The sixth mass extinction
When the Apollo 8 mission first launched, David Attenborough, an acclaimed broadcaster and natural historian, recalled being in a television studio and getting to see the world isolated in space vicariously through the eyes of the astronauts. “Our home was not limitless,” he recalls in his new documentary, “there was an edge to our existence.”
With 2020’s record-breaking fires, hurricanes, a global pandemic, and subsequent economic collapse, that edge indeed seems nigh. Attenborough recently released his own documentary, A Life On Our Planet, in hopes that his life’s work and observations might serve both as admonition and encouragement for a better future.
Just before the release of the documentary, the 94 year-old joined Instagram, and within under an hour of registering, he had over a million followers—breaking the world record (previously held by Jennifer Aniston). His premiere on the media platform was clearly meant to serve the documentary release with his first post saying, “saving our planet is now a communications challenge.”
The film is a candid cover of both his lifetime and his hope for the next century—one that is pivotal for the human race: “This film is my witness statement and my vision for the future, the story of how we came to make this our greatest mistake, and how if we act now, we can yet put it right.”
In 1937, the world population was 2.3 billion, the carbon was at 280 parts per million, the remaining wilderness was at 66%. “Back then it seemed inconceivable that we, a single species, might one day have the power to threaten the very existence of the wilderness,” he says. But the film reveals the tragic but vital discoveries that unmasked this fallacy.
In the ’70s, while working on Life On Earth, Attenborough filmed 650 species, traveling one and a half million miles. The more he traveled, the more he began to notice some species became increasingly hard to find. “The process of extinction that I’d seen as a boy… in the rocks, I know became aware was happening right there around me to animals with which I was familiar—our closest relatives.” And it wasn’t just single species, or even groups—but entire ecosystems.
Coral reefs were turning white from expelled algae, “When you first see it, you think perhaps that it’s beautiful, and suddenly you realize it’s tragic because what you’re looking at is skeletons—skeletons of dead creatures.” Further studies began to reveal the bleached reefs were correlated to spots in the ocean that were warming up.
From the oceans, to the forests, to the arctic caps, “no ecosystem, no matter how big, is secure.” By the end of the twentieth century, Borneo’s rainforest had been reduced by 50%, and “Summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years,” he added. The freshwater creature dwelling populations have been reduced by over 80% due to damming, polluting, and extracting rivers and lakes, with half of the land on earth used up as farmland.
“That non-human world is gone.” He mourned as he said this. As he sat with his head hung down, it’s easy to recognize the grief in the weathered face of a man who for nearly a century has been dedicated to exploring and preserving the beauty of the natural world, only to see its destruction. “If we continue on our current course, the damage that has been the defining feature of my lifetime will be eclipsed by the damage coming in the next.”
In the year 2020, with the world population of 7.8 billion and the carbon in the atmosphere 415 parts per million, the remaining wilderness is only at 35%. Attenborough projected what his lifetime and witness statement might be were he born today:
The 2030s—the Amazon rainforest is cut down until it can no longer produce enough moisture turning into a Savannah, with catastrophic species loss and altering the global water cycle. The Arctic becomes ice-free in the summers, and without the white caps to reflect sunlight back into space, the speed of global warming increases.
The 2040s—In the north, frozen soils thaw and produce methane (“a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide”), accelerating climate change’s rate even more dramatically. The ocean will lose more coral reefs and grow more and more acidic, destroying the fish population.
The 2080s—Global food production becomes exhausted through overuse. Pollinating insects disappear, with weather growing more and more unpredictable.
The 2100s—“Our planet becomes four degrees celsius warmer. Large parts of the earth are uninhabitable. Millions of people rendered homeless. A sixth mass extinction is well underway. This is a series of one-way doors bringing irreversible change.”
Attenborough, despite his age, has been no less vigorous in his activism, speaking at the UN climate change conference for 2018, and in 2019 with the World Economic Forum.
Attenborough feels so profoundly fortunate to have had the life he has, and he spoke to the wish that the struggle wasn’t there himself. But they are. “No one wants this to happen,” he says, “none of us can afford for it to happen. So, what do we do?”
Attenborough claims it a simpler task than purported. “To restore stability to our planet, we must restore it’s biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis.”
With so many people on the planet, Attenborough says an important precursor to ease the challenges ahead: the human population must peak to increase the standard of living without increasing our impact. Moreover, solar energy and geothermal systems must be introduced, shifting away from fossil fuels. “It’s crazy that our banks and our pensions are investing in fossil fuel when these are the very things that are jeopardizing the future that we are saving for,” he says.
Reducing farming land (changing diets to largely plant-based diet and indoor food growing and at sea), setting out no-fish zones so that populations may recover, protecting forests (as they are the best “at locking away carbon”), are all incredibly impactful shifts that need to be made. “Nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration,” he says. It’s been at the game a lot longer than humans, and it will be around long after.
As the doc concludes, he reminds the world this is not a battle to save the planet—but ourselves—for the natural world—with or without us—will rebuild. “However grave our mistakes, nature will ultimately overcome them,” he says, “the living world will endure, we humans can not presume the same.”
This is a selection from the Nov. 11 issue. To view the full issue, visit: https://online.flippingbook.com/view/834159/