It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the landing.
An annotated transcript of “David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet“, Attenborough’s witness statement to the destruction of wilderness. Annotations are the musings, associations and reflections, prompted by Attenborough’s narration, not to detract, contradict or diminish the wonderfully rich and authentic witness statement of a global treasure, one of humanity’s best.
This city1Chernobyl in the Ukraine, was once home to almost fifty thousand people. They had everything a community would need for a comfortable life. But on the twenty sixth of April 1986 it suddenly became uninhabitable. The nearby nuclear power station of Chernobyl exploded. And in less then forty eight hours the city was evacuated. No one has lived here since.
The explosion was the result of bad planning and human error. Mistakes. It triggered an environmental catastrophy that had an impact across Europe. Many people regarded it as the most costly in the history of mankind. But Chernobyl was a single event. The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding. Across the globe barely noticeable from day to day. I’m talking about the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity.
The living world is a unique and spectacular marvel. Billions of individuals of millions of kinds of plants and animals, dazzling in their variety and richness. Working together to benefit from the energy of the sun and the minerals of the earth. Leading lives that interlock in such a way that they sustain each other. We rely entirely on this finely tuned life support machine2Isn’t it fascinating that we think of natural phenomena in terms of whatever is most trending in contemporary technology. Something that seems … Continue reading. And it relies on its biodiversity to run smoothly. Yet the way we humans live on the earth now is sending biodiversity into a decline.
This too is a result of bad planning and human error. And it too will lead to what we see here: a place in which we cannot live.
The natural world is fading. The evidence is all around. It’s happened in my lifetime. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. This film is my witness statement and my vision of the future. The story of how we came to this, our greatest mistake. And how if we act now, we can yet put it right.
I, am David Attenborough. And I am ninety three.3Born: May 8, 1926
I’ve had the most extraordinary life. It’s only now that I appreciate just how extraordinary.
I’ve been lucky enough spending my life exploring the wild placed of our planet. I’ve travelled to every part of the globe. I’ve experienced the living world first-hand, in all its variety and wonder. In truth I couldn’t imagine living my life in any other way. I’ve always had a passion to explore, to have adventures, to learn about the wild beyond. And I’m still learning, as much now, as I did as a boy.
It was a very different world back then. We had very little understanding of how the living world actually worked. It was called natural history, because that is essentially what it was all about: history.
It was a great place to come to as a boy, because, this is an iron stone working, but it was disused. All this was absolutely cleared. It had just stopped being a working quarry.
When I was a boy I spent all my spare time searching through rocks in places like this for buried treasure: fossils.
It’s a creature called an ammonite and in life the animal itself lived in a chamber here and spread out its tentacles to catch its prey. And it lived about one hundred and eighty million years ago. This particular one has a scientific name of Tiltoniceras, because the first one ever was found near this quarry here in Tilton in the middle of England.
Every time I began to learn something about the earth’s evolutionary history. By and large it is a story of slow steady change. Over billions of years nature has crafted miraculous forms. Each more complex and accomplished then the last. It’s an achingly intricate labour. And then every hundred million years or so, after all those painstaking processes something catastrophic happens: a mass extinction. Great numbers of species disappear and are suddenly replaced by a few. All that evolution undone. You can see it: a line in the rock layers, a boundary that marks a profound rapid global change. Below the line are a multitude of life forms. Above: very few.
A mass extinction has happend five times in life’s four billion year history. The last time it happend was the event that brought the end of the age of the dinosaurs. A meteorite impact triggered a catastrophic change in the earth’s conditions. Seventy five percent of all species were wiped out. Life had no option but to rebuild. For sixty five million years it has been working, reconstructing the living world. Until we come to the world we know: our time. Scientists call it the Holocene.
The Holocene has been one of the most stable periods in our planet’s great history. For ten thousand years the average temperature has not wavered up or down by more then one degree Celsius. And the rich and thriving world around us has been key to this stability.
Phytoplankton at the ocean surface and immense forests straddling the north have helped to balance the atmosphere by locking away carbon. Huge herds on the plains have kept the grasslands rich and productive by fertilising the soils.
Mangroves and reefs along thousands of miles of coast have harboured nurseries of fish species that, when mature, then range into open waters.
A thick belt of jungles around the equator has piled plant on plant to capture as much of the sun’s energy as possible adding oxygen and moisture to the global air currents.
And the extent of the polar ice has been critical, reflecting the sunlight back of its white surface, cooling the whole earth.
The biodiversity of the Holocene helped to bring stability. And the entire living world settled in to a gentle reliable rhythm: the seasons.
On the tropical plains, the dry and rainy seasons would switch every year like clockwork. In Asia the winds would create the monsoon on cue. In the temperate regions the temperature would lift in March bringing spring and stay high until they dipped in October and brought about autumn.
The Holocene was our Garden of Eden. It’s rhythm of seasons was so reliable that it gave our own species a unique opportunity: we invented farming.4Could there be a bit of a contradiction here? When reliable seasons suggest that the natural abundance of food is reliable, does it make sense that … Continue reading We learned how to exploit the seasons to produce food crops. The history of all human civilisation followed.5The clearest possible statement of the entanglement of farming and civilisation, the taming of humans and their environment. Each generation able to develop and progress only because the living world could be relied upon to deliver us the conditions we needed. The pace of progress was unlike anything to be found in the fossil record.
Our intelligence changed the way in which we evolved. In the past animals had to develop some physical ability to change their lives. But for us, an idea could do that. And an idea could be passed from one generation to the next.6Would it be fair to suggest that our mental health then is the key, the root cause of how our world has evolved inevitably to the point where we find … Continue reading We were transforming what a species could achieve.
A few millennia after this began, I grew up at exactly the right moment.
The start of my career in my twenties coincided with the advent of global air travel. So I had the privilege of being amongst the first to fully experience the bounty that had come about as a result of the Holocene’s gentle climate.
Wherever I went, there was wilderness.7On “wilderness”: it seems that wilderness, wild and will have the same linguistic root in common. Words related to being self-driven, … Continue reading Sparkling coastal seas. Vast forests. Immense grasslands. You could fly for hours over the untouched wilderness. And there I was, actually asked to explore these places and record the wonders of the natural world for people back home.
And to begin with, it was quite easy. People had never seen pangolins before on television. They’d never seen sloths before.They’d never seen the centre of New Guinee before. It was the best time of my life. The best time of our lives.
The seconds world war was over. Technology was making our lives easier. The pace of change was getting faster and faster. It felt that nothing would limit our progress. The future was going to be exiting. It was going to bring everything we ever dreamed of. This was before any of us were aware that there were problems.
My first visit to east Africa was in 1960. Back then it seemed inconceivable that we, a single species, might one day have the power to threaten the very existence of the wilderness8Is it possible, that in hindsight, this was an inevitable outcome of civilisation (the intentional separation of humans from their environment, the … Continue reading.
The Masai word ‘Serengeti’ means: endless plains. To those who live here, it’s an apt description. You can be in one spot on the Serengeti and the place is totally empty of animals. And then, the next morning: one million wildebeast, a quarter of a million zebra, half a million gazelle. A few days after that and they’re gone, over the horizon. You can be forgiven for thinking that these plains are endless when they could swallow up such a herd.
It took the visionary scientist Bernhard Grzimek to explain that this wasn’t true. He and his son used a plane to follow the herds over the horizon. They charted them as they moved across rivers, through woodlands and over national borders. They discovered the Serengeti herds required an enormous area of healthy grassland to function. That without such an immense space, the herds would diminish. The entire ecosystem would come crashing down.
The point for me was simple: the wild is far from unlimited, it’s finite, it needs protecting. And a few years later that idea became obvious to everyone.9Perhaps this is where biodiversity comes in. Each species has its own unique niche. Its own place and function. By being different, each species … Continue reading
I was in a television studio when the Apollo mission launched. It was the first time that any human had moved far enough away from the earth to see the whole planet. And this is what they saw. What we all saw. Our planet, vulnerable and isolated. One of the extraordinary things about it was that the world could actually watch is as it happened. It was extraordinary that you could see what a man out in space could see, as he saw it at the same time. And I remember very well, that first shot, you saw a blue marble, a blue sphere in the blackness. And you realised that that was the earth and in that one shot was the whole of humanity, nothing else, except the person that was in the spacecraft taking that picture. And that completely changed the mindset of the population, the human population of the world. Our home was not limitless. There was an edge to our existence. It was a rediscovery of a fundamental truth: we are ultimately bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world about us.
This truth defined the life in our pre-history, before farming and civilisation.10Could it be that here in this observation, lies the wisest way forward? Civilisations seems fundamentally flawed and inherently resistant against any … Continue reading Even as some of us were setting foot on the moon, others were still leading such a life in the most remote parts of the planet.
In 1971 I set out to find an uncontacted tribe in New Guinee. These people were hunter-gatherers, as all human kind had been before farming. They lived in small numbers and didn’t take too much. They ate meat rarely, The resources they used, naturally renewed themselves. Working with their traditional technology they were living sustainably. A lifestyle that could continue effectively forever. It was a stark contrast to the world I knew, a world that demanded more every day.
I spent the latter half of the 1970’s travelling all over the world, making a series I had long dreamed of, called “Life on Earth”, the story of the evolution of life and its diversity. It was shot in thirty nine countries. We filmed six hundred and thirty species and we travelled one and a half million miles. That is the sort of commitment you need to even begin making a portrait of the living world. But it was noticeable that some of these animals were becoming harder to find.
When I filmed with the mountain gorillas, there were only three hundred left in a remote jungle in central Africa. Baby gorillas were at a premium and poachers would kill a dozen adults to get one. I got as close as I did, only because the gorillas were used to people. The only way to keep them alive, was for rangers to be with them every day.
The process of extinction I’d seen as a boy in the rocks, I now became aware was happening right there around me to animals with which I was familiar, our closest relatives. And we were responsible. It revealed a cold reality: once a species became our target, there was now nowhere on earth that it could hide.
Whales were being slaughtered by fleets of industrial whaling ships in the 1970’s. The largest whales, the blue’s, numbered only a few thousand by then. They were virtually impossible to find. We found humpbacks off Hawaii only by listening out for their calls.
A moment ago we made this recording with an underwater microphone here in the Pacific near Hawaii. Just listen to this…
Recordings like these revealed that the songs of the Humpbacks are long and complex. Humpbacks in the same area, learn their songs from each other, have distinct themes and variations which evolve over time. Their mournful songs were key in transforming people’s opinions about them.
Hello Vostok. We are Canadian. Please stop killing the whales.
Animals that had been viewed as little more than a source of oil and meat, became personalities.
We are men and women, and we speak for children. We are all saying: please stop killing the whales.
We have pursued animals to extinction many times in our history. But now that it was visible, it was no longer acceptable. The killing of whales turned from a harvest to a crime. A powerful shared conscience suddenly appeared. Nobody wished animals to become extinct. People were coming to care for the natural world, as they were made aware of the natural world. And we now have the means to make people across the world aware.
By the time Life on Earth aired in 1979, I had entered my fifties. There were twice the number of people on the planet as there were when I was born.
You and I belong the the most widespread and dominant species of animal on earth. We’re certainly the most numerous large animal. There are something like four thousand million of us today. And we reached this position with meteoric speed. It’s all happened withing the last two thousand years. We seem to have broken loose from the restriction that have governed the activities and numbers of other animals.
We had broken loose. We were apart from the rest of life on earth. Living a different kind of life. Our predators had been eliminated. Most of our diseases were under control. We had worked out how to produce food to order. There was nothing left to restrict us. Nothing to stop us. Unless we stopped ourselves. We would consume the earth until we had used it up. Saving individual species or even groups of species would not be enough. Whole habitats would soon start to disappear.
I first witnessed the destruction of an entire habitat in south-east Asia. In the 1950’s Borneo was three quarters covered with rain forests.
We heard a crashing in the branches ahead. And there, only a few yards away, we spotted a great fury red form swaying in the trees: the Orangutan.
By the end of the century Borneo’s rain forests had been reduced by half. Rain forests are particularly precious habitats. More then half the species on land live here.They’re places in which evolution’s talent for design soars.
Many of the millions of species in the forest exist in small numbers. Everyone has a critical role to play. Orangutan mothers have to spend ten years with their young to teach them which fruits are worth eating. Without this training they would not complete their role in dispersing seeds.The future generations of many tree species would be at risk and tree diversity is the key to a rain forest. In a single small patch of tropical rain forest there could be seven hundred different species of trees, as many as there are in the whole of north America. And this is what we have been turning this dizzying diversity into: a mono-culture of oil palm. A habitat that is dead in comparison.
And you see this curtain of green and occasionally birds in it, and you think it is perhaps OK. But if you get in a helicopter then you see that it is a strip about half a mile wide and beyond that strip there is nothing but regimented rows of oil palms.
There is a double incentive to cut down forests. People benefit from the timber and then benefit again benefit from farming the land that’s left behind. Which is why we’ve cut down three trillion trees across the world. Half of the world’s rain forests have already been cleared.
What we see happening today is just the latest chapter in a global process spanning millennia. The deforestation of Borneo has reduced the population of Orangutan by two thirds since I first saw one just over sixty years ago.
We can’t cut down rain forests down forever, and anything that we can’t do forever is by definition unsustainable. If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates, ultimately to a point where the whole system collapses. No ecosystem, no matter how big is secure. Even one as vast as the ocean.
This habitat was the subject of the series The Blue Planet, which we were filming in the late Nineties.
It was an astonishing vision of a completely unknown world. A world had that existed since the beginning of time. All sorts of things you’ve had no idea had ever existed. All in a multitude of colours. All unbelievably beautiful. And all of them completely undisturbed by our presence.
For much of its expanse, the ocean is largely empty. But in certain places there are hot spots where currents bring nutrients to the surface and trigger an explosion of life. In such places huge shoals of fish gather. The problem is that our fishing fleets are just as good at finding those hot spots as are the fish. When they do they are able to gather the concentrated shoals with ease.
It was only in the Fifties that large fleets first ventured out into international waters to reap the open ocean harvest across the globe. Yet they’ve removed 90% of the large fish in the sea. At first they caught plenty of fish in their nets. But within only a few years, the nets across the globe were coming in empty. The fishing became quickly so poor that countries began subsidising the fleets to maintain the industry. Without large fish and other marine predators, the oceanic nutrient cycle stutters. The predators help to keep nutrients in the oceans sunlit waters, recycling them, so that they can be used again and again by plankton. Without predators, nutrients are lost for centuries to the depths, and the hot spots start to diminish. The ocean starts to die.
Ocean life was also unravelling in the shallows. In nineteen ninety eight, a Blue Planet film crew, stumbled on an event little known at the time. Coral reefs were turning white. The white colour is caused by corals expelling algae that live symbiotically within their body.
When you first see it, you think perhaps that it’s beautiful. Then suddenly you realise that it’s tragic, because what you are looking at is skeletons. Skeletons of dead creatures. The white corals are ultimately smothered by seaweed. And the reef turns from wonderland to wasteland.
At first the cause of the bleaching was a mystery. But scientists started to discover that in many cases where bleaching occurred, the ocean was warming. For some time climate scientists had warned that the planet would get warmer as we burned fossil fuels and released carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
A marked change in atmospheric carbon had always been incompatible with a stable earth. It was a feature of all five mass extinctions. In previous events it had taken volcanic activity up to one million years to dredge up enough carbon from within the earth to trigger a catastrophy. By burning millions of years worth of living organisms all at once as coal and oil, we managed to do so in less then two hundred.
The global air temperature had been relatively stable till the Nineties, but it now appeared this was only because the ocean was absorbing much of the excess heat11The Guardian reported on 7 January 2019 about research into this issue, led by Laure Zanna. The amount of energy absorbed by the ocean was found to … Continue reading, masking our impact. It was the first indication to me that the earth was beginning to loose its balance.
The most remote habitat of all exists at the extreme north and south of the planet. I visited the polar regions over many decades. They’ve always been a place beyond imagination. With scenery unlike anything else on earth. And species adapted to a life in the extreme. But that distant world is changing. In my time I’ve experienced the warming of arctic summers. We’ve arrived at locations, expecting to find expanses of sea ice and found none. We’ve managed to travel by boat to islands that were impossible to get to historically because they were permanently locked in the ice.
By the time Frozen Planet aired in 2011 the reason for these changes was well established. The ocean has long since become unable to absorb all the excess heat, caused by our activities. As a result the global average temperature is one degree Celsius warmer then it was when I was born. A speed of change that exceeds any in the last ten thousand years. Summer ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years. Our planet is loosing its ice. This most pristine and distant of ecosystems is headed for disaster.
Our imprint is now truly global. Our impact now truly profound. Our blind assault on the planet has finally come to alter the very fundamentals of the living world.
We have over-fished 30% of fish stocks to critical levels. We cut down over 15 billion trees each year. By jamming, polluting and over extracting rivers and lakes, we have reduced the size of fresh water populations by over 80%.
We are replacing the wild with the tame. Half of the fertile land on earth is now farm land. 70% of the mass of birds on this planet are domestic birds. The majority: chickens. We account for one third of the weight of mammals on earth. A further 60% are the animals we raise to eat. The rest, from mice to whales, make up just four percent.
This is now our planet. Run by human kind for human kind. There is little left for the rest of the living world. Since I started filming in the 1950’s, on average, wild animal populations have more then halved. I look at these images now and I realise that, although as a young man I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world, it was an illusion. Those forest and plains and seas were already emptying.
So the world is not as wild as it was. Well, we destroyed it. Not just ruined it. I mean we completely destroyed that world, that non-human world is gone. Human beings have overrun the world.12Well. There you have it. Unequivocal, undeniable, as observed by an expert first-hand witness. Thank you David, for your courage in coming forward … Continue reading
That, is my witness statement: the story of global decline during a single lifetime.13Though very different in detail, my own witness statement would in essence be very similar. Being from a generation later, my experience starts from … Continue reading
But it doesn’t end there.
If we continue on our current course, the damage that has been the defining feature of my lifetime will be eclipsed by the damage coming in the next.
Science predicts, that were I born today, I would be witness to the following.
The Amazon rain forest cut down until it cannot produce enough moisture, degrades into a dry savanna, bringing catastrophic species loss and altering the global water cycle. At the same time the artic becomes ice-free in the summer. Without the white ice cap less of the suns energy is reflected back out to space, and the speed of global warming increases.
Throughout the north, frozen soils fall, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas more potent then carbon dioxide. Accelerating the rate of climate change dramatically.
As the ocean continues to heat and becomes more acidic, coral reefs around the world die. Fish populations crash.
Global food production enters a crisis as soils become exhausted by over-use. Pollinating insects disappear. And the weather is more and more unpredictable.
Our planet becomes four degrees Celsius warmer. Large parts of the earth are uninhabitable. Millions of people rendered homeless. A sixth mass extinction event well underway. This is a series of on-way doors, bringing irreversible change.
Within the span of the next lifetime the security and stability of the Holocene, our Garden of Eden, will be lost.
[UN Climate Change Conference, 2018]
Now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.
[IMF Spring Meetings, 2019]
But the longer we leave it, the difficult it will be to do something about it.
And you could happily retire, but you now want to explain to us what peril we are in.Christine Lagarde – then chair and managing director of the International Monetary Fund and now President of the European Central Bank
And in a way I wish I wasn’t involved in this struggle, because I wished the struggle wasn’t there or necessary. But I’ve had unbelievable luck and good fortune and I certainly would feel very guilty if I saw what the problems are and decided to ignore them.
[Davos, World Economic Forum, 2019 – screening of Our Planet]
We are facing nothing less then the collapse of the living world. The very thing that gave birth to our civilisation. The thing we rely upon for every element of the lives we lead. No one wants this to happen. None of us can afford for this to happen. So, what do we do?
It’s quite straightforward. It’s been staring us in the face, all along. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis that we have created. We must rewild the world.14It can be understood that humans are included in “the world”, but just to make it absolutely clear: we must rewild, i.e.: liberate, … Continue reading
Rewilding the world is simpler then you might think. And the changes we have to make will only benefit ourselves and the generations that follow. 15But, just to be clear: there would be no profit and no power in it. If there was, it would signal that you missed the mark, mistaking cosmetics for … Continue reading
A century from now our planet could be a wild place again. And I’m going to tell you how.
Every other species on earth reaches a maximum population after a time. The number that can be sustained on the natural resources available. With nothing to restrict us, our population has been growing dramatically throughout my lifetime. On current projections there will be eleven billion people on earth by 2100. But it’s possible to slow, even stop population growth well before it reaches that point.
Japan’s standard of living climbed rapidly in the latter half of the twentieth century. As healthcare and education improved, people’s expectations and opportunities grew, and the birthrate fell. In 1950, a Japanese family was likely to have three or more children. By 1975 the average was two. The result is that the population has now stabilised and has hardly changed since the millennium.
There are signs that this has started to happen across the globe. As nations develop everywhere, people choose to have fewer children. The number of children being born worldwide every year is about to level off. A key reason the population is still growing is that many of us are living longer. At some point in the future the human population will peak for the very first time. The sooner it happens, the easier it makes everything else we have to do. By working hard to raise people out of poverty, giving all access to healthcare and enabling girls in particular to stay in school as long as possible, we can make it peak sooner and at a lower level.16Switching from a sedentary lifestyle to an ambulant lifestyle may be even more effective. The institution of school is a key driver in civilisation. … Continue reading
Why wouldn’t we want to do these things? Giving people a greater opportunity in life is what we want to do anyway. The trick is to raise the standard of living17Standard of living tends to mean very different things to different people, especially consumers, business and governments. around the world without increasing our impact on that world. That may sound impossible but there are ways in which we can do this.
The living world is essentially solar powered. The earth’s plants capture three trillion Kilowatt hours of solar energy, each day. That’s almost twenty times the energy we need18Although it be natural for us from our civilised vantage point to equate need without considering that humans comprise just 0.01% of all biomass on … Continue reading, just from sunlight. Imagine if we phase out fossil fuels and run our world on the eternal energies of nature too. Sunlight, wind, water and geothermal.19While replacing fossil fuels with non-fossil fuels is sensible, it is by no means sufficient. We need to reduce energy consumption. Again: adopting … Continue reading
At the turn of the century, Morocco relied on imported oil and gas for almost all of its energy. Today it generates forty percent of its needs at home from a network of renewable power plants, including the world’s largest solar farm. Sitting on the edge of the Sahara and cabled directly into southern Europe, Morocco could be an exporter of solar energy by 2050. 20Perhaps even better when people go where there is enough energy available. Another advantage of the ambulant lifestyle? Taking resources to where … Continue reading
Within twenty years renewables21Physically speaking “renewable” energy does not exist. It would be a violation of thermodynamic laws of nature. It is the physical and … Continue reading are predicted to be the world’s main source of power. But we can make them the only source.
It’s crazy that our banks and our pensions are investing in fossil fuel, when these are the very things that are jeopardising the future that we are saving for. A renewable future will be full of benefits. Energy everywhere will be more affordable. Our cities will be cleaner and quieter. And renewable energy will never run out.
[Ocean: Carbon Sink and Food Source]
The living world can’t operate without a healthy ocean, and neither can we. The ocean is a critical ally in our battle to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. The more diverse it is, the better it does that job22Nature doing a “job” is understandable in the context of our civilised view of reality, but better understood as a distortion of it. … Continue reading.
And of course the ocean is important to all of us as a source of food. Fishing is the world’s greatest wild harvest. And if we do it right it can continue, because there is a win-win at play. The healthier the marine habitat, the more fish there will be and the more there will be to eat.
Palau is a Pacific island nation, reliant on its coral reefs for fish and tourism. When fish stock began to reduce the Palauans responded by restricting fishing practices and banning fishing entirely from many areas. Protected fish populations soon became so healthy that they spilled over into the areas open to fishing. As a result the no-fish zones have increased the catch of the local fisherman while at the same time allowing the reefs to recover. Imagine if we committed a similar approach across the world. Estimates suggest that no-fish zones over a third of our coastal seas would be sufficient to provide us with all the fish we will ever need.
In international waters the UN is attempting to create the biggest no-fish zone of all. In one act this would transform the open ocean from a place exhausted by subsidised fishing fleets to a wilderness that will help us all in our efforts to combat climate change: the world’s greatest wildlife reserve.
When it comes to the land, we must radically reduce the area we use to farm, so that we make space for returning wilderness. The quickest and most effective way to do that is for us to change our diet.
Large carnivores are rare in nature because it takes a lot of prey to support each of them. For every single predator on the Serengeti, there are more then one hundred prey animals. Whenever we choose a piece of meat, wee too are unwittingly demanding a huge expanse of space.
The planet can’t support billions of large meat eaters. There just isn’t the space.
If we all had a largely plant based diet, we would only need half the land we use at the moment. And because we would then be dedicated to raising plants, we increase the yield of this land substantially.
The Netherlands is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. It’s covered with small family run farms, with no room for expansion. So Dutch farmers have become expert at getting the most out of every hectare. Increasingly they are doing so sustainably. Rasing yields tenfold in two generations while at the same time using less water, fewer pesticides, less fertiliser and emitting less carbon.23Could this be a matter of administration? The application of statistical wizardry? If it sounds to good to be true, it often is.
Despite its size, the Netherlands is now the worlds second largest exporter of food.24Being a resident of the Netherlands it is slightly disconcerting to discover we are presented as a shining example of good food production practice … Continue reading
It’s entirely possible for us to apply both low-tech and high-tech solutions to produce much more food from much less land. We can start to produce food in new spaces. Indoors within cities. Even in places where there is no land at all.
As we improve our approach to farming, we’ll start to reverse the land-grab that we have been pursuing ever since we began to farm. Which is essential, because we have an urgent need for all that freed land.25Not bad as a strategy of transition to balance with nature, but certainly not the end goal. As nature is perfectly capable of producing abundant … Continue reading
[Forests: Carbon Sink and Biodiversity Source]
Forests are a fundamental component of our planet’s recovery. They are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon and they are centres of biodiversity. Again, the two features work together. The wilder and more diverse forests are, the more effective they are at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
We must immediately halt deforestation everywhere and grow crops like oil palm and soja only on land that was deforested long ago – after all: there is plenty of it.
But we can do better then that.
A century ago, more then three quarters of Costa Rica covered with forest. By the nineteen eighty’s uncontrolled logging had reduced this to just one quarter. The government decided to act, offering grants to landowners to replant native trees. In just twenty five years the forest has returned to cover half of Costa Rica once again. Just imagine if we achieve this on a global scale. The return of the trees would absorb as much as two thirds of carbon emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by our activities to date.
With all these things there is one overriding principle: nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration. We just have to do what nature has always done. It worked out the secret of life long ago. In this world a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too. We can solve the problems we now face by embracing this reality. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.
It’s now time for our species to stop simply growing, to establish a life on our planet in balance with nature, to start to thrive.
When you think about it, we’re completing a journey. Ten thousand years ago as hunter-gatherers, we live a sustainable life because that was the only option. All these years later, it’s once again the only option. We need to rediscover how to be sustainable, to move from being apart from nature to become a part of nature once again.
“Tonight we’ve got a rather different programme for you.”
If we can change the way we live on earth, an alternative future comes into view.
In this future, we discover ways to benefit from our land that help rather then hinder wilderness. Ways to fish our seas that enables it to come quickly back to life. And ways to harvest our forest sustainably. We will finally learn how to work with nature, rather then against it.26Here we return the the wisdom of the opening statements: a radical change of lifestyle is indicated. A lifestyle like the free roaming foragers we … Continue reading
In the end, after a lifetime’s exploration of the living world, I’m certain of one thing: this is not about saving our planet, it’s about saving ourselves.
The truth is: with or without us, the natural world will rebuild.27Thanks David for making this explicit! This is what we all need to hear and take to hart. It is both admonishment and encouragement, that it is … Continue reading
In the thirty years since the evacuation of Chernobyl, the wild has reclaimed te space. Today, the forest has taken over the city. It’s a sanctuary for wild animals that are rare elsewhere. And powerful evidence, that however grave our mistakes, nature will ultimately overcome them.28A delightful and illuminating demonstration of what we need to do: leave. And what it will do of its own will: fix what we’ve screwed up. Has … Continue reading
The living world will endure. We humans, cannot presume the same.
We’ve come this far, because we are the smartest creatures that have ever lived. But to continue we require more then intelligence: we require wisdom.
There are many differences between humans and the rest of the species on earth, but one that has been expressed is that we alone are able to imagine the future.
For a long time I, and perhaps you, have dreaded that future. But it’s now becoming apparent that it’s not all doom and gloom.
There’s a chance for us to make amends.To complete our journey of development, manage our impact and once again become a species in balance with nature.
All we need is the will to do so.29And we are back to “will” again. Will that must be free, equal and hospitable.
We now have the opportunity to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the rich, healthy and wonderful world that we inherited.
Just imagine that.30And we will 🙂 David, Thanks! Making it so.
David Attenborough is a consummate storyteller, consistent with being a natural historian. Natural history, as many of the life science is a descriptive disciple, cataloguing observation of natural phenomena. A narrative that embraces all the senses and experiences. With as few abstractions and theorising as humanly possible. A subjective narrative. A witness statement.
Witness statements, from an objective point of view like science, are notoriously biased and unreliable. Witness statements are personal, visceral and strongly grounded in life as it is lived interactively.
Science, by aim and method, is about separating reality from preconceive models of reality. Science is a political tool to dominate the world and its citizens, transforming experience into knowledge and the application of knowledge a.k.a.: technology.
While politics are about absolutes, like win or loose, right or wrong, science is about discovery, finding answers and producing knowledge, in the service of politics.
Biological science is a bit of an oxymoron as living organisms interact with each other, adapting their behaviour to the dynamics of every other element in the biosphere. Any observations in biology are ephemeral and hopelessly incomplete. But they are fascinating, inspiring and uplifting to us humans. Very few branches of biology attempt formulating theory, like systems theory in ecology.
Living organisms also demonstrate effectively that knowledge in our human defined scientific context, has no meaning concerning the ability to live a rich and satisfying life. Yet we are easily amazed by any organism’s facility at what science tells us are impossibly complicated chemical and physical processes, like capturing energy from the sun and transforming ambient chemical compounds into organisms displaying complex behaviours. Some scientist, like Erwin Schrödinger, theorise that this may have something to do with life’s uncanny ability to manipulate matter at the quantum level – all without ever studying at a university or having any academic qualifications.
The wisdom and genius of Attenborough and his team lies in the application of natural history as a platform to influence the audience, by speaking directly to its emotions, non-verbal perception and underlying instinctive understanding of the real world. Even though in this film, some science is cited, it is done so only to trigger emotion rather then reason. The scene of the screening of Our Planet for a Davos WEF audience is a great point in case.
Perhaps the weakest moments of the film emerge where knowledge and technology are pushed centre stage in painting a picture of the way forward into the future.
Regaining our Sanity
Attenborough’s perfect witness statement declares and exposes the root cause of the disrupted balance of our biosphere: agriculture and its concomitant domestication of the world. Or perhaps: humanity loosing its common sense and sanity. It is perhaps a signal of the depth and strength of our addiction to civilisation, that the proposed solution doesn’t go beyond mitigating the impact of civilisation by transforming into a better way of dominating the world through technology. While this does give humans time to think of a real solution, it will eventually bring us and the world to the same point, perhaps in the next generation instead of now. Anyway, we first still have to survive the next century or so of unstoppable disasters already set into motion. So perhaps it doesn’t matter one way or the other.
The real solution to our collective predicament is also presented in Attenborough’s witness statement. Hidden in plain sight: the life humanity enjoyed before agriculture, that of perennial foraging, mostly vegetarian, companies, treading lightly on their environment, intimately connected to the cosmos, exploring the wild and revelling in it every moment. Free, equal and hospitable – the existential conditions for and consequence of sane minds in healthy bodies.
Of course in such a world of free thriving people there is no place for politics, business, homesteading and most of we now recognise as technology. No agriculture, no industry. No money, no ownership. In a civilisation where these things are valued as paramount, you can see the problem and the huge challenge to overcome it. As with any addiction.
Still, with the lives of even the most privileged and insane humans, equally or perhaps more so addicted, at stake, a solution will emerge one way or another. Sooner, rather then later perhaps.
note | noot
|↑2||Isn’t it fascinating that we think of natural phenomena in terms of whatever is most trending in contemporary technology. Something that seems typical for civilised people. Perhaps a signal of our mental health state?|
|↑3||Born: May 8, 1926|
|↑4||Could there be a bit of a contradiction here? When reliable seasons suggest that the natural abundance of food is reliable, does it make sense that humans would spend a huge amount of effort and energy into artificial food systems that are contingent on their perpetual attention and commitment of resources. Does it make sense to replace free and abundant food for costly and scarce food?|
|↑5||The clearest possible statement of the entanglement of farming and civilisation, the taming of humans and their environment.|
|↑6||Would it be fair to suggest that our mental health then is the key, the root cause of how our world has evolved inevitably to the point where we find ourselves at this moment: over the cliff, treading air?|
|↑7||On “wilderness”: it seems that wilderness, wild and will have the same linguistic root in common. Words related to being self-driven, self-determined, free from coercion, untamed and undomesticated. Uncivilised, free. Isn’t it remarkable that experiencing this free and wild nature, makes the soul fly and the heart sing? That is has such a beneficial effect on body and mind as well as on social relations and behaviour with an innate wisdom?|
|↑8||Is it possible, that in hindsight, this was an inevitable outcome of civilisation (the intentional separation of humans from their environment, the distortion of reality, the replacement of the natural by the artificial, the mechanical)?|
|↑9||Perhaps this is where biodiversity comes in. Each species has its own unique niche. Its own place and function. By being different, each species keeps a check on others, so none become dominant. This helps in maintaining a beneficial environment for all life forms. When one life form dominates, it inevitably exhausts a narrow range of material resources and most of the available energy. This makes the whole biosphere extremely vulnerable to collapse in our dynamic cosmos, where the environment is in permanent flux. As civilisation, with farming as a key example, is based on the principle of dominance, the outcome is rather predictable. Right?|
|↑10||Could it be that here in this observation, lies the wisest way forward? Civilisations seems fundamentally flawed and inherently resistant against any changes that would improve the self-destructive relationship between civilisation and biosphere. Why pursue the path that leads over the edge of the cliff, even at a more leisurely pace or backtracking a while, only delaying the inevitable? Maybe abandoning the course off the cliff in favour of a proven lifestyle of freedom, equality and hospitality isn’t as impossible as it might feel (being immersed in the unfree, unequal and hostile environment of civilisation)? Perhaps we should explore updating the way we lived for most of humanities evolutionary history of our species with lessons learned from what not to repeat from civilisation? Use whatever resources civilisation liberated from the environment, and follow the example of nature reclaiming the city of Chernobyl?
Isn’t it fascinating that Attenborough makes this profound observation, this early in his witness statement. He returns to this position at the very closing of the film, even after the section on a vision of the future has taken us in a radically different direction: improving civilisation through technology. A direction that is more likely to go down well with any kind of leadership, but would be unlikely to be a sustainable solution, as we can see here.
|↑11||The Guardian reported on 7 January 2019 about research into this issue, led by Laure Zanna. The amount of energy absorbed by the ocean was found to be equivalent to 1.5 Hiroshima bombs going of every second over the past 150 years.|
|↑12||Well. There you have it. Unequivocal, undeniable, as observed by an expert first-hand witness. Thank you David, for your courage in coming forward and your clarity. Those who need most to hear it tough are also the most immersed and invested in their narrow vision of civilisation. And all they have to to is to let go, to free themselves and the rest of us.|
|↑13||Though very different in detail, my own witness statement would in essence be very similar. Being from a generation later, my experience starts from rural post-war recovery, living as a teen through the late nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies. In hindsight, my big mistake was to imagine that nature needed protection. Having spent 50 years in environmental activism has brought us to where we are now. From the vantage point of the presence in 2020 it is now clear that the protection of nature is not the issue at all, the recovery of mental sanity and piercing the distortions of reality that civilisation has immersed us in, those are the issues. How we go about that, well that is another matter entirely.|
|↑14||It can be understood that humans are included in “the world”, but just to make it absolutely clear: we must rewild, i.e.: liberate, ourselves. We must recapture sense and sanity by being free, equal and hospitable, again. We’ve been skilled at that for most of our history as a separate species, It is rooted deep in our heritage. It is even likely to be easier then persisting in our current destructive course.|
|↑15||But, just to be clear: there would be no profit and no power in it. If there was, it would signal that you missed the mark, mistaking cosmetics for substance.|
|↑16||Switching from a sedentary lifestyle to an ambulant lifestyle may be even more effective. The institution of school is a key driver in civilisation. But enabling young people to learn as they please for as long as they want would definitely work.|
|↑17||Standard of living tends to mean very different things to different people, especially consumers, business and governments.|
|↑18||Although it be natural for us from our civilised vantage point to equate need without considering that humans comprise just 0.01% of all biomass on earth, it is not obvious that claiming 5% of available energy is reasonable, equitable or fair to the rest of the biosphere.|
|↑19||While replacing fossil fuels with non-fossil fuels is sensible, it is by no means sufficient. We need to reduce energy consumption. Again: adopting an ambulant and available-resource-based lifestyle over our current sedentary and technology drive lifestyle will be very effective.|
|↑20||Perhaps even better when people go where there is enough energy available. Another advantage of the ambulant lifestyle? Taking resources to where people buy them is one of the drivers of our toxic economies.|
|↑21||Physically speaking “renewable” energy does not exist. It would be a violation of thermodynamic laws of nature. It is the physical and organic systems that store and transport energy that can be charged and recharged again and again. Energy is spent in the performance of labour (moving things around) and dissipating as heat when the potential for “labour” is exhausted. All energy ends up as heat, which is exactly what our problem is: too much energy in our global environment. Using energy from other sources will help only marginally. We must accept now that for the next century or two we are stuck with the heat trapped in our atmosphere by the greenhouse gasses we released in it. Thinking in terms of “renewable energy” is a key signal of our mental insanity, which is the issue we should work on concurrently to all the other sensible actions to take.|
|↑22||Nature doing a “job” is understandable in the context of our civilised view of reality, but better understood as a distortion of it. Could it suggest that nature is subordinate, indeed subservient to us humans? Phenomena in nature are not at the service of each other. Each behaves according to its own free willed (wild) nature. By being connected and interacting with attention and kindness, they form a balanced whole. The more diverse, the more stable the connections, the more resilient in the face of change. Language reflects thought and through mental functioning and health. Language is a way to leverage mental health.|
|↑23||Could this be a matter of administration? The application of statistical wizardry? If it sounds to good to be true, it often is.|
|↑24||Being a resident of the Netherlands it is slightly disconcerting to discover we are presented as a shining example of good food production practice for the future. From first hand experience with Dutch food production, both traditionally and the innovations presented here, I can report that our practices are some of the most destructive around. Perhaps not on the same scale as CAFO’s in the US or the broad acre mono-cultures and slash and burn in too many places in the world. The Netherlands just isn’t big enough. That should give you pause about how we achieved the status of the largest exporter of agricultural products in the world. Huge amounts of energy and material resources are spent in artificial food production, especially when you include the resources and energy we out-source to other countries in our food production system. It’s not that most farmers are doing this voluntarily. Most are forced by the food industry, suppliers, large scale customers (supermarkets and food processors) and banks to destroy the environment as well as the last of their remaining mental health. Industrialising food production is the last thing we want to ensure a survivable future. But a visceral demonstration of the effectiveness of corporate marketing power.|
|↑25||Not bad as a strategy of transition to balance with nature, but certainly not the end goal. As nature is perfectly capable of producing abundant environments for a plethora of creatures to live in harmony with each other, agriculture seems be be superfluous and if history is a guide, also completely undesirable.|
|↑26||Here we return the the wisdom of the opening statements: a radical change of lifestyle is indicated. A lifestyle like the free roaming foragers we used to be for more then a million years before the emergence of agriculture and civilisation.|
|↑27||Thanks David for making this explicit! This is what we all need to hear and take to hart. It is both admonishment and encouragement, that it is entirely our own choice if we want to live or not. A choice with simple consequences.|
|↑28||A delightful and illuminating demonstration of what we need to do: leave. And what it will do of its own will: fix what we’ve screwed up. Has there ever been a better offer?|
|↑29||And we are back to “will” again. Will that must be free, equal and hospitable.|
|↑30||And we will 🙂 David, Thanks! Making it so.|