A Life on Our (dying) Planet: David Attenborough's plea for climate and biodiversity

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By Carissa Wong, Fourth Year PhD, Cancer Immunology

In the brand-new documentary ‘A Life on Our Planet’, co-produced by Silverback Productions and WWF, David Attenborough declares his witness statement to the world.

‘Human beings have overrun the world’, Attenborough states in a soothing, yet desperate tone. Throughout his 93 years of life, he has witnessed catastrophic events unfold; dwindling biodiversity, a rapidly changing climate, melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels and more. These are no longer changes we can ignore.

Attenborough begins by reminding us that we live in one of the most stable periods in the history of our planet. We owe this stability to the rich biodiversity on Earth. Agriculture, upon which our civilisation was built, came about because of this stability and our intelligent ideas. ‘In the past, an animal had to evolve some physical ability to change their lives. But for us, an idea could do that’, Attenborough explains. Our intelligence has given rise to technologies that have enabled us to exploit Earth’s resources. However, these same technologies have caused a global warming that threatens the stability we have exploited for so long.

'Human beings have overrun the world'
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet | Netflix

Perhaps perspective is the biggest gift David Attenborough imparts on us through this film; age has given our favourite naturalist a new perspective on his own life. We follow Attenborough reflect on his past: a boy spending his days fossil-hunting, to a young man broadcasting ‘Life on Planet Earth’ for viewers back home. His reflection on a childhood of wonder is bittersweet, tinged with a sense of sadness.

Presenting the fossils he explored as a child, Attenborough explains that in the 4 billion years since life began, five mass extinctions have occurred. Without rapid action, we are quickly heading towards the sixth. Attenborough explains, ‘if we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.’ It’s a fair deal, but one we’ve struggled to realise.

‘If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us’

Though there are plenty of heart-warming clips throughout the documentary, such as Attenborough saying ‘boo’ to a sloth or rolling around with gorillas, the seriousness of the situation weighs heavy. We are shown black and white clips of young David Attenborough exploring untouched wilderness before he acknowledges that, ‘it was an illusion’ and ‘the forests and seas were already emptying.’

Stark statistics are displayed throughout the film, with numbers rising and falling in disturbing trends, throughout the decades of his life. Carbon dioxide emissions climb while biodiversity falls, all in clear association with the growing human population. When Attenborough was born in 1926, the world population was 2 billion, it now stands at 7.8 billion.

‘It was an illusion. The forests and seas were already emptying’

In the last half hour of the film, Attenborough presents to us the actions we must take. Eat less meat, protect the oceans from overfishing, support sustainably sourced palm oil and reduce carbon emissions.

Eat less meat - The food we choose to eat matters. When we buy meat, we demand space for farming livestock and the cereal they feed on. Half of the fertile land on our planet is farmland and 60 per cent of the weight of mammals on Earth are those we have farmed to eat. Meanwhile, other species lose their habitats. Nostalgic first images of Earth from the Apollo space mission show a blue marble suspended in empty darkness. We see our planet, finite in space and resources.

Support sustainable palm oil - Palm oil is an ingredient present in 50 per cent of products in UK supermarkets. Deforestation to make space for oil palm crops in South-East Asia has destroyed habitats and displaced countless rainforest species. The footage of an orangutan clambering up a lonely tree to look down on endless felled trees is difficult to watch.

Regarding palm oil, we are moving in the right direction. A no-deforestation global standard for palm oil was implemented in 2018 by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which prevents further deforestation for oil palm crops.

As consumers, we should support sustainable practices rather than enact a total boycott. This is because transferring to other vegetable oils would require nine times as much land to get the same yield. We can maintain a sustainable palm oil industry by supporting the right brands.

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Reduce carbon emissions and overfishing - the solutions are clear. Travel abroad less, buy local produce, walk or cycle if you can. Meanwhile, buying only sustainably sourced fish can help to prevent overfishing.

Though we watch from the comfort of our sofas, the content was intended to make us feel uncomfortable. Once the credits end, we need to carry that discomfort wherever we go. It’s the choices we make every day that will determine our future and the future of our planet. The planet we share with all its inhabitants. So, let’s start to make the right ones.

Featured Image: Wildlife Freelance Photographer / Alex Amariei


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