You know the drill. Gather the family, turn on the television, and settle in for a slice of natural wonder. For decades, David Attenborough has taken us from the jungles of Borneo to the savannahs of Africa – from vibrant rainforests to the bleak beauty of the polar regions.
But A Life On Our Planet, available to stream now on Netflix, is a very different kind of nature show. Instead of jaw-dropping chase sequences or the jovial dancing of colourful birds, it is a warning. Attenborough calls it his “witness statement” – in truth, it’s more like a post-mortem on the natural world, a world that humans have systematically conquered, exploited and destroyed.
The documentary opens in Chernobyl, perhaps the premier example of the scarring touch of our species – a place we’ve ruined so comprehensively that it will be uninhabitable for centuries. From there, it cuts between Attenborough’s narration – grave, emotional, and straight to camera – and archive footage, as he talks through how human activities have changed the world in his 94 years on the planet.
When Attenborough was born, in 1926, average temperatures were one degree cooler than they are today – it’s not so much the heat, but the speed of the change which has thrown nature out of balance. The first half of A Life On Our Planet charts how the growth of the human population has impacted the natural world during Attenborough’s lifetime, using a blend of archive footage from his earliest work – grainy footage of a young Attenborough frolicking with gorillas or meeting members of a remote tribe – and more modern shots from his recent documentaries.
An on-screen ticker marks the passing of the years between Attenborough’s seminal works – each jump forward in time bringing an increase in the human population, a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and a fall in the amount of truly ‘wild’ nature left.
We’ve lost 40 per cent of our sea ice in the last 40 years. In the 50 years since fishing boats began venturing into deep waters, they’ve stripped the oceans of 90 per cent of their large fish. Jungles that were once home to orangutans and rare birds are gone, replaced by rows of monotonous agriculture – half of the fertile land on Earth is now used for farming. Frozen islands, once inaccessible, are open to the seas. And vast plains which once housed millions of grazing animals lie empty. “Our blind assault on the planet has finally come to alter the very fundamentals of the living world,” Attenborough says, and when the evidence is presented this starkly, it’s impossible to disagree.
Attenborough shows have been criticised in the past for failing to show the full negative effects of climate change. There is no such equivocation here.
There are parallels between the documentary and the 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, which spells out exactly what each additional degree of warming will mean for our descendants. As the timeline ticks on, Attenborough gives us a glimpse of the world that someone born today will live in. Wildfires rage. The polar ice caps melt completely in the summer. The Amazon, stripped of trees by deforestation, transforms into a desert. Coral reefs bleach and crumble. Humans starve, as over-farmed land struggles to keep up with the demand. It is a bleak picture – an obituary for a planet that had achieved a delicate, beautiful balance known as the Holocene, and maintained it for thousands of years until one species became too powerful, too dominant, too rapacious in its appetites. The future that a clearly emotional Attenborough describes is a series of one way doors – points of no return that will make the world less diverse, less vibrant, and a harder place to live.
Attenborough does end on a hopeful note, however. He kind of has to. The last section of the documentary outlines the steps that we can collectively take to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and help the natural world recover. Some of them will be familiar – eat less meat, widen the use of renewable energy, put pressure on banks and investors still funding fossil fuels.
Others are less discussed – Attenborough talks passionately about widening opportunities for people in developing countries in the hope that it will lead to a similar fall in birth rate to that experienced in richer parts of the world like Europe and Japan (although balancing increasing living standards with sustainable use of resources will be a tricky challenge).
The widening of marine reserves, which have had great success in the Pacific island nation of Palau, to include all international waters would be a major step towards refilling the oceans with life (and food). There is a glimpse here of a sustainable future – herds of cattle roam around wind turbines, electric drones rise above the rainforest canopy with freshly picked fruit in tow. But that, Attenborough reminds us, will take urgent, drastic action.
The producers of the documentary clearly hope it will be a call to arms – a truth that’s now impossible to ignore. They end back in Chernobyl, where – in the absence of humans – rare animals are rebounding, and trees and plants have overrun the city.
It’s a vital reminder that the fight against the climate crisis isn’t just about protecting animals and plants, it’s about saving our own species.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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