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Experience and gratitude. A call for action, from David Attenborough

If there’s anyone qualified to speak about the health condition of the Earth and the health impacts visited on her by the human species, it is David Attenborough.  With a lifetime of experience, wit and wisdom, he brings a wealth of firsthand knowledge to the table from which we can gain insights and understanding. What follows is a selection of extracts and some paraphrasing from sections of the book that accompanied the Netflix film, released in 2020.

In A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, David Attenborough, starts out with an introduction under the heading Our Greatest Mistake.  The reference to the nuclear incident in Pripyat in the Ukraine is painstaking in detail and depressing to think that we’ve learned so little since this episode.  Not so much nuclear disasters, rather widespread less explosive disasters.  More insidious and all-pervading they have been brought on as a direct result of our wanton disregard for mother nature’s laws that have no equal in human affairs.

Part One, My Witness Statement, Attenborough then lists the events he has experienced during his 94 years, beginning in 1937, then 1954, 1960, 1968, 1971, 78, 89, 97, 2011 and 2020.

In summary over this time: 1937 – World population was 2.3 billion; Carbon in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million; Remaining wilderness was 66 percent.  Come 2020 -World population is now 7.8 billion; Carbon in the atmosphere now 415 parts per million; Remaining wilderness was 35 percent.  Since the 1950s, on average, wild animal populations have more than halved.

We have replaced the wild with the tame.  We regard the Earth as our planet, run by humankind for humankind.  There is little left for the rest of the living world.  We have overrun the Earth.

Says Attenborough: I have spoken about this whenever I can.  I wish I wasn’t involved in this struggle, because I wish the struggle wasn’t necessary.  But I’ve had unbelievable good fortune in my life. I would certainly feel very guilty if, having realised what the dangers are, I decided to ignore them.

I have to remind myself of the dreadful things that humanity has done to the planet in my lifetime.  Are we, like the people of Pripyat, sleepwalking into a catastrophe?

Part Two, What Lies Ahead, he lays out a series of scenarios, noting that he fears for those who will bear witness to the next 90 years, if we continue living as we are doing at present.   The latest in scientific understanding suggests that the living world is on course to tip and collapse.  Indeed it has already begun to do so with all the services we have come to rely on beginning to falter and some fail entirely.

Attenborough then talks about what is referred to as the Great Acceleration.

This measures impact and change across a host of parameters.  Energy use, water use, tourism, the spread of farmland and so on, are all rising.  And so is carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, surface temperatures, ocean acidification, loss of fish population, tropical forest and so on.  This testimony ‘is a first-person narrative of the Great Acceleration.’

What we humans who have driven the changes are in, is what’s known as the lag phase – and it’s not sustainable.  While the Great Acceleration is the look of progress, it is in fact anything but, because it relies on pushing beyond at least nine planetary boundaries and inevitably leads to disorientation and collapse, when the Earth’s system can longer deliver the demands of the human onslaught.  Says Attenborough, ‘In the control room of Earth we are absentmindedly turning up the dials on these nine boundaries, just as a hapless nightshift crew did in Chernobyl in 1986.  The nuclear reactor had its inbuilt weaknesses and thresholds, some known to the crew, some not known.’

Currently our activities are committing the Earth to failure.  We have already pushed through four of the nine boundaries.  Four warning lights are flashing on the dashboard.  We are already living beyond the safe operating space of Earth.  The Great Acceleration, like any explosion, is about to generate fallout – an equal and opposite reaction in the living world, a Great Decline.  If we don’t change course, those born today could witness the following.  He then does on to lay bare the path ahead for a sleep walking bunch of humans blinded by their own self obsession.  2030s, 2040s, 2050s, 2080s, 2100s. 

Within the lifespan of someone born today, our species is currently predicted to take our planet through a series of one-way doors that bring irreversible change and commit us to losing the security and stability of the Holocene.

To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very things we have removed.  It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created.  We must rewild the world!, writes Attenborough.

Part Three – A Vision for the Future, How to Rewild the World.

How can we encourage a return of the wild and bring back some stability to the Earth?  Those who contemplate the path to an alternative, wilder, more stable future, are unanimous in one respect: our journey must be guided by a new philosophy – or more accurately, a return to an old philosophy.   To be in balance with the natural world.  With the advent of farming, our options increased, and our relationship with nature changed.  We came to regard the wild world as something to tame, to subdue and use.  We moved from being a part of nature to being apart from nature.

We need to reverse that transition.  We already have a compass for this journey to a sustainable future.  The planetary boundaries model is designed to keep us on track.  Halt climate change is high on the list.  End overuse of fertilisers.  Halt and reverse the conversion of wild spaces to farmland, plantations and other developments.   But the compass is missing an important element. … 50 per cent of humanity’s impact on the living world is attributable to the richest 16 per cent of the human population.  Their lifestyle is wholly unsustainable.   The model referred to has been devised by Kate Raworth an economist with University of Oxford, using a series of rings to discuss well-being.  In this Doughnut model the Inner ring includes good housing, healthcare, clean water, safe food, access to energy, good education, an income, a political voice and justice.   The Outer ring is an ecological ceiling below which we must remain if we are to maintain a stable and safe planet.

And what should be our source of inspiration in trying to meet the Doughnut challenge?  We need look no further than the living world herself.  All the answers are there.  And you could say have been all along. 

Moving Beyond Growth … p129
Our first lesson from nature concerns growth.  We have arrived at this moment of desperation as a result of our desire for perpetual growth in the world economy.  But in a finite world, nothing can increase forever.  All the components of the living world grow for a period of time, but then they mature.  And once they mature they may thrive.

The Great Acceleration is the product of a fixation on growth, and the Great Decline of the living world, its consequence.

For, on a finite planet, the only way to achieve perpetual growth is to take more from elsewhere.  What felt like a miracle of the modern age was just stealing.  One stark example is the species loss caused by deforestation to grow the soy we need to feed the chicken we eat, is not accounted for.  The impact on marine ecosystems of the plastic water bottle that we buy and discard, is not accounted for.

A new discipline within economics is attempting to solve this problem.  The three Ps, meaning not just profits, but also people and the planet.   Some say we need green growth that is more targeted and specific.  In the end, though, green growth is still growth.   And it is inconsistent with ecological and therefore the earth principles by which we must regulate ourselves.

New Zealand might be a guiding light having recently ditched placing so much reliance on GDP as their measure of success, choosing to create its own index based upon its most pressing national accounts. All three Ps – profit, people and planet – were represented.  Prime Minister Ardern shifted the country away from pure growth and towards something that better reflects the issues and aspirations that many of us have today. 

Could this be an indication that we are ready for a, what Kate Raworth terms, a growth-agnostic world? See this link to the Doughnut Economics website …

Humankind has yet to mature, says Attenborough.  We must curb our passion for growth, distribute resources more evenly and start to prepare for life as a mature canopy tree – to use a forest analogy.  That is the only way to achieve, enjoy, an enduring meaningful life.

Switching to Clean Energy … p136
The living world is essentially solar-powered.  The Earth’s plants and so on capture three trillion kilowatt hours of solar energy every day. 

For 3.5 billion years this served the purposes of all living beings on the Earth just fine.

Two hundred years ago we started to dig up the energy rich remains of plant life and burn them, returning great quantities of the carbon stored in it to the atmosphere.

The rest is history and we are paying a high price for yet another example of the Great Acceleration.

What is clear to those of us concerned not only with climate change but also biodiversity loss is that we have a much better way of capturing carbon: the rewilding of the world will suck enormous amounts of carbon from the air and lock it away in the expanding wilderness.  When done in parallel with global cuts in emissions, this nature-based solution would be the ultimate win-win – carbon storage and biodiversity gain all in one.  All our efforts should go into a drive to revive the rewilding of the world.

Rewilding the Seas … p147
The ocean covers two-thirds of the surface of the planet.

Fishing is the world’s great harvest.  It needs to be done right.  It isn’t at this time.   We need more MPAs – Marine Protected Areas.  The MPA model works because it stops us doing something we should never have begun to do – eat into the core fish stocks, the capital of the ocean.

Key components as part of a total solution must include sustainably managed coastal waters and the restoration of mangroves, seagrass meadows, saltmarshes and kelp forests around the world.

Taking up Less Space … p159
We have torn down seasonal forests, rainforests, woodlands and scrub, drained wetlands and fenced in grasslands.

Much as we find them attractive, rolling hills of open paddocks, vineyards and orchards are, in the main, sterile environments compared with the wilderness they have replaced.  The truth is that we can’t hope to end biodiversity loss and operate sustainably on Earth until we cease the expansion of our industrial farmland.

The stability from the Holocene, has been replaced with the extravagance and instability of the Anthropocene.

Regenerative farming has much to offer.  It is an inexpensive approach able to revive the exhausted soils of most areas by bringing organic matter rich in carbon back into the topsoil.

Rewilding the Land … p 178
Fear was a driver for clearing forest trees.  It allowed early humans to make space for themselves unhindered by wild beasts.  They learnt how to modify trees, slicing ash, hazel and willow down to the base to create a thicket of long slender trunks, so that they could fashion fencing, thatch and bedposts.  Their farms and their numbers grew.  Their fears waned.  The forest was domesticated.

Deforestation is something we human seem to do.  It is an emblem of our dominance.  The relationship between progress and the removal of the forest is so close, there is a recognized model to define it. A nation’s forest transition describes the deforestation and the reforestation that tends to happen in a developing nation over time.

We must halt all deforestation across the world now and, with our investment and trade, support those nations who have not yet chopped down their forests to reap the benefits of these resources without losing them.  Easier said than done – but done it must.  For all our sakes.  The UN REDD+ program is one model.

The rewilding of the land is within our gift, and it is undoubtedly a valuable thing to do.  Creating wild lands across the Earth would bring back biodiversity, and the biodiversity would do what it does: stabilise the planet.

Planning for Peak Human … p.190
When I was born – 94 years ago – there were 2 billion people on the planet – today there are almost four times that number. It could, if we do nothing, be 12.7 billion by 2100.

What is the human carrying capacity of the Earth?  Despite reasoned proposals and fearful warnings from great thinkers throughout history, we have never yet met our natural ceiling.

In addition to the basics like food, shelter, water, for ever more people, we seem to effortlessly support far more than these essentials such as schools, shops, entertainment, public institutions.  Is there nothing that will stop us?

The catastrophe unfolding around us surely suggests that there is.   The loss of biodiversity, the changing climate, the pressure on the planetary boundaries (see resources at the bottom of this post), everything points to the conclusion that we are finally fast approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity for humanity.  Each year since 1987, an Earth Overshoot Day has been announced – an alternative date in the calendar on which human-kind’s consumption for the year exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year. In 1987 we were overshooting the Earth’s resources by 23 October. In 2019, we were doing so by 29 July.  Humankind now uses up the equivalent of 1.7 times what the Earth can regenerate in a single year.

We are eating into the capital of its resources.  The catastrophe ahead is what happens when the Earth calls in our overdraft.

By reducing the impact of our consumption in all the ways outlined above, we will effectively raise the Earth’s carrying capacity once again.  To give everyone the fair share they deserve and improve the lives of all as the Doughnut Model demands, it is important that human population growth does level off.

The transition to peak human will be a long and hard journey for us to undertake.  But travel it and achieve it we must, if we are to pass on anything like the beautiful planet our grandparents inherited from their forebears.

The decisions we make today are critical if we are to get there.  We need all to align and work hard to give everyone a fair and decent standard of living as soon as possible.

 Achieving More Balanced Lives  … p 203
A revolution in sustainability, a drive to rewild the world and initiatives to stabilize our population would realign us as a species in harmony with the natural world about us. How would it affect our own, individual lives? 

In a thriving, sustainable future, we would follow a largely plant-based diet, filled with healthier alternatives to meat. We would use clean energy for all our needs.  Our banks and pension funds would only invest in sustainable businesses.  Those of us that chose to have children would be likely to have smaller families.  We would be able to choose wood products, foodstuffs, fish and meat thoughtfully, informed by the detailed information available with every purchase.  Our waste would be minimal.  The little carbon our activities still emit would be offset automatically within the purchase price, funding rewilding project all over the world.

In truth, it would be easier for us, in this potential future, to live a life of balance with the natural world than it is today.  Business and political leaders will have been compelled to build products and societies that help us have a lower impact.

I remember a time before the disposable society we have today, when we repaired and reused, when we had little or no plastics, and food was a precious commodity.  The present habit of throwing everything away, even though, on a finite planet there is of course such things as ‘away’, is a relatively new thing.  Aside from the fact that waste is a waste, when it accumulates it often becomes damaging.  The living world faces the same problem, and we will, once again, be wise to copy its solutions.  In nature, the waste from one process becomes the food for the next.  All materials are reused in cycles, involving many different species, and almost everything is ultimately biodegradable.

Those studying possibilities for a circular economy such as the researchers at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, (listen to Ellen MacArthur at the link), are looking for ways to bring the same logic and efficiencies into our societies.  The key to the circular mindset is to imagine replacing the current take-make-use-discard model of production with one in which raw materials are thought of as nutrients that must be recycled, just as nutrients are in nature.  It then becomes clear that we humans are essentially engaged in two different cycles.  Anything that is naturally biodegradable – food, wood, clothes made from natural fibres – is part of a biological cycle.  Anything that is not – plastics, synthetics, metals – is involved in a technical cycle.  The raw materials in both cycles – the carbon fibres or titanium, for example – are elements that need to be reused.  The cleverness comes in designing ways to do so.

Give and take, that is the essence of what balance is all about.  When humankind as a whole is in a position to give back to nature at least as much as we take, and repay some of our debt, we will all be able to lead more balanced lives.

There are programs and plans and living examples of these ideas already being practiced in communities and cities and on farms around the world.

Everything is set for us to win this future.  We know what to do, there is a path we can follow.  It is a path that could lead to a better future for all life on Earth. 

We must let our politicians and business leaders know that we understand this, that this vision for the future is not something we need, it is something, above all, that we want.

Conclusion – Our Greatest Opportunity … p213
I was born at another time.  I don’t mean this metaphorically, but literally. I arrived in this world during a period geologists call the Holocene, and I will leave it – as will every one of us alive today – in the Anthropocene, the time of humans.

The term Anthropocene was proposed in 2016 by a group of eminent geologists.   What for the geologists was a name produced by scientific routine has now, however, become to many others a vivid expression of the alarming change that now faces us.  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 civilization.

It need not be so.  The advent of the Anthropocene could yet mark the beginning of a new and sustainable relationship between ourselves and with the planet.  It could be a time in which we learn to work with nature rather than against it, a time in which there would no longer be any great distinction between the natural and the managed, for we would become the attentive stewards of the entire Earth, calling upon nature’s extraordinary resilience to help us bring its biodiversity back from the brink.

It’s up to us.  We might be ingenious, but we are quarrelsome.  We need to sink our differences and unite to act globally.

  • To continue to exist will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom.
  • Homo sapiens, the wise human being, must now learn from its mistakes and live up to its name.
  • We must not give up hope.
  • We have all the tools we need and the immeasurable energies of nature to help us do our work.
  • And we have the ability to imagine a future and work towards achieving it.
  • We can yet make amends, manage our impact, change the direction of our development and once again become a species in harmony with nature.
  • All we require is the will.

We have an incredible opportunity to build a stable home for ourselves and restore the rich, healthy and wonderful world that we inherited from our distant ancestors.


We highly recommend this book as a window into the mind of a wonderful person who has given so much of his time and energy for our benefit.  Our understanding of the natural world and our place in it is so much richer than if he hadn’t done so.  Bravo, David Attenborough.  You have played your part and set before us sufficient information from which meaningful action must surely follow.  Thank you.

Other resources

Great Acceleration

Planetary boundaries

Circular economy