Sir David Attenborough: ‘Humanity is at a crossroads’

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If there’s anyone who can make the world sit up and listen, it’s Sir David Attenborough. The 94-year-old naturalist and broadcaster, who was born in west London, describes the life he has had as “extraordinary” and “fortunate”.

It’s one that’s seen him visit every continent on the globe, and make some of the most influential series in television history, including Planet Earth and Blue Planet for the BBC. And now comes a new film, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet – which serves as his witness statement for the natural world.

“We are at a crucial moment,” he urges. “Without being too portentous on this, I think humanity is at a crossroads, and the natural world is really under serious, serious threat, and the consequences could be apocalyptic.”

It’s early March when I speak to Sir David about the feature, created by award-winning natural history filmmakers Silverback Films and global environmental organisation WWF. Although I don’t realise it at the time, his ends up being one of the last interviews I would do face to face, thanks to coronavirus (indeed, that’s also the reason the film’s release was delayed by months).

In a quote sent over by email, reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic, he notes how it has “caused, and will continue to cause, immense suffering”.

“If there is hope that can come out of it, then that may arise from the whole world having experienced a shared threat and found a sense that we are all in it together,” says the father of two. “The same unique brains and communication skills that fuelled the development of our civilisations now have access to technologies and institutions that allow all nations of the world to collaborate and cooperate, should we choose to do so.

“The time for pure national interests has passed. If we are to tackle climate change, enable sustainable development, and restore biodiversity, then internationalism has to be our approach. In doing so, we must bring about a greater equality between what nations take from the world and what they give back. The wealthier nations have taken a lot, and the time has now come to give.”

It’s exciting that people are finally be able to see A Life On Our Planet, which premiered in September in cinemas across the globe, and is now available on Netflix. A revealing and powerful first-hand account, it sees Sir David reflect, for the first time, upon both the defining moments of his lifetime as a naturalist and the devastating changes he has witnessed.

Although we are very used to seeing the star on screen, there’s something about A Life On Our Planet that feels that bit more intimate. He suggests he could open up so much, and convey the concern he has, because of a technical trick Silverback used. Instead of talking to a camera, he was being interviewed by the director of the documentary, Johnny Hughes, who appeared on an optical device as an electronic image. The conversation – which saw Sir David “asked very clever, very perceptive questions, and got me arguing about certain things” – was recorded over several days and then segments of it were used throughout the film.

“It’s quite hard to look at the camera and speak in this kind of way, as we are speaking between ourselves now,” he muses. “To do that to a piece of glass is not easy, but this trick, they were doing it exactly as if I was looking at you, or him, in person. And when I saw it [the film] … Well, I suppose I was amazed at the image of this character on the screen who was speaking as if he was speaking not to a camera.”

Of course, in whatever Sir David does, he commands attention. His awe-inspiring presence is felt even more so in real life; there’s a buzz of excitement in the air as he sits down at the table with me and other journalists, and we all fall silent. But he’s not intimidating – far from it. He jovially pokes fun at himself, particularly when he gets some figures slightly wrong. (“One of the things I’m hopeless at remembering is whether it’s 100 per cent or 220 per cent or whatever,” he quips.)

A Life On Our Planet does actually end on quite a positive note as well, with Sir David saying there is still time, and that humans can change things.

So, how does he think we can all play our part? “The most important thing we can do at this particular stage in the game is to put the right politicians into positions of power, who will say something about saving the planet, and to be quite vocal, as part of their electorate, that we demand they actually do something and to convince them we are prepared to take an increase in tax if necessary, to make sure something is going to happen.”

The film starts and ends in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and the team also travelled to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The elephant in the room is that making such a big documentary like this must rack up quite a large carbon footprint. But Sir Attenborough matter-of-factly defends this issue when pointed out. “We’re all damaging the environment just by sitting here and breathing,” he notes. “The amount of carbon dioxide going out through the window as a consequence of us meeting here is significant. And do we always say, ‘Now, was that really worthwhile, you spending that breath?’

“If you behave economically and sensibly, I don’t think you should feel guilty if it’s cost you some ergs [energy units] in your engine to get you from A to B.”

Being wasteful is “the real sin”, he adds. “We are astonishingly wasteful. I remember my dear father-in-law coming back in the middle of the war from America, and was appalled that he had actually seen an American at a meal stubbing his cigarette out on a half-eaten steak, because of the waste.

“We put a light on in a room when we don’t need it – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put it on when you do need it. But it’s just being profligate and careless and immoral … Waste is immoral; the wasting of power, the wasting of paper, the wasting of energy.

“We shouldn’t waste space; we are wasting space that could be occupied by the natural world.”

David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet premiered on Monday 28 September, featuring an exclusive conversation with Sir David Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin. The film launched on Netflix globally on Sunday 4 October.

Have you watched A Life On Our Planet? Do you think the natural world is seriously under threat? Do you do anything in your day to day life to combat these issues?

– With PA

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Written by Georgia Humphreys

11 Comments

Total Comments: 11
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    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but go along with his assessment of the state of nature. I have seen many changes too here in North Queensland where I have been living for the past 40 years. The most obvious are a lot less insects and also less birds which feed on them and less frogs. The survivors amongst the birds seem to be the Kookaburras and butcher birds, whilst many of the others have gone almost missing. Consistent spraying of roundup by councils has resulted in tougher and more persisten weeds and no doubt contributed to the decline of the Barrier Reef. Temperatures have become more extreme, we had some very cold winter temperatures. I feel that the weather bureau is only focused on maximum temps but omitting the lower minimums. Both results of a drier climate due to the clearing of trees Australia wide. It’s time we started to reverse the damage done and forget about incessant economic growth which has become a cancer.

  2. 0
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    All very good and most of us would agree with Attenborough but its also the case that if most people in the world used up natural resources, polluted etc like he did then there would be no world existing now !!

    • 0
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      It is worth considering that the work he does is very worthwhile and the cost in terms of the use of natural resources is justified in bringing the message to a wide audience.
      The majority of people do not believe the perilous position we are in because of the combination of overpopulation and the effect capitalism has in exploiting resources in the pursuit of profit.

    • 0
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      Of course overpopulation is the root cause and that needs to be addressed thru education etc. Plus there are certain religions that are hell bent on taking over thru breeding and violence

  3. 0
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    Can YLC ban Lupitabrasil please, Obviously a scammer; refer to the poor grammar !!

  4. 0
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    I hate to say this but nothing much, of real significance,will change for the time being. When I’m dead and gone I think the human race will get to a crisis point where panic will set in and the world realises they are in deep trouble. Then they will do something but my guess it will be almost too late..
    The human race hasn’t got too much longer before it wipes itself out. Maybe the few survivors will have a better approach than the morons in power now.

    • 0
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      Nature, while powerful, is actually finely balanced and the human race is a parasite on the Earth. We take without giving back and we will get our comeuppance. I expect to be done and dusted when it happens but it will happen.
      Perhaps Covid 19 is an example of nature fighting back.

  5. 0
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    I am now 59. With the new herbal medicine i purchase from Multivitamincare.org was my only way to get rid of my PD,the herbal formula effectively reverse my condition and alleviate all my symptoms.

  6. 0
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    I have watched it, and found it a powerful call to action to humanity.
    The first and last scenes, in Chernobyl, were an eloquent statement in themselves, and profoundly moving…as was the bare and honest place David Attenborough was coming from throughout, in what he calls his ‘witness statement’ for the Earth.

    In regard to the question about what we do in our daily lives to address planetary degradation and its future;
    I/we power the house with solar (currently looking into solar storage battery)
    Go easy on water use
    Recycle as much as possible
    Reuse as much as possible
    Eat a plant-based diet (originally for kindness to animals many years ago, but more recently learned that the environmental load of plant-based eating is far less than consuming meat and dairy).
    Sign petitions and write to state and federal government members often in support of stronger environmental protections, support for clean renewables etc (some of which have been successful).
    Use organic, natural and fair trade products as much as possible within my budget!
    Support organizations actively working to preserve the planet and environment.

    Working from the principle: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

  7. 0
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    What a man is Sir David, when you look at our politicians you know Australia is in big trouble.Why are people all about taking from the land and not giving a little back.We are being conned that we have to overpopulate for financial gain what rubbish.Greed is not good for the next generation you know our kids.You have a lot to answer for Morrison.

    for financial gain and that greed is good lets try thinking about the next generation.You have a lot to answer for Morrison.

  8. 0
    0

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