Sir David Attenborough's witness statement
It’s impossible to ignore what our environment is telling us, the changes in climate, in extreme weather patterns, the melting of the glaciers and polar ice caps, the bleaching of coral reefs, or fires like the one that ripped through Australia at the end of 2019 early 2020 - surely one of the worst in our history.
I learnt about bushfires in the very first year of arriving in Sydney. One afternoon in the Summer holidays, our neighbours collectively started to hose down their roofs and front yards; I remember my dad asking them what was happening. They pointed at a distant horizon of a fireline and simply said that if you can see the fireline, you need to prepare your house. An elderly neighbour pointed to the edge of our front lawn (the fireline was coming from behind us; as our house at the time backed onto a reserve, with a valley between us and the fire) and said, a few years ago, that was where the fire stopped. I realised that the massive burnt out old tree stump in the back of our house was a reminder of this old fire.
Whilst I’m not attempting to write a news report, it is however important to put into perspective the drastic nature of the 2020 fires: 70 meters high fire fronts were experienced, the Sydney Opera House stands at 65 meters. 50 million acres of land were incinerated, twice the area of South Korea.
And one year on, we are still feeling the effects of that fire: there was an eerie absence of bees this Summer. During lockdown in 2020, I had watered the garden well each day and we had the most abundant number of apple blossoms on our little tree since we planted it. But, without the bees, there were no apples at all this year.
I watched the documentary by Sir David twice, once when it first came out this year and then again more recently. David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet is his witness statement, of the destruction of the planet in a single lifetime; his.
Throughout his lifelong career of educating and reporting on different types of life on our planet; Sir David has been a constant source of inspiration to me personally, and to my children. I was lucky enough to bring my kids to see him in person at the State Theatre, not once, but twice, over the years.
In this documentary, he charts the disappearance of wilderness, and with that, biodiversity; from when he was a small boy fossil hunting, to now, as a grand old man of 95. You don’t need to have all the statistics in front of you to know that this is happening; but to have the statistics spelt out, well, it has an incredibly sobering effect. Currently, humans account for one-third of the mass of mammals on earth with a further 60% from the mammals we raise to eat; the rest, “from mice to whales make up just 4%”.
“We have replaced the wild with the tame.” Sir David’s account is clear eyed and without gimmicks - he was merely stating facts. “This is now our planet, raised by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world.” It is not that we don’t know this, that we are at the top of the foodchain. But it is the second sentence that struck home, that as a species, we have manipulated out the existence for the rest of the living world.
But Sir David is an educator, he is not just telling us sobering facts, but he is encouraging us to change our behaviour. We don’t need the government to bail us out, (we do of course need them to sign up to the right sanctions), instead we need solidarity amongst ourselves, as sovereign agents, as citizens of this planet. For every person who turns to a more plant-based diet, for every person who recycles and don’t go for fast fashion, fast food, fast-anything really, we will generate less waste. Clean up the rubbish on the beaches, on the roadside, in the park during your walk, yes, other people’s rubbish. Plant trees, encourage your children and neighbours to do the same.
Two-thirds of the way through the documentary; Sir David remarked that if we continued in our unchanging ways, a sixth mass extinction event would occur and “the Holocene, our Garden of Eden, will be lost”. We have now gone past the Holocene.
In Breaking Boundaries: The Science of our Planet, according to Professor Johan Rockström, we are now in the Anthropocene (Anthropo- meaning relating to humankind) meaning we have created our own geological epoch.
There are so many important things that science can tell us. It is now time to listen.
Scientists have identified four biosphere boundaries for the living earth: i/ land configurations - composition of biomes, including all types of forests and grasslands and wetlands; ii/ biodiversity which includes all species in water and on land, iii/ the ‘bloodstream’ or the hydrological cycle and lastly iv/ the nitrogen phosphorous cycle which provides the nutrients to feed the living biospheres.
The composition and health of the living world depends on a balance of these biospheres; what we are seeing is not only our rapid approach to these tipping points; but once we have gone beyond that boundary, tragically, there is no return.
Scientists, biologists, ecologists are all sounding the alarm. Professor Carlos Nobre who has been studying the Amazon for decades asks “Are we concerned about keeping the carbon in the forests? Or, “ I don’t care?” 15 billion trees are cut down each year; as the forest becomes more fragmented, it will be subject to a process called Savannization; carbon is released into the atmosphere in this process. Prof. Nobre’s modelling shows that up to 200 billion tons of carbon will be released by the Amazon over the next 30 years, which is equivalent to the amount of all carbon emissions over the past 5 years. Dr Anne Larigauderie from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services; says that we are “losing the fabric of life…and threatening our own life on Earth… because you can’t feed the planet.” As Prof. Rockström says, biodiversity is not just about beauty or is it a morally related issue; but it is the fundamental toolbox for the living world, for crop production, producing clean air; insects, when they go about their daily business do just this. Without biodiversity, the planet is gradually losing its resilience; and biomes become weaker and weaker. Prof. Elena Bennett who studies nutrients and fertilisers talks about the algae blooms we are seeing across the world, they are due to over fertilisation of crops and the run-offs into waterways and lakes causes eutrophication; which is also now widespread in the oceans. Prof. Terry Hughes talks about ocean acidification, and over the last decades, the ocean is already 26% more acidic. Another thing that is causing damage to the health of the oceans is the raising in sea temperature. He has led 3 of the last 5 surveys on the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, in 2016, 2017 and 2020. He says that you can see a bleached reef from kilometers away; as it literally “glows”; and yet, only yesterday, the 21 country-strong Unesco committee rejected putting the Great Barrier Reef on an ‘in danger’ list from climate change. Prof. Hughes is in tears just talking about the confronting nature of surveying these bleached reefs; knowing that we have gone far past the tipping point for coral bleaching; and no one is listening.
Let’s stop here. Because...
It is now time to listen. It is now time to act.
Start by watching these two documentaries. But don’t stop after you’ve wiped up your tears. Change the way you live your life, one day at a time, influence one person at a time, your sister, your son, your husband, a friend, your brother and father, your grandmother, grandfather, your mother, your daughter. It can be done.
It is our debt to our planet and to the human race that we work towards a common future: that of a liveable habitat for ourselves. The time is not for enterprise nor power struggles by governments, the time is for the possibility of salvation - our own. If this be a Godless world - and I’m not saying there is or isn’t a God, as that is not the debate here, (not forgetting that Simone Weil made God and Science commensurate), for humans to exist, there has to be a common belief in creating our own destinies and for those of our next generation.
David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet is currently showing on Netflix
Breaking Boundaries: The Science of our Planet is also currently showing on Netflix