An overdue call to action, or a subdued contemplation of the damage we’ve done?
Despite being an advocate for the preservation of the natural world, Attenborough has never been at the forefront of the environmental movement. Now, along with Greta Thunberg, it seems he has become the face of it. In this accompanying book to the Netflix documentary, Attenborough gives us part memoir/part call-to-action as he reflects on his life, career and the world he loves so deeply. “As I write this, I am 94. I have had the most extraordinary life. It is only now that I appreciate how extraordinary” begins Attenborough as he delivers his testimony.
It is a book of three parts. The first, My Witness Statement, talks us through Attenborough’s life at different stages – from his childhood days searching for fossils in the English countryside, right through his career as naturalist and broadcaster to the present day. It is this first part of the book which is most familiar, most encapsulating, most Attenborough. The middle section of the book – What Lies Ahead – is a reality check. Attenborough lays out the painful future that’s on the horizon if things carry on as they have – ice-free summers in the Arctic by the 2030s, global food production breaking down by the 2080s, and wide-scale and unmanageable human migration by 2100. The world as we have known it, “our Garden of Eden” he calls it, would be gone.
A Vision for the Future: How to Rewild the World, follows on to tell us what needs to be done and, perhaps more importantly, what people are already doing. This was informative, but for me a bit of a repeat of what I already know as someone interested in environmental issues. For others, some of the scientific modelling and jargon drawn upon might be less accessible. The focus on what “we” can do as though we are all equal partners was tiresome. It is no lie that collective responsibility and action is key to tackling this emergency, but it is those in power to whom we should really be turning and holding accountable. We can eat all the vegan meat we want, walk instead of drive, follow those colour-coded recycling guides, but unless the corporations and governments that control the global economy really pull up their socks, progress will always be limited. Sir David doesn’t get political enough, and for me he therefore doesn’t quite get to the crux of the issue.
Early in A Life on our Planet, Attenborough recalls the remarkable moment that humanity learned of the boundaries of our Earth when in 1968, the Apollo 8 mission broadcast images of the Earth from space. The realisation that “our planet is small, isolated, and vulnerable” should have been a wake-up call that our world and its resources are not infinite, but instead humanity kept hitting the snooze button. And that includes Sir David himself. He admits that what he saw on his travels early on in his career and the way the wilderness was portrayed through his programmes were to some degree an “illusion” and that the natural world was already well under threat when he was young. I love Attenborough, but I cannot help but ask: why has it taken him so long to speak up? Overall, the book is passionate, but subdued. His emotion and authenticity do shine through, but I guess I wanted more. Having said that, Sir David is to many, myself included, a comforting force of wisdom and warmth and always will be – long after he’s no longer with us. People of all ages and all backgrounds listen to him, and they value what he has to say. What matters most is that they actually take heed and take it further, even if it has been a long time coming. The world can be our Garden of Eden once again.