My wife and I watched David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet the other night. It’s the latest documentary from the veteran broadcaster, and it’s a little different this time. More personal. It combines environmental fact with biographical details and archive footage, as Attenborough – now 93 – reflects on the changes he has seen. He describes the film as “my witness statement and my vision for the future.”
In graphics that crop up at various intervals in the film, we see that the global population stood at 2.8 billion when Attenborough was first exploring the natural world as a boy. The atmosphere was at 280 parts per million of CO2, and 66% of the world was wild spaces. As the film progresses and the decades roll forwards, those graphics pop up again and again, showing just how much has changed. The population grows, the atmosphere gets increasingly polluted, and human activity encroaches ever further into the wild that Attenborough worked to show us. It’s “a world that demanded more every day” he says, leading inevitably to “our planet, run by humankind, for humankind.”
Looking back at some of Attenborough’s early programmes, there’s no escaping the fact that the world he explored then is now gone. “We destroyed it” he says sadly of the wonders he put on screen.
It’s a powerful testimony, “a story of global decline in a single lifetime” from probably the best travelled person in history, and the single most influential modern figure in shaping our view of nature.
In looking to the future, Attenborough says we have gone through “a series of one-way doors”, but that all is not lost. Restoring biodiversity should be an urgent priority, reducing our impact on the environment and rewilding the world.
He highlights a few particular themes, beginning with solar and wind power, choosing Morrocco as an example of a country doing well. We see intensive sustainable agriculture in the Netherlands, and forests recovering in Costa Rica. In a story I was less familiar with, the documentary highlights how Palau created extensive marine reserves and saw fish stocks recover, as part of a long-term commitment to the health of its waters.
There are problems, and they’re fairly predictable. As usual with documentaries of this type, I listened in vain for even one line that recognised inequality, differentiated responsibility or justice. The narration is entirely framed as ‘we’, a human species that apparently acts as one. While environmental damage has happened almost everywhere, people are not equally responsible, not equally vulnerable, and neither have people benefited equally from that damage. This goes unmentioned.
Neither is there any mention of power. Attenborough talks about the extraction of resources or the cutting of forests, but doesn’t ask about why it was done. What were the drivers? There’s no mention of capitalism, profits, consumerism, development, growth, vested interests or even lifting people out of poverty. Bad things happened and we should stop them, is about as deep as the critique goes.
That is, of course, not what Attenborough is known for and I understand that he has a particular role. He prefers to be non-political, and be a voice for nature. I get that, but it does leave the film without context. We see what’s happened, but not why, or what has stopped us from acting sooner on the climate and ecological emergency.
Still, A Life on Our Planet is a powerful film from one of Britain’s most liked and trusted public figures, and I hope it gets a wide audience. The film has had a limited cinema release, although that may or may not mean anything, given Covid variables. It is available on Netflix otherwise.