“A Life on Our Planet”: Attenborough’s powerful witness statement

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

With a career spanning seven decades, a myriad of academic, national and entertainment awards and 20 species bearing his name, Sir David Attenborough is easily one of the most trusted and beloved figures in documentary television. His iconic voiceover narrations defined an entire genre of film and television, bringing anthropomorphic charm to a vast array of life. 

In his latest film, “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,” which debuted on Netflix on Oct. 4, Attenborough draws on 93 years of life experience to give his witness, his statement and his call to action for the future. 

When Attenborough was a child, there were only 2.3 billion people on the planet. In 1937, when Attenborough was 11 years old, 66% of earth’s wilderness was still intact and the carbon in the atmosphere was at 280 parts per million. In just one lifetime, he has watched the population increase by nearly 240%. In 2020, the world population has reached 7.8 billion, carbon is up to 415 parts per million and only 35% of earth’s wilderness remains. In less than 100 years, humanity has significantly altered the natural world at a dangerously high cost. 

“A Life on Our Planet” tracks the decline of our world’s natural places using Attenborough’s own career. By 1960, just six years after Attenborough’s first documentary series, only 62% of earth’s wilderness remained and many species were quickly becoming endangered. 

Although our rapid increase in carbon emissions and destruction of wilderness in the past century is cause for alarm, what scientists predict for the future is far worse. 

According to the film, our current trajectory will lead to the near-total destruction of the Amazon rainforest and complete seasonal loss of the polar ice caps by the 2030s. Without rainforests, which absorb much of the carbon in our atmosphere, the greenhouse effect continues to trap heat. Ice caps, which reflect the sun’s rays back into space, play a major part in cooling the ocean. Without their reflection, the ocean continues to warm. 

By the 2040s, arctic permafrost will begin to thaw, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere and again drastically accelerating the rate of global warming. By the 2050s, coral reefs will have died, wiping out most fish populations. By 2100, our planet will have grown warmer by four degrees Celsius, or about 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving large parts of the earth uninhabitable. 

These events, if allowed to occur, will result in the sixth mass extinction event of our planet’s 4.5 billion year history. 

This prediction is grim, but it, and other similar predictions from climate scientists, are backed by decades of research across multiple fields. Attenborough’s film does not shy away from the severity of the climate crisis we have created, but hope is not lost. 

Attenborough reminds us that this future is not yet set in stone. We are at a crossroads. And although the U.S. has done little to contribute to climate justice, many nations have begun to make real changes to their consumption practices. 

Morocco has become almost entirely dependent on solar energy and may soon be able to become a major exporter of solar power to Europe and Africa. Many island nations have created no-fish zones around reef areas, allowing both fish populations and the fishing industry to boom. Ethical consumption and renewable energy are accessible and cost-effective. All we need to do to join our world community in the fight for climate justice is accept the facts and put forth a little effort towards ecologically conscious behaviors.

What the film leaves out, much to its benefit, is any mention of politics. For Attenborough and other scientists, climate change is anything but political. 

In America’s highly politicized social culture, this is an important reminder. Though science and politics are often intertwined, the existence of the climate crisis and our necessary response is not a matter of partisan agendas. The facts of climate change are clear, and climate justice is a human issue, not a political one. But now that we know, we must act. 

“David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” leaves its audience with one final reminder: our planet will heal itself, with or without us. But our actions will determine whether humanity will continue to exist. 

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