David Attenborough

A Life on Our Planet

“It never occurred to me to be anything other than fascinated when watching what was going on in the natural world around me.”

“One of the rewards of growing old is that you can truthfully say you lived in the past” film critic Roger Ebert wrote right before he died. The gift of using a lens from the past to view the present is a gift indeed, and one that David Attenborough (born May 8, 1926) continually bestows upon those lucky enough to look.

When I was 11 years old, I lived in Leicester in the middle of England. At that time it wasn’t unusual for a boy of my age to get on a bicycle, ride off into the countryside and spend a whole day away from home. And that is what I did. Every child explores. Just turning over a stone and looking at the animals beneath is exploring. It never occurred to me to be anything other than fascinated when watching what was going on in the natural world around me.1

Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön wrote that to hold life’s complexity in both hands and still summon peace, that is the key to contentment. It is also key to our soul, and, argues the reverent David Attenborough in Life on Our Planet, to our life.

“This is the true tragedy of our time,” Attenborough writes in precise words:

This is the true tragedy of our time, the spiraling decline of our planet’s biodiversity. For life to truly thrive on this planet, there must be immense biodiversity. Only when billions of different individual organisms make the most of every resource and opportunity they encounter, and millions of species lead lives that interlock so that they sustain each other, can the planet run efficiently. The greater the biodiversity, the more secure will be all life on Earth, including ourselves. Yet the way we humans are now living on Earth is sending biodiversity into a decline.

Fossiized coral. Featured in David Attenborough's "A Life on Our Planet" in the Examined Life Library.
Fossilized coral, turned into limestone with time. The modern presence of limestone indicates the ancient presence of coral structures, constant forces that move and shape the earth. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana at London’s Natural History Museum.

Attenborough has a long history as a TV broadcaster and filmmaker, he brought the wilds of the world into living rooms for decades. His rather furious scurry in the last couple of years has put him in all of our living rooms (and in the parts of our brains that beep when we toss a bit of plastic into the bin.)

I had believed from a very early age that the most important knowledge was that which brought an understanding of how the natural world worked. It was not laws invented by human beings that interested me, but the principles that governed the lives of animals and plants; not the history or kings and queens, or even the different languages that have been developed by different human societies, but the truths that had governed the world around me long before humanity had appeared in it. Why were there so many different types of ammonites?2

Ammonite fossil. Featured in David Attenborough's "A Life on Our Planet" in the Examined Life Library.
Ammonite fossil. Ammonites were sea animals that lived between 65 and 250 million years ago, their chambers were vacated as they grew and are therefore a measure of age. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana at London’s Natural History Museum.

From a childhood traipsing along in awe and wonder at the immediate world and through his immense career as a BBC broadcaster, David Attenborough became witness to extraordinary events and changes.3

The men stared at us, wide-eyed, as though they had never seen our like before. I doubtless did the same… to my surprise I found it was not difficult to communicate with them. I tried by gestures to indicate that we were short of food. They pointed to their mouths, nodded and opened their bags to show us roots, probably taro, that they had been gathering. I pointed to cakes of salt we had brought with us. It is used as currency all over New Guinea. They nodded. We had started to trade.

The burden of witness is expel the words lest they consume us internally. To give history one of its critical chapters.

Plastic is invading oceanic food chains and over 90 percent of seabirds have plastic fragments in their stomachs. Aldabra is a nature reserve which very few people are permitted to visit. When I landed on the island in 1983, while making The Living Planet, the only flotsam on the beaches worthy of mention were the giant nuts of coco de mer palm tree. Recently another film crew visited the island. They found humanity’s rubbish on every part of the beaches. Giant tortoises that live on the island, some over a century old, now have to clamber over plastic bottles, oil cans, buckets, nylon nets and rubber. No beach on the planet is free of our waste.

Ancient seabed. Featured in David Attenborough's "A Life on Our Planet" in the Examined Life Library.
An early dinosaur footprint formed about 200 million years ago. The mounds are exactly what they look like, sand shaped by ocean currents. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana at London’s Natural History Museum.

As I read A Life on Our Planet, I can’t stop thinking about the enormity of the problem vs. individual impunity and ignorance.

Three hundred years to grow,
three hundred more to thrive,
three hundred years to die –
nine hundred years alive.

From Robert Macfarlane’s incantation “Oak” in The Lost Spells

What kind of shift in consciousness is necessary? I think of Galileo pointing his newly-chiseled lens at the moon and saying “look here!” or how Rachel Carson connected agricultural fertilizer to widespread ecological devastation. If we can become desensitized to changes such as extinction, tuck those things under the mantel of knowledge and press on, then we can adapt to a world that bans plastic or feeds us synthetic meat.4

Ultimately, that is the beauty of A Life on Our Planet, it is urgent and empowering because it is written with hope.

The work of scientists who study the Earth’s systems gives us the answer. In fact, it’s quite straightforward. It’s been staring us in the face all along. Earth may be a sealed dish, but we don’t live in it alone! We share it with the living world – the most remarkable life-support system imaginable, constructed over billions of years to refresh and renew food supplies, to absorb and reuse waste, to dampen damage and bring balance at the planetary scale. It is no accident that the planet’s stability has wavered just as its biodiversity has declined – the two things are bound together. To restore stability to our planet, therefore, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must rewild the world!

Oliver Sacks, the great humanist and physicist once wrote, “I am near death, but I am not done living.” Attenborough delivers a voice for our era, from our era, and let’s not mince words – at age ninety-four – one that will soon leave our era.

What must it have meant to him to write this statement and vision? Knowing he will not ever know if we listen?

Then again, we do not know if we will listen either.