A Life on Our Planet
David Attenborough states that A Life on Our Planet is his “witness statement”, having had a particularly unique opportunity to document and televise the changes in wildlife and nature over his lifetime. In this documentary, Attenborough presents us with key environmental issues – climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the declining state of our oceans – and explains how the changes in our lifestyles relate to the disconnection between us and the natural world.
A Life on Our Planet has a great sense of urgency and carries a clear message – Earth, and all its resources, are finite – but we are consuming and behaving as though everything is infinite.
Something I particularly loved about this documentary were the candid shots of Attenborough throughout the years; seeing him interact with wildlife really emphasises the connection that humans should have with nature. Attenborough sharing his true, raw emotions brought another level of humanity to the cause, especially coming from someone largely seen as a TV presence.
There was definitely an overarching sense of dread and doom throughout. However, towards the end, Attenborough provides a glimmer of hope and shows us that we don’t have to lose the little wildlife we have left.
“With or without us, the natural world will rebuild. This is about saving ourselves.”
This was undoubtedly the hardest hitting sentiment for me. If we change the way we consume, and rediscover how to be sustainable, human life can continue thriving on Earth.
- Rapid increases in CO2 are often associated with extinction events – there is roughly 1.5x more CO2 in the atmosphere now than in the 1930s
- Average air temperatures have remained stable for 10,000 years, until the 1990s when oceans could no longer absorb the excess heat from burning fossil fuels
- Biodiversity has always been key in maintaining stability within Earth’s systems
- Forests and phytoplankton in the ocean absorb CO2 from the atmosphere
- Large animal herds help to fertilise vast grasslands
- Mangrove forests and coral reefs provide nursery areas for many fish species
- Polar ice reflects some of the sun’s energy back into space to regulate warming – but the Arctic’s summer sea ice extent has reduced by 40% in 40 years
- 90% of large fish have been removed from the sea – without large fish and other marine predators, the ocean nutrient cycle is disturbed
- Half of the world’s rainforests have been cleared, equating to roughly 3 trillion trees
- Approximately 50% of Borneo’s rainforests have been cleared for oil palm plantations, causing a decrease in orangutan populations by two-thirds in 60 years
- Orangutans are important for tree diversity in rainforests, as they play a key role in dispersing seeds by eating fruit
- Humans have become disconnected from the natural world, despite having increased global connections, as we have overcome many barriers such as disease and food production
- The rate at which humans consume is unsustainable
- 50% of fertile land on earth is farmed
- Livestock accounts for 60% of all land mammals
- Freshwater animal populations have reduced by 80%, and 30% of fish stocks have been overfished to critical levels
A bleak future…
Rapid advances in society and technology have allowed us to live easier, more comfortable lifestyles. However, as our lifestyles change, so do our consumption patterns. If society continues to consume and extract from nature at the rate that we do, a 6th mass extinction event could be underway.
- Continued burning of the Amazon rainforest transforms the area into a savannah; too dry to produce rain, the global water cycle is affected
- A warming earth causes the Arctic to be ice-free; less of the sun’s energy is reflected into space thus increasing the speed of warming
- Thawing of permafrost releases methane gas, further accelerating the rate of climate change
- Coral reefs will die from the warming and acidification of the ocean, causing fish populations to plummet
- Soils are no longer fertile as they have been exhausted from overuse and monoculture farming; global food production enters a crisis
- Insects disappear, affecting pollination and changing the food web
- Weather patterns become more erratic and unpredictable; large parts of the earth will be uninhabitable, and more people will be considered ‘climate refugees’
…unless we make changes
To amend the biodiversity and climate crisis, we must reconnect with nature and embrace the stark reality of the earth’s current state. Between 1937 and 2020, the amount of remaining wilderness on Earth has halved.
One of our highest priorities is to diverge and phase out fossil fuels. Generating energy through renewable sources (sunlight, wind, water, and geothermal) is essential to slowing down/stopping the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Within 20 years, renewables are predicted to be the main source of power across the world – in fact, renewables are set to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide by 2025, expected to supply one-third of the world’s electricity. Renewables can help to make energy more affordable and create cleaner, quieter cities.
The oceans play a crucial part in regulating Earth’s processes and in human life. Improving biodiversity in our oceans can increase the oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, as well as improving important fish stocks for human consumption. By creating marine protected areas (MPAs), habitats and fish populations are given the chance to recover. For example – in 2015, Palau established the sixth largest no-take MPA in the world. These protected areas allowed the fish in Palau to repopulate; healthy adult fish spilled over into surrounding non-protected areas, leading to more abundant catches for local fisheries. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature proposed that 30% of the global ocean should be fully protected by 2030, as an important measure to improve ocean biodiversity and marine habitats.
Finally, the quickest way to transform land on Earth is to change our diets. The planet is unable to support billions of regular meat eaters, so eating a largely plant-based diet can cut the need for land for food by half. 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food – reducing our consumption of animal products can reduce food’s greenhouse gas emissions by 49%. When Attenborough met an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers in New Guinea, he noted that they rarely ate meat and allowed the resources they consumed to replenish themselves. It was a great contrast to the world in the West, where people began demanding more from the Earth every day. Innovative farming techniques could also reduce farming’s demand on natural resources – for example, Dutch farmers use vertical farming in greenhouses, reducing energy and water consumption to produce large amounts of vegetables for consumption.
Making a change is all about education and increasing awareness. Keeping that in mind-
“This is David Attenborough’s witness statement. Who else needs to see it?”
Article by Aisyah Wan. You can view more of her work on her website.