation.’
Attenborough’s message may be phrased in any number of different ways. My choice is to phrase it like this:
Be very afraid! Unless humanity takes immediate and drastic steps to halt the warming up of the earth, and to stop and reverse the destruction of species of the natural world, the planet may be heading for another mass extinction event!
A Life on Our Planet presents the evidence. It also offers a solution.
‘The Amazon’s greatest environmental service is that, for the whole of the Holocene, more than 100 billion tonnes of carbon has been locked away in its trees.’
The book is structured in three parts, preceded by an introduction, and followed by a conclusion together with the author’s speech to the COP26 climate summit. The introduction is short. It is about Pripyat, a town in Ukraine (Chernobyl, if you prefer). We all know what happened there as a result of faulty planning and human error; the world noticed. But by focussing on the little picture, we missed the big picture, the decline of earth’s biodiversity.
Part One is the author’s witness statement to what has been happening in the years from 1937 to the present (2020)*. And it will suffice to give only a flavour of its contents by reference to three sets of statistics – world population, carbon in the atmosphere, and remaining wilderness. In those eighty-three years, the planet’s population has shot up from 2.3 billion to 7.8 billion. Atmospheric carbon has gone from 280 parts per million to 415 parts per million. In 1937, 66 per cent of wilderness remained; by 2020, it was only 35 percent.
Part Two is a forecast of what is to come in the next ninety years. In our blind obsession with economic growth, we are destroying the planet, sowing the seeds of our own destruction. Growth, or GDP if you prefer, cannot continue unchecked. Nature’s resources are finite. Models predict** that in the 2030s the Arctic will have its first ice-free summer, affecting not only the food chain but the Arctic Ocean’s ability to cool the planet. The 2050s could see ocean acidification reach a level that would not only kill all the remaining coral but fracture the reefs and reduce fish stocks to dangerous levels, directly affecting half a billion people but impacting on all of us. By the 2080s, more and more important harvests will fail. The start of the 2100s could witness a crisis of human migration.
‘At some stage, the situation may well be made worse with the emergence of another pandemic. An estimated 1.7 million viruses of potential threat to humans hide within populations of mammals and birds.’
Part Three presents some solutions to the problems our species faces. Briefly, these consist of moving beyond growth, switching to clean energy, rewilding the seas, taking up less space (for farmland), rewilding the land, and planning for ‘peak human’. Attenborough describes some of the brilliant attempts to achieve these things in the present day – the reforesting of Costa Rica, rewilding in the Yellowstone National Park, solar farms in Morocco, the recovery of the mountain gorillas in central Africa, to mention only four. The right things are being done, but by only a few people! They could be done by so many more nations.
A Life on Our Planet is an amazing story of humanity’s history, of the dangers it now faces, and of the wonderful future it might have if only more action is taken now. As far as I am concerned, it should be a ‘must-read’ for everyone!
‘Our future on the planet, the only place as far as we know where life of any kind exists, is at stake.’
*when this book was published
** scientific papers are cited for all the predictions
There is also a film of A Life on Our Planet (Netflix 2020)
2 thoughts on “A Life on Our Planet”
We need to do something, especially about the plastic waste. They are still making plastic bags, and we know they don’t rot down, so why don’t we stop making them.
I agree with you. This is one of the issues (and it’s covered in the book) where we can all act by not using them. Many of the other issues however need major international political will to solve, eg the growing of soy and palm oil which use up wild land. There are no signs in the uk that the will is there. Economic growth is seen as the holy grail.
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