A Life on Our Planet starts off with a sobering walk through the ruins of Chernobyl. Even with Attenborough's gentle narration in the background, the opening scene is a confronting reminder that poor planning and human error can result in grave consequences.
Sir David Attenborough has spent almost six decades as a leading wildlife researcher and natural historian. In partnership with the BBC, he has made over nine documentaries on wildlife and climate change, for which he has been called "the greatest broadcaster of our time". Now with this almost one and a half hour documentary, Attenborough presents what he calls his witness statement of the last fifty years and his vision for the future.
How we got here
Attenborough begins with a flashback to the year 1937 when he was a young lad of eleven. Back then, the world population was 2.3 billion and 66% of the wilderness on our planet remained intact.
He then takes us back a few billions years, reflecting on the evolution of nature and, specifically, the mass extinction of species which has occurred five times in our planet's history. The most recent was the meteoric impact that resulted in 75 percent of Earth's species at that time being wiped out, including dinosaurs. The subsequent 65 million years have been spent rebuilding the planet, into what he now calls 'our time' or what is scientifically known as 'The Holocene'.
Attenborough reveals that the Holocene has been one of the most stable periods in the Earth's history. For 10,000 years, the average global temperature has not fluctuated by more than one degree celsius. This is credited to the thriving and complex biodiversity which has steadfastly protected us against the devastating impacts of carbon dioxide and global warming. It is by relying on the stable nature of these climates that humans have been able to develop the conditions we needed to succeed, such as farming and agriculture.
However in a poignant moment, Attenborough then shows us early photographs of planet Earth as captured during the Apollo mission. Using the image of a lone blue dot against an infinitely dark atmosphere, he explains in a refreshingly simple way, that the world is both finite and in need of protection. Humans cannot continue to exploit, abuse and profiteer from our planet without consequence.
Attenborough then takes us on a journey to explore various habitats, revealing how each environment plays a critical part in securing our ongoing livelihood.
Taking the example of Borneo, Attenborough demonstrates why rainforests provide such an important habitat for over half of the species inhabiting land. An Orangutan mother is filmed teaching its cub which seeds are ripe to eat. Attenborough narrates that this behaviour eventually leads to the successful diversity of trees in the rainforest. As centres of biodiversity, forests are key to absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
Shockingly, half of the world's rainforests have already been cut down, as humans benefit both from the timber and from farming the land that is left vacant when trees are cut down. Consequently, the deforestation of Borneo has reduced the Orangutan population by two thirds. Perhaps what will remain with you even after the documentary ends is the scene of a lone, frightened Orangutan climbing the last tree standing amongst an ocean of cut down timber, in a desperate plea to find a safe home.
Taking a deep dive (pun intended), Attenborough then takes us on a journey under the sea. Here we encounter a multitude of wildlife, that until relatively recently had remained largely undisturbed. Even though it was only the 1950s when mass fishing occurred in international waters, by now some 90% of the large fish in the sea have been removed from their natural habitat.
The camera then shows us startling scene of coral reefs turning white. The white reefs are now literal skeletons of what used to be magnificent, colourful bodies, turning the 'wonderland into wasteland'.
A driving force behind this tragic consequence is the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere on a mass scale. Attenborough explains that in our history, it had taken volcanic activity up to one million years to cause the same catastrophic effects. By our excessive consumption and pollution, humans have managed to recreate the same devastation in 200 years.
North and South Poles
Attenborough then takes us on an awe-inspiring journey to the Poles. Whilst the scenery is breathtaking, Attenborough points out that they were only able to film it by being able to sail to islands that were previously inaccessible due to being preserved by ice.
With the oceans warming up with excess heat and the average global temperature rising, the ice has melted at a speed that exceeds any in the last 10,000 years. The ice remaining during the summer months has reduced by 40% in forty years. Now seeing giant ice cliffs breaking down into the ocean, we witness even the most distant and pristine of ecosystems being decimated.
By now, the year is 2020. The world population has reached 7.8 billion and the remaining wilderness has dropped to 35%. Here, Attenborough shares some startling and frightening projections that scientists have predicted will occur if we continue on our current trajectory.
In the 2030s, scientists predict that the Amazon will have degraded into a dry savannah, leading to catastrophic loss of species. The Arctic would have become ice-free in the summer months. Without the protection of the white caps, the sun's rays will be much more damaging on the earth's temperature, further accelerating the impact of climate change.
By the 2040s, the frozen soils will have thawed, releasing methane, a gas which is significantly more damaging than carbon dioxide.
By the 2050s, the oceans will continue to heat and become more acidic, resulting in the drastic decline of fish populations.
By the 2080, a global food crisis would have been created by the overuse of soils and the unpredictability of climates.
By 2100, the planet will be four degrees warmer and large parts of the world will become uninhabitable, with millions of people rendered homeless. A sixth mass extinction will be underway.
Although the year 2100 may sound some time away, Attenborough points out that in reality, unless we take action now, the security and stability of our planet will be lost within the span of the next lifetime.
Vision for the future
Attenborough has spoken widely of this crisis, including at conferences of the UN, IMF, and Davos amongst others. To these audiences, he says candidly, we are facing nothing less than the collapse of the living world. The solution he says is simple, we must restore biodiversity.
Leveraging years of research and experience, here he presents five solutions.
1. Reduce population. By current projections, there will be 11 billion people on earth by 2100. With the dwindling rate of resources to cater to humankind's excessive consumption, it is necessary to slow down the rate of the human population. By enabling greater access to healthcare and supporting girls to stay in school, we will be able to curb our population and raise our standard of living around the world without increasing our impact on the world.
2. Renewable energy. As Attenborough points out, renewable energy is available in abundance. Phasing out fossil fuels and returning to renewable energies, such as sunlight, wind, water and geothermal sources will allow us to return to a more sustainable lifestyle. Our cities will also be quieter and the air we ingest will be cleaner and safer.
3. Protect oceans. The ocean is a critical ally to reduce carbon in our atmosphere. To that end, marine wildlife must be protected against over fishing and pollution in order to restore the health of our oceans.
4. Protecting forests. As centres of biodiversity, forests are key to absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Protecting forests against excessive logging for timber production or re-farming for oil palm is critical to ensuring our the air on our planet remains clean and safe for all species.
5. Reduce farmland. We must drastically reduce the land area we use to farm in order to make way for natural habitats to return. If all humans had a largely plant based diet, we would need only half the land used currently to grow food. Using the example of the Netherlands who have become global experts in raising their farms sustainably, with less water, less pesticide and less fertiliser, Attenborough explains how, by using technology, we can and must find creative and sustainable solutions to secure our continued survival.
In wrapping up, Attenborough reminds us that in this world, a species can only thrive when everything around it thrives too. It is critical that we re-establish life on our planet in balance with nature, by consuming less. Ten thousand years ago, as hunter gatherers, we lived a sustainable life because that was the only option. Now, we need to return to living sustainably as the only option once again.
This documentary is a moving and scenic recollection of the shifting encounters Attenborough has had with the biodiversity of our planet over the decades. When a ninety three year old gets on Instagram in a desperate attempt to reach out to the younger generation, it feels necessary that we take note. Attenborough calls this film his witness statement, but in reality it is a moving plea to make changes now, urgently and decisively, to save our planet for ourselves and future generations before it's too late.
Ending the documentary with a call to action, Attenborough points out that humans have one thing that is not common in other species, the ability to imagine the future. He ends the film by telling us that we can restore the world, to be rich, healthy and balanced - just imagine that.
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