A look back over Attenborough’s now long life tells a shocking tale of nature’s decline. But while the damage is clear to see, the solutions, less so.
Unlike a large mass of Britons across generations, I didn’t grow up with David Attenborough’s TV shows. Neither did I get into him during long nights at university like many of my friends. The reason I point this out is that it gives me an objectivity that others who grew up with him can’t quite attain.
Those in Britain know how exalted a figure David Attenborough is; he is as important a cultural cornerstone as David Beckham or The Beatles. To criticise him feels like insulting the late Queen — it just doesn’t sit quite right.
Attenborough, despite his numerous accomplishments and astonishing intelligence at ninety-three years of age, is a modest and humble figure. A Life On Our Planet is not a boast of all his achievements and neither is it a run-through of his career at the BBC. It is a damning indictment of humanity’s effect on the planet, and on this level it works brilliantly. It is when it presents solutions that it falters.
Taking us through the basics of his career, Attenborough links this to the changes in the planet since his birth in 1926. He began his broadcasting career at the BBC in the 1950s, a time he describes as a golden age due to the post-WW2 economic boom matching the increased development of technology making humanity’s lives easier.
But as the years went by, he began to find evidence of damage. Whether it be the decay of coral reefs in the sea, polar ice caps melting, decline of fish in the oceans, decreased Orangutan population in Borneo, the message was always the same — We are heading towards a catastrophe. Just take this in: The last mass extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs. In just two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, we have reached the proximity to the next mass extinction event, a process that should normally take millions of years.
In the past 100 years, the planet has warmed by 1 degree Celsius. In the next 100 years, the prediction is that it could warm by 4 degrees Celsius. Alongside this we’ll see the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest to the point it can no longer produce moisture; the Arctic melting to the extreme that there’s no ice in the summer; the overuse of soil leading to agricultural crises; inhospitality of large swathes of the earth causing a huge refugee crisis; and all of this together exacerbating climate change further.
Finally, we reach a stage in which we have been frightened enough. It is time for solutions.
“It’s a beautiful and harrowing diagnosis, but as a treatment it falls short”
Attenborough then points to the obvious. We have to push for women’s education (current events in Afghanistan show exactly how important this is). We should rewild more, adopt a more plant-based diet, and use more renewable energy. We must reduce population growth by raising the standard of living. Here he shows us the example of Japan, which is slightly misguided as the country is now grappling with economic stagnation in part due to its ageing population. Furthermore, is this not an acceleration of capitalism, which many point to as the cause of the climate crisis? He’s telling us that the destructive model which has caused the problem should be made less destructive. Why not rid ourselves of the model altogether?
Attenborough’s solutions are too simple, which is a failure as it’s the solutions that we are after from our experts. The documentary shows a lack of depth and complexity, almost a Mickey Mouse approach to climate activism. A Life On Our Planet does not trust the intelligence of its viewers. But perhaps that’s the nature of the documentary format, it’s significant weakness — to capture the viewer’s attention, one must keep it simple and straightforward, in the process losing the nuance it originally sought to impart.
Attenborough does point to the Palawans banning fishing and the efficient use of land by the Dutch and anti-deforestation measures in Costa Rica. What he neglects to mention is what ties these three examples together — that the biggest change comes not from individuals but from governments. Our governments must think innovatively instead of wasting time fussing over whether the Home Secretary speeded or not. In Britain, it feels like this kind of progressive thinking within government is lightyears away.
At times, the film feels like nothing more than a mere collection of facts stretched out by the voice of an iconic narrator and beautifully filmed footage of nature. Overall, we see a huge emphasis on the problem but not enough on the solution. Maybe I’m being naïve, but it feels like we are at a stage now where the public are aware of the rising dangers of the climate crisis. What we need is an education on the solutions, not the problems. A Life on Our Planet is a beautiful and harrowing diagnosis, but as a treatment it falls short.