David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet 

David Attenborough’s latest documentary, “A Life on Our Planet”, was released on Netflix in October 2020 along with a companion book (A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future). In this blog, we’ve outlined some of the main takeaways from the film that we thought were especially important. If you want to learn more and understand the complex connections between our oceans, our forests, and our climate, we would highly recommend watching the full documentary for yourself (it’s only 83 minutes but will change your perspective on life for sure!) and/or reading Attenborough’s book which is also available as an audiobook. It’s truly worth the read. 

What’s the problem?

Attenborough explains throughout the documentary that the true tragedy of our time is the loss of wild places on our planet, and consequently the loss of biodiversity. He emphasises that human actions have been sending biodiversity into a decline and the way we humans live now will ultimately lead to a place in which we cannot live.

The summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% over the last 40 years.

Large fishing fleets have removed 90% of the large fish from the ocean since the 1950s.

We have overfished 30% of fish stocks to critical levels.

We cut down over 15 billion trees each year

Half the world’s rain forests have already been cleared for timber and for farmland. 

Human activities such as damming, fishing, and pollution have reduced the size of freshwater populations by over 80%.

The average global temperature today is 1°C warmer than it was 90 years ago (this is a massive change: for over 10.000 years, the average temperature has not wavered up or down more than 1°C!).

Half the fertile land on earth is now farmland. (A lot of this is monoculture farming, which is highly unsustainable as it removes biodiversity).

Wild animal populations have more than halved on average since the 1950s.

We have completely destroyed the wild world.

So what do we do?

Hearing (and watching) these devastating facts naturally feels really frustrating and hopeless. It also begs the question: is there anything we can do to stop this? Or at least slow down the eradication of species and the warming of our planet? Luckily, the film doesn’t leave us completely downhearted. In fact, Attenborough also has an important message of hope: if we act now, he says, we can put it right. In order to restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity (the very thing we removed!). More specifically, he says we must rewild the word. If we manage to recover the fragile ecosystem that is currently out of balance, then we have a chance of preventing a terrible future for humankind.

[Source: Unsplash/Kunal Shinde]

But how do we do that?

Towards the end of the film, Attenborough presents some specific ideas on how we can live a sustainable life again. Here are the five main things we need to do, according to him, in order to slow global warming and preserve the wild spaces and biodiversity on our planet.

1) Slow population growth.

The world is currently home to around 7.9 billion people. It is predicted that, if we continue at the current rate, in 2050, there will be 9.7 billion people living on our earth. More people means more need for resources and space and thus more destruction of wild places. Attenborough explains that the birth rate naturally falls when healthcare and education improve. Thus, raising people out of poverty, enabling education, and giving everyone access to healthcare will lead to a reduction in births. Specifically, in order to lower the birth rate, it is crucial to empower women by giving them access to education and pushing for gender equality. He does admit it will be tricky to raise the standard of living globally without increasing our impact on the world at the same time but he does believe it is possible. 

2) Phase out fossil fuels and run on sunlight, wind, water, and geothermal energy. 

We’ve all heard of this one before and there has been significant progress in recent years. The UK is actually one of the top producers of renewable energy, especially due to its many offshore wind farms. As of December 2020, renewables generated 40% of total electricity produced in the UK and there are plans to increase this so that renewables will power every home in the country by 2030. One thing everyone can do is to switch to an energy provider that uses renewable energy and choose a bank that invests in renewable power instead of fossil fuels.

[Source: Unsplash/Andreas Gucklhorn]

3) Protect our Oceans.

Attenborough stresses that the ocean is a critical ally in the battle to reduce carbon in our atmosphere. Up until the 1990s, the global air temperature was relatively stable because the oceans were absorbing much of the excess heat, effectively masking our impact. However, the ocean has long become unable to absorb all the excess heat caused by human activities and water temperature is thus rising at an alarming speed. On top of that, overfishing has disrupted the oceanic nutrient cycle, effectively causing ecosystems in the ocean to die. Attenborough thus suggests protecting this invaluable ecosystem by restricting fishing practices and protecting certain areas so that fish stocks and coral reefs can recover (so-called “no fish zones”). Re-establishing fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs will enable the ocean to once again become healthy and balanced so that it can resume its important function of capturing our carbon. 

[Source: Unsplash/Francesco Ungaro]

4) Change our diet.

Over 40% of the land on our planet is used for agriculture. Attenborough advises to radically reduce the area we use to farm to make space for returning wilderness. But how, you might ask, should we do that, considering there are increasingly more people in the world that all need to be fed. According to Attenborough, the quickest and most effective way to revert farmland into wild spaces is to change our diet. To put it simply, the planet cannot support billions of meat-eaters. There just isn’t enough space for all the pasture and for growing that much animal feed. Currently, only about half of the world’s crop calories are eaten directly by people -- another 36% is used for animal feed (and the rest goes towards biofuels and other industrial uses). If we all had a largely plant-based diet, we would need only half the land we use at the moment! On top of that, yields on this land would be increased substantially as we could now focus all our efforts on growing crops instead of animal feed. A simple switch for everyone is to consume less meat and animal products and instead try incorporating more vegetarian or vegan options into their diet.

[Source: Unsplash/Vlad Hilitanu]

5) Halt deforestation immediately.

This is another point that seems obvious but is so, so important. Forests are the very best technology nature has for locking away carbon AND they contain a lot of biodiversity. Protecting our forests, especially large, ancient rainforests such as the Amazon, is thus crucial to slowing climate change and preserving species. Beef, soybean*, and palm oil are the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon basin. By reducing your consumption of these foods and checking labels closely, you can do your part to protect this precious part of our planet. 

*It is important to mention here that the soybean that is driving deforestation in many parts of the world is not used to make human food such as soy milk or tofu but the vast majority is used as animal feed. In fact, 70% of the world’s soy is fed to livestock and only 6% is turned into human food (the rest is turned into soybean oil). It is thus even more important to stop eating beef as trees are not only felled for their pasture but also to grow their feed.

Looking out for products certified by the Rainforest Alliance or FSC can help you make choices that will protect our forests. [Sources: Rainforest Alliance / Forest Stewardship Council]

How can we live a sustainable life?
Attenborough gives a wonderfully simple definition of sustainability. He defines sustainable as “things we can do forever” and unsustainable as “things we can’t do forever”, such as cutting down rainforests, for example. These resources are finite and cannot be renewed. Living a sustainable life, thus, means making choices that do not take from the environment but give back to it. Everyday choices, such as the kind of electricity you use, the amount of waste you produce or the kind of fashion you buy all have an effect on our planet’s future. Back in the day, before humans knew how to farm, when we were all hunter-gatherers, we lived a sustainable life because that was the only option. Now, it is the only option again. Ultimately, in Attenborough’s words, we have to become a part of nature again, instead of living apart from nature.


David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet. 2020. Silverback Films & WWF. Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes, and Keith Scholey. Available on Netflix.