From his original 1950s natural history broadcasts on the BBC to the mainstream success of series like Blue Planet and Planet Earth, David Attenborough has been involved in the study of the natural world for nearly 70 years. While most people probably just recognize him for his soothing British voiceovers of wildlife footage, the man behind so many of our nature documentaries has actually had a pretty incredible life of his own, accumulating countless unique experiences with many different animals throughout his time in the field. Having spent his entire adult life working alongside animals and studying the natural world, David Attenborough chose Netflix to deliver what I can only assume to be his magnum opus: a documentary on his own life and how that life has developed in tandem with the slow demise of our planet. Dark, sobering, and downright frustrating (in a good way) at times, David Attenborough takes it upon himself to reiterate on just how much life on Earth has changed since he was a boy, and what humans can do in order to preserve the future of the natural world, as well as the future of our own species.
Right off the bat, A Life On Our Planet feels far more personal than any other David Attenborough production I’ve ever seen. As a longtime fan of nature documentaries, Planet Earth and Blue Planet are among some of my favorite television series, but Attenborough makes it abundantly clear that this film is designed to demonstrate the degradation of our wilderness, rather than highlight its overt beauty. A big aspect of this film is the fact that it is David Attenborough’s “witness statement” on the planet, essentially putting all the knowledge he’s gathered about the Earth and its future into a single, compact vision. As Attenborough describes how our understanding of the natural world and its coverage within the mainstream media has changed over time, the documentary displays what is essentially a ticking clock, allowing audiences to watch as the planet’s human population and carbon emissions grow exponentially while global wilderness continues to rapidly shrink. All throughout this process, Attenborough laments on the sheer number of species that he once worked with that have since been driven to extinction, or near extinction.
While most people in 2020 recognize that global warming is a problem, Attenborough attempts to make it clear that the repercussions of our actions will take effect far sooner than we might think. Climate scientists estimate catastrophic events could begin occurring as early as 2030, with the global increase of extreme weather becoming worsened through Methane escaping from melted permafrost fields and glacier ice. This melting process, coupled with the rapid deforestation of the Amazon, will produce cataclysmic shifts in global air temperatures, making storms far more unpredictable. These weather shifts will also cause large amounts of land to become dry and uninhabitable, as wind patterns change and weather is no longer predictable enough for agriculture. By 2050, there will be a global food shortage due to climates that were once temperate becoming unworkable, coupled with the mass flooding of coastal regions and unusable soil appearing in many places due declining natural diversity, eventually culminating in the total collapse of our planet’s ecology.
This is basically the doomsday scenario, and Attenborough attempts to give the audience as much evidence as he can in support of his claims, all of which are mirrored by the evidence provided by Earth’s leading climatologists. In the words of Attenborough himself, “Anything you cannot do forever is, by definition, unsustainable.” Humanity’s willful ignorance of the effects it has on nature, combined with the mentality that we are somehow separated from the natural world and therefore unaffected by it, will evidently be our downfall. For anyone under the age of 40, this will be the world we inherit from our parents, and it’s not looking pretty. And while all these talks of doom and gloom are enough to depress any existential millennial, Attenborough also makes a point to offer a variety of potential solutions to help ease, or even halt, these problems.
However, this is the only section where I have some gripes with the film, as it felt a little rushed in comparison to the rest of the documentary. Attenborough clearly has a variety of ideas on how to solve climate change, but he doesn’t really give much information on how we can reach these goals beyond a handful of existing examples, some of which even seem a little flimsy. For example, he references Japan as the perfect example of how human population growth will eventually stagger and hit its peak due to good jobs, increased health benefits, and long lifespans provided by living in modern society. This idea of a “maximum population” is a sentiment that many scientists also believe in, but from my experience learning about Japan’s work culture, I’d hardly rush to use them as an example of the “perfect society” that generates happy people with no desire to have lots of children. There are many other cultural factors that play into Japan’s low birth rate aside from the country’s overall excellent quality of life, and assuming other societies will follow these same circumstances definitely feels like a stretch.
Another example of the film not providing much context towards actually implementing a solution is when Attenborough addresses the changes humanity would need to make to its diet in order to live sustainably on the planet. While I’m not a vegetarian or vegan (yet), I definitely agree that our obsession with meat is unhealthy for both our planet and our bodies. However, just saying something like “we should get rid of meat farms and replace them with sustainable crops” is a nice sentiment, but does very little to explain just how we, as a society, can actually make the transition happen smoothly. What happens to the animals once meat production is eliminated? Where do we get supplemental food from while we demolish the buildings, plow new fields, and wait for the first harvest to grow? How will our global food supply chain need to evolve in order to accommodate a massive influx of plant-based products, and how long will that take?
I know there are probably answers to these questions elsewhere on the internet, but I was hoping to get a little bit more out of Attenborough on this front since he’s already spoken about these subjects at variety of other climate change summits. Especially when this whole affair is supposed to be his “witness statement:” a culmination of all of this experience throughout his life put into one film. Though to be honest, as the documentary was nearing its conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread, despite his best efforts to paint a hopeful picture of the future. The radical changes humanity would be required to make seem far beyond our current capabilities as a society, especially with the overwhelming rise of public misinformation working against our species’ survival at every turn. After all, if we can’t even get people to wear a thin cloth mask over their mouths to help prevent the spreading of an ongoing global pandemic, how are we supposed to convince them to completely eliminate meat (other than the occasional fish) from their diets?
At the end of the day, A Life On Our Planet still provides audiences with an invaluable perspective into the life of one of the most remarkable people on the planet. David Attenborough is 94 years old and yet he’s still fighting every day to protect a civilization from the dire repercussions of its own actions, despite the fact that they will likely never effect him. Because unlike what many people might think, Attenborough isn’t saying that humanity needs to save the planet’s wildlife because it’s the “moral thing to do” or something. He’s saying that if we don’t try to save the Earth’s biodiversity, we will all die as a result. The first step is for humans to stop viewing themselves as completely separate from nature. For each additional species that we lose to extinction, our planet’s biodiversity shrinks, causing ripple effects that accelerate the already-devastating effects of climate change. But when all is said and done, life on Earth will continue even if we don’t change our ways and keep accelerating the processes of global warming. The Earth has already survived five mass extinction events, and life has persevered every single time. It’s simply up to humanity, as a species, to decide whether or not it wants to be a part of the planet’s future for longer than the next 50 years.
9/10 – Fantastic