If you still haven’t seen ‘A life on our planet’, Sir David Attenborough’s latest (and quite possibly last, given his advanced age) documentary, please find the time to do so. It will give you pause, regardless of whether you are a fervent eco-activist or a Trumpian climate change denier.
Set aside 90 minutes to watch this exquisite ‘witness statement’, told by a passionate, 93-year old champion of nature, who shares his life wisdom and bittersweet advice for the sake of our future generations.
Because all is not well with the blue planet.
Today, at the start of the EU’s Green Week, dedicated to biodiversity and sustainable economy, it pays to take stock of where we are:
Since 1970 – a mere half-century – the populations of all vertebrate animals around the world, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles, have dropped by an alarming 68%, according to the Living Planet Index.
At this rate – and do bear this in mind – while our grandchildren will still be able to enjoy Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’, orangutan and Bengal tigers will become extinct in the wild, if not entirely.
So what, some might say. We can live without them, we can do without blue whales, black rhinos or golden eagles.
But is that really so? Have we become so anthropocentric that we’ve lost sight of the big picture?
At the time of Attenborough’s youth, in 1937, there were 2.7 billion people on Earth. Wilderness areas accounted for 66% of the planet’s surface. Today, there are 7.8 billion of us – an almost trifold increase! – while the wilderness has shrunk to 38%.
Attenborough, just like Juval Harari, author of ‘Sapiens‘, inevitably concludes that the incomparable success of the human race may also be its downfall. Our own activity could lead to a sixth mass extinction.
Unless we hit the brakes and change course, this is the scenario Attenborough envisages:
2040s – In the North, frozen permafrost soils will thaw, releasing methane into the atmosphere, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
2050s – Oceans continue to heat and become more acidic, and coral reefs around the world will bleach and die. This will cause fish populations to crash, with a huge impact on millions of people who rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, like fishing and tourism.
2080s – Global food production will be seriously threatened as soils will become exhausted by overuse. Pollinating insects will disappear and the weather will become even more unpredictable.
2100s – The planet will be four degrees Celsius warmer, rendering large parts of the Earth uninhabitable and leaving millions of people homeless. The sixth mass extinction will be well underway at this point, causing irreversible damage to the planet. [The fifth was the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.]
To avoid that, we must – as you undoubtedly already know – eradicate poverty, phase out fossil fuels quickly, switch to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, and restore biodiversity across the globe. Because diverse eco-systems just perform better.
Otherwise, the tables might turn on us. Droughts will lead to famine and climate migrations, wars for territory and resources. And then we may realise, albeit too late, that nature will find a way, without us.
There’s no clearer demonstration of this than in the last scenes of Attenborough’s documentary, shot in Chernobyl, more than three decades after the notorious nuclear disaster that reduced the town to rubble and chased away all its residents.
The town is now overgrown with lush vegetation, grass and tall trees, so green you barely see the ruins. It’s spookily deserted, but all the while teeming with life – just not human life. Nature found a way, and it didn’t even take long.
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Views are the author’s