We begin with an old man wandering through the ruins of a city. The man is Sir David Attenborough, world-famous naturalist and documentarian behind such masterworks as the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and “The Blue Planet,” and the place is Pripyat, Ukraine, an abandoned city in the shadow of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
“The explosion was the result of bad planning and human error. Mistakes. It triggered an environmental catastrophe that had an impact across Europe. Many people regarded it as the most costly in the history of mankind,” Attenborough said. “But Chernobyl was a single event. The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding across the globe, barely noticeable from day to day. I’m talking about the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity.”
From here, Attenborough guides us on a journey through the natural world as he has countless times in his films, yet this time is different. Instead of a documentary, Attenborough presents this project, titled “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,” as a “witness statement.” In a recent “60 Minutes” interview with journalist Anderson Cooper, he explained his choice of terminology.
“A witness statement is given when a crime has been committed,” Cooper said. Attenborough responded by saying, “Yeah, well, a crime has been committed, and it so happens that I’m of such an age that I was able to see it beginning.”
From Attenborough’s boyhood up through the modern day, viewers are shown how and why the planet has changed and what this means for life as we know it. It’s a message people of our generation have become all too familiar with: The actions of human beings have placed the future of our species and of countless other species in dire peril. Still, many remain unaware of the extent to which that peril has been allowed to fester and spread.
“Since I started filming in the 1950s, on average, wild animal populations have more than halved. I look at these images now and I realize that, although as a young man I felt I was out there in the wild experiencing the untouched natural world … it was an illusion. Those forests and plains and seas were already emptying,” Attenborough reflects. “The world is not as wild as it was. Well, we’ve destroyed it. Not just ruined it. I mean, we have completely … well, destroyed that world. That non-human world is gone. Human beings have overrun the world.”
Because of his lifetime of work in natural sciences and the creation of films on that topic, Attenborough is almost a living record of the changes brought forth on this planet in the past century. This gives the whole project a unique and fascinating perspective that no other film on this subject has been able to achieve. We see the changes of the world through his eyes. And it is through these same eyes in which many of us first developed an appreciation for animals and ecosystems as children, via his documentaries.
After presenting us with the facts of what damage humans have inflicted upon Earth so far, Attenborough paints a picture of the fate that awaits us if we do not heed these warnings, and that fate is severe. Within 20 years, the Amazon Rainforest will have vanished completely, forever altering the global water cycle, and the Arctic will be devoid of ice in the summer months, causing the oceans to absorb ever-increasing amounts of solar radiation.
Within 30 years, previously frozen land will thaw, spewing methane gas into the atmosphere and accelerating the warming of the planet.
In 40, coral reefs will die and fish populations will collapse.
In 70, farms will fail worldwide from over-tilled soil, many pollinating insects will become extinct, and weather will become increasingly random and unpredictable.
By the end of the century, much of the earth will be uninhabitable and millions will be rendered homeless as the Earth becomes 4 degrees Celsius warmer, leading to mass extinction.
Still, it doesn’t have to be “all doom and gloom,” as Attenborough puts it. The latter half of his witness statement is a thoughtful explanation of what we can do to change our fate and once again live in balance with the natural world. He describes his vision as “rewilding the world.” That means halting deforestation and bringing back wilderness. It means preserving animals on land and sea in order to repopulate them to sustainable levels. It means doing what scientists have said for decades and finally cutting off our reliance on the harmful and unsustainable fossil fuel industry. It also means stabilizing and supporting human populations around the world by raising people out of poverty, providing universal health care and enabling all women to access education.
“A Life on Our Planet” ends with the words, “This film is David Attenborough’s witness statement. Who else needs to see it?” The answer to that question is: all of us. With the truth laid bare, it is obvious that human destruction of the natural world through global climate change, deforestation, poaching, over-consuming and pollution is the single most important issue facing us today. Without swift response from industrial powers like the United States, China and India, the grim predictions of this witness statement will become a reality in our lifetime.
I urge all of you to log into Netflix when you have the time and watch this. It’s less than 90 minutes long and easy to fit into your schedule. I also suggest following Attenborough on Instagram at @davidattenborough. He already has over 5 million followers and surpassed the world record for the shortest time in reaching 1 million followers. There, he plans to upload more information on how you can do your part to secure humanity’s future. This is not a time to sit idly by. Instead, you should follow Attenborough’s example and take action; donate to conservationist charities, hold marches, call your representatives, change your own lifestyle if you can. If there is any message to take away from “A Life on Our Planet,” it’s that if we don’t act now, there will be no second chance.
“When you think about it, we are completing a journey,” Attenborough says. “Ten thousand years ago, as hunter-gatherers, we lived a sustainable life because that was the only option. All these years later, it’s once again the only option. We need to rediscover how to be sustainable. To move from being apart from nature to becoming a part of nature once again.”
My rating: 5/5 stars.