Movie review: David Attenborough – A Life On Our Planet

(image courtesy

For a species that has been around for a good 300,000 years or so in various evolutionary iterations, humanity has an astonishingly short attention span and an almost alarming inability to see beyond the immediate.

You could argue that entirely the opposite is the case, using as your examples the towering might of civilisation and the rapid progress of Homo Sapiens since it began displaying what is termed “behavioural modernity” some 100,000 years ago, but for all that tenacious progress, people have a worrying inability to see past what is right in front of them.

It could very well be our downfall, warns esteemed naturalist and steward of planet Earth, Sir David Attenborough, who rings the alarm bell with fury and mournful passion in David Attenborough: Life on Our Planet which he has fashioned as a “witness statement” from a man who knows far better than almost anyone, how much damage humanity is doing to its home.

We are, he alleges with considerable visual documentary evidence and lived experience, effectively acting as our own executioner, laying waste to the natural riches of this planet with an eye only on the immediate benefits and no real recognition of the fact that in taking, taking, taking from the world around us, that we are essentially readying a cataclysmic knife to slash across our collective throat.

“We are facing nothing less than the collapse of the living world – the very thing that gave birth to our civilisation. The thing we rely upon for every element of the lives we lead.

If this sounds alarmist, then that is exactly the response Attenborough is wanting from Life on Our Planet which he has fashioned into a warning shot across our bow, hoping that enough people, especially those in power, will heed us for disaster to be averted.

What is truly deeply frightening about this masterful film, which draws on Attenborough’s lifetime of documenting and signing the multitudinous wonders of the natural world, is how little time we have left to avert the very worst of the consequences of our destructive actions.

(image via YouTube (c) Netflix)

All the considerable modelling by scientists from around the world on how quickly and fully the globe could descend into an inhospitable hellscape, seems to be paling into insignificance against what is actually taking place.

Attenborough demonstrates this vividly by referencing how much has changed in the 94 years he has been alive.

When he begin his enduring love affair with flora and fauna of the planet in 1937 at the age of 11, 66% of the earth’s surface was covered by wilderness; by 2020, this had shrunk to just over a third, driven by rapacious logging, urban expansion, and dizzying levels of economic progress that might seem in many ways to be the making of us as a species but which, Attenborough warns, could well spell our doom.

Quietly and yet with heartfelt passion remarking that “We haven’t just ruined it… we’ve destroyed it. That world is gone”, Attenborough desperately and with great sadness cautions viewers in the strongest possible terms that we can’t simply assume that we can keep taking from the earth without disastrously deleterious consequence.

If he sounds pessimistic at times, he is, as he admits to close friend of many years, Sir Michael Palin (Monty Python), saying that while he retains optimism that we can save the world we inhabit, he finds it increasingly hard to sustain the hope that humanity will save itself and the diversity of the natural world upon which it is intimately dependent before it is too late.

Still, however much his optimism might be waning, Attenborough has not given up the fight just yet.

While the first two thirds of Life on Our Planet spends its artfully-constructed time detailing the wonders and loss of the forests, the reefs, the fish and the insects of the 10,000 years-strong Holocene period, the life-sustaining natural stability of which has benefited not just people but the creatures and plants with which we share the planet, the final third implores us, with a hopeful vivacity, to return to a more sustainable way of living.

Attenborough lays out an impressively simple though extensive plan of action for the earth’s salvation – full salvation is likely unachievable this late in the game but more can be saved than lost, he believes, if we act NOW – which includes re-wilding the world by preserving at least one third of coastal waters as non-fishing zones, planting more trees, getting smarter about how we grow food so we use less land to do so, and by cutting back on a consumerist culture, whether that’s goods or food, and only taking what we need to live.

(image via YouTube (c) Netflix)

It’s a dizzylingly ambitious plan but it is not as unrealistic or impossible as you might think.

Attenborough provides numerous examples of countries that have changed the way they operate, in ways that have benefited them and their environment, and most crucially the naysayers who ask where all the money to fund this transformative change will come from, their economies.

He points to Costa Rica, which in 25 years thanks to a visionary government, has increased its forest covering from 25% to 50% with attendant growth in biodiversity and economic enrichment of its citizens.

Or what about Morocco, which has gone from being almost wholly dependent on oil and gas importation to a country poised by 2050 to be prime exporter of renewable energy.

The strength of Attenborough’s restorative argument for our planet, which if enacted could see the richness and biodiversity of the planet restored by 2100 – if this sound far-fetched, he uses the area around the Chernobyl nuclear power planet as a powerful example; in the 34 years since humanity evacuated the irradiated zone, nature has definitely reclaimed the towns and villages of the region – comes from the fact that all of the measures he advances are now only feasible but being put into action around the world already.

He acknowledges that we would have to change the way we live in, in ways small and often big, and admits that humanity has shown a worrying propensity for not seeing the danger it is in until it’s too late to remedy the malaise, but again and again, with a hopeful gleam in his eye, that it is achievable and doable.

But, and this is the critical part of his film, and one of the prime motivating threads running through the length of Life on Our Planet, we must act and we must act now.

We really don’t have a choice – we can’t either surrender to the very worst of our lives and create a planet laid to waste by 2100 when life will be all but impossible for us and the natural world we have “murdered” or we can fix the mistakes we have made, return to a more sustainable way of living and restore the earth’s biodiversity.

The choice is a clear one and you can only hope the world will finally, belatedly act; Attenborough is clearly hoping, nagging pessimism aside, that this will happen, but makes it clear that if we don’t don’t we will have only ourselves to blame when the brilliant, wondrous magic of the world vanishes into the dust from which life first came.

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