You know the drill. Gather the family, turn on the television and settle for a bar of natural wonders. For decades, David Attenborough has taken us from the forests of Borneo to Savannah in Africa – from the vibrant rain forests to the vague beauty of the polar regions.
Also A Life on Our Planet, Now available to stream on Netflix, is a very different kind of nature show. Instead of a jaw-dropping chase sequence or a merry dance of colorful birds, it’s a warning. Attenborough calls it his “witness statement” – in fact, it’s like a post-mortem on the natural world, a world that man has systematically conquered, exploited and destroyed.
This documentary opens in Chernobyl, perhaps this is an important example of the touch of the stain of our species – a place that we have ruined so extensively that it will not be habitable for centuries. From there, he’ll make a cut between Attenborough’s narrative – tomb, emotional and up to the camera and archive footage, as he talks about how human activities have changed the world in his 94 years on Earth.
When Attenborough was born, in 1926, the average temperature was one degree colder than it is today – not so much heat, but the speed of change that has left nature out of balance. The first part A Life on Our Planet Charts of how human population growth has affected the natural world during Attenborough’s lifetime, using a mix of archival footage from his early work – granite footage of young Attenboroughs met with members of gorillas or remote species – and more recent shots documenting his recent work.
The on-screen ticker marks the passing of years between Attenborough’s final works – each leap ahead of time with an increase in the human population, an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and a reduction in the amount of truly ‘wild’ nature.
We have lost 40 percent of our ocean ice in the last 40 years. In the last 90 years, when fishing boats have begun to land in cold waters, they have snatched per cent of their large fish from the oceans. Forests that were once home to orangutans and rare birds have been replaced by monotonous agricultural rows – half of the fertile land on earth is now used for farming. The Frozen Islands, once inaccessible, are open to the sea. And vast plains that once housed millions of grazing animals. “Our blind attack on the planet is to change the basic principles of the living world,” says Attenborough. And it is impossible to disagree when the evidence is presented this clearly.
The Attenborough show has been criticized in the past for failing to show the full negative effects of climate change. There is no such place here.
There are similarities between the documentary and the 2019 book Indestructible earthBy David and Wal Les-Wells, which is exactly what each extra degree would mean for our descendants. As the timeline progresses, Attenborough gives us a glimpse of the world that someone born today will live. Wildfire Frenzy. In the summer the polar ice cap melts completely. The deforestation of the trees turns the Amazon into a desert. Coral reefs bleach and crumble. Humans are starving, as excessive land demand struggles to keep up. It is a pale picture – analogous to the planet that achieved the delicate, beautiful balance known as the Holocene, and maintained it for thousands of years until a species became too powerful, too dominant, and too rapacious in its appetite. The future that clearly describes the emotional Attenborough is a series of doorways – a point of no return that will make the world live a less diverse, less vibrant and difficult life.
Attenborough, however, ends on an optimistic note. He is kind. The last part of the documentary outlines the steps we can take collectively to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and help regain the natural world. Some of them will be familiar – eating less meat, expanding the use of renewable energy, putting pressure on banks and investors to fund fossil fuels.
Others talk less – Attenborough speaks with the expectation of increasing opportunities for people in developing countries that it will have a similar decline in birth rates (although balancing rising living standards) even among experienced people in affluent parts of the world such as Europe and Japan. Will be difficult to use).
The expansion of marine reserves, which has been a great success in the Pacific island nation in the Pacific, including all international waters, would be a major step towards replenishing the oceans with life (and food). Here’s a glimpse of a sustainable future – herds of animals hovering over windmills, electric drones hovering over rainforests, with freshly picked fruit. But that, Attenborough reminds us, will take immediate, drastic action.
Documentary producers clearly hope that it will be a call to arms – a truth that is now impossible to ignore. They end up back in Chernobyl, where – in the absence of humans – rare animals have returned, and trees and plants have crossed the city.
It is an important reminder that the fight against the climate crisis is not just about saving animals and plants, it is about saving our own species.
Amit Katwala is the culture editor of Wired. He tweeted amitkatwala
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