A Life on Our Planet / A Life on Our Planet

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and A Vision for the Future

by David Attenborough

Summary by Inday Ransom

Introduction: Our Greatest Mistake 

Attenborough recounts his visit to Pripyat Ukraine—a seemingly normal town, with plenty of avenues, hotels, schools and parks. Apartments near the town’s cultural and commercial center were built with luxurious balconies, topped with an iron hammer and sickle. 

Pripyat was built during the rise of the Soviet Union, designed to be the perfect city for scientists, engineers, doctors, and the social elite. Many worked nearby at the nuclear power plant. However, no one lives there today. The once bustling city now feels like an apocalyptic ghost town.

Attenborough has visited many post-human towns—Pompei, Angkor Wat, and Machu Picchu—but in Pripyat, the normality makes you focus on the abnormality. The structures are so familiar that you know immediately it wasn’t abandoned due to the passing of time. “Pripyat is a place of utter despair because everything here, from the notice boards that are no longer looked at, to the discarded slide of rules in the science classroom, to the shattered piano in the cafe, is a monument to the capacity of humankind to lose everything it need, and everything it treasures. We humans, alone on Earth, are powerful enough to create worlds, and then destroy them.” (Attenborough, 5). 

On April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, known by everyone as “Chernobyl”, exploded due to bad planning and human error. The radiation coming from the reactor was four hundred times more radioactive than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. 

Acid rain and radioactive snowflakes entered the soil and waterways over much of Europe. This inevitably broke into the food chain. The sheer number of premature deaths caused by this event is still disputed, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.  Many have called Chernobyl to be the most catastrophic environmental catastrophe in human history. 

Unfortunately, Attenborough explains Chernoybl is not the greatest human-made environmental catastrophe, but the ongoing decline of Earth’s biodiversity. It is the true tragedy of our time, he says.  

1- Part One: My Witness Statement

1954, world population: 2.7 billion. Carbon in atmosphere: 310 ppm. David Attenborough finishes with his military service and graduates from university with a degree in natural sciences. Soon after he joined BBC Television Service—his job was to show and handle animals from the London Zoo. 

After collaborating with Jack Lester, the Curator of Reptiles in the London Zoo, they decided it would be a great sequence to show animals Lester had caught, and explain their natural history. A new kind of animal program, they called it Zoo Quest. In 1954, they set off for Africa.

Unfortunately, after the first program premiered, Jack Lester fell ill, and later succumbed to his illness. To continue the program for BBC, Attenborough took over and directed live cameras instead of handling animals in a studio. 

1978, world population: 4.3 billion. Carbon in atmosphere: 335 ppm. Remaining wilderness: 55 percent. BBC2 created a new format that consisted of 13 50-minute to an hour long episodes that would examine an important subject. Attenborough felt this format would be great to examine the greatest story of all—the history of all life. Attenborough explains that he couldn’t balance being an administrator while also filming. So he decided to leave BBC and suggest his idea to his successor. 

The series was eventually accepted, he called the series Life on Earth. Attenborough wrote scripts for all 13 episodes that would film around 600 species in at least 30 countries. The travel would add up to be 1.5 million miles. 

The program would take three years to film, and their first sequence consisted of the world’s largest primate, and their evolution. Attenborough suggested that their next project should include the largest animal of all—a whale. 

Whales have been hunted for thousands of years, by men using a simple canoe and harpoon. In the twentieth century however, the balance of hunting tipped. We invented new ways of tracking whales, and using upgraded harpoons that had explosive heads. Warehouses were created to process several giant whales a day. Whaling had become industrialized. By the time Attenborough was born, in 1926, more than 50,000 whales were being killed every year to supply the ever growing market of oil and meat. 

The biggest problem when restricting life is the diminishing available nutrients, “Where conditions are right, plants and animals live in the surface waters and, when they die, drift continuously downwards as ‘marine snow’. Where nutrients are not freely available, the surface waters of the oceans can almost be sterile… Indeed, whales are now thought to be responsible for bringing more important nutrients to surface waters in some parts of the ocean than the outflows of local rivers.” (Attenborough, 63). 

Whaling, like any form of mass hunting, cannot be sustainable for much longer. We are killing more whales than they can mature and reproduce. In the 1970s their population dwindled from an estimated 250,000 to now only a few thousand. 

Scientists have learned that each whale has its own personality, they speak in such a low frequency they can communicate from hundreds of kilometers away. And their variations of speaking changes over time. 

Roger Payne, an American biologist released a vinyl of whale recordings in the 1970s. The public’s reaction had changed from viewing them as a resource, to having distinct personalities. Outrage ensued, and an anti-whaling campaign began.

2020, world population: 7.8 billion. Carbon in atmosphere: 415 ppm. Remaining wilderness: 35 percent. Our impact is now widespread. We are harvesting 80 million tons of seafood each year, reducing fish stocks 30 percent, now critically low. We have lost nearly half of all shallow-water coral reefs from major bleachings occurring every year. Coastal developments have now reduced mangroves and seagrass beds more than 30 percent. 

Plastic debris has been found in the deepest parts of the ocean and there are currently 1.8 trillion plastic fragments drifting in outrageous garbage patches in the northern Pacific. We are surrounded by waste. “Globally we have reduced the size of their animal populations by over 80 percent… fishermen [southeast Asia] have had to use mosquito nets in order to catch something edible. Currently we cut down over 15 billion trees each year…Insect numbers, globally, have dropped by a quarter in 30 years…Many pollinators, essential links in numerous food chains.” (Attenborough, 98). 

2- Part Two: What Lies Ahead

David Attenborough expresses his remorse for current and future generations in the next 90 years. He explains that we cannot keep living this way if we hope to see a promising future. 

In the start of the 1950s after the war, humans entered the Great Acceleration. The increasing use of energy, water, dam building, tourism and farmland are all trends of this acceleration. 

There are nine crucial thresholds to Earth’s environment. So far, humanity has pushed through four of these boundaries. “We are causing a rate of biodiversity loss that is more than 100 times the average, and only matched in the fossil record during a mass extinction.” (Attenborough, 111). 

In the 2030s, aggressive deforestation, illegal burning in the Amazon will reduce the rainforest to 75 percent of its original size. Biodiversity loss will be catastrophic, the domino effect will be greater throughout the ecosystem. Although the Amazon rainforest is large, this might create a tipping point, triggering a phenomenon known as forest dieback.  The forest will lose its ability to harvest large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere—it currently holds 100 billion tons of carbon. Plants and animals that may have benefitted medical sciences, new food, and industrial applications might disappear before we even know they exist. 

By the 2100s, the humanitarian crisis will be horrifying. Coastal cities will have to migrate from rising sea levels. Places where droughts and floods are normal, will become uninhabitable. The droughts, fires, floods, and overfishing will provide little food, and only in wealthier areas. Farming will be impossible in much of the world. Attenborough says we must “rewild” the world. 

3- Part Three: A Vision for the Future, How to Rewild the World 

Attenborough goes in depth of solutions, starting with switching to clean energy. The Earth is essentially solar-powered. Plants, phytoplankton and algae capture three trillion kilowatt hours of solar energy every day—about 20 times more energy than we use. In 2019, 85 percent of our global energy was from fossil fuels. Renewables only account for 4 percent. 

Humanity needs to implement better techniques to take advantage of renewable energy. The first problem is that energy storage is still underdeveloped. Batteries cannot hold enough energy for all the things society needs—farming, transportation, housing. 

The second problem is the barrier of affordability, although the prices are becoming more and more manageable. Over 30 years, renewable-dominated energy regions could save us trillions of dollars in operational costs. Many believe improving affordability to get solar panels and wind power would swifty replace fossil fuel consumption. Carbon taxes might also push companies to switch to renewables. 

Another solution is to create no-fish zones, or Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). One MPA is in Cabo Pulmo, off of Baja California in Mexico. They made 7,000 hectares of their coast a no-fish zone. They found, “It was at the ten-year point that sharks came back to Cabo Pulmo…After 15 years, the amount of marine life in the no-fish zone had increased by more than 400 percent…The fishermen caught more fish than they had done in decades, and what is more, the community had a tourist attraction on their doorstep.” (Attenborough, 149). If society were to implement no-fish zones encompassing a third of our ocean, it would be sufficient enough for fish stocks to rise and recover, helping us for the long term.  The best areas would be coral reefs, kelp forests, mangroves, seagrass meadows and saltmarshes. Larger species should only be caught with a fishing pole, and not industrialized nets. We want the fish to be here forever, not for quick profit. 

The no-fish zones also go in hand with rewilding land. Europe has gone into the reforesting phase—by recovering forest lands, animals have been able to migrate back into their natural habitats, and thus increase their population. Of course preserving land is much different from preserving the ocean. No one owns the ocean, domestic waters are owned by nations to be able to make broad decisions. Land, on the other hand, is owned by us. The value of land is decided by markets, which will inevitably make it harder to preserve areas deemed “poor” when they are indeed rich in life. 

The best people to help with wildlife conservation are local and indegenous people, who know the land the best. For instance, the Maasai tribe in Kenya are herders. They have made their own efforts to conserve their land after their animals had grazed too much, and wildlife migrated elsewhere. They herd their cattle patterns that stimulate growth, not destroy it. This model has worked for them, and more herds of wildlife have come back to their origin. Their neighboring tribes have also seen the success of their model, and are implementing it too. 

If we want to survive, and have our wildlife grow, we need to adopt a model that works for our specific environment. We need to balance our lives if we want to balance the planet. Switching to renewables, no-fish zones, conservations, using only what we need and developing new techniques that benefit us, and everything around us.