Attenborough calls for the rewilding of Earth
Can we still save the planet? A new EU report shows that three quarters of Europe’s species require better conservation, and 80% of its key natural habitats are in poor or bad condition.
An elderly man walks through a deserted city. The floors of the decaying buildings are strewn with broken glass and books whose pages stir in the wind. The only other human faces to be seen are on a faded mural. A fox slips along a corridor; a moose pauses in the middle of the road. Enormous trees have grown among abandoned tower blocks.
The man is David Attenborough, and the place he is exploring is Chernobyl. Following an explosion at its nuclear power plant in 1986, every one of its 50,000 inhabitants had to be evacuated. The explosion was the result of human error – perhaps the most expensive one ever.
“But,” Attenborough says in his new film, A Life on Our Planet, “Chernobyl was a single event. The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding across the globe, barely noticeable from day to day. I’m talking about the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity.”
The environment, he explains, is “a finely tuned life-support machine”, that humans have pushed out of sync. As at Chernobyl, the natural world will survive in some form – but unless we mend our ways, we may not.
The European Environment Agency’s latest report echoes his anxiety. It says that less than half of the continent’s bird species are thriving, and marine populations are threatened by over-fishing.
Attenborough was born in 1926, and the pace of change in his 94 years has been extraordinary. When he was 11, the world held two billion people, and 66% of the Earth was wilderness. Today its population is 7.8 billion, and only 35% is wilderness.
Some of the film is horrifying. In one scene, an enormous old tree is felled by a single man with a power saw. Half of the world’s rainforests – some three trillion trees – have now been lost.
Attenborough outlines two possible scenarios for the future. The first is truly frightening.
In the 2030s, the Amazon rainforest becomes a dry savannah. In the 2040s, global warming accelerates as melting permafrost releases methane into the atmosphere.
In the 2050s, coral reefs die and fish populations crash. In the 2080s, over-farmed soil results in food shortages.
By 2100, much of the planet is uninhabitable and billions are homeless.
But, Attenborough tells us, “If we act now, we can yet put it right.”
Carbon levels can be reduced by using power from wind, water and the Sun. These are predicted to be the world’s main sources of power within 20 years.
The sea could be replenished by introducing no-fishing zones. This has been successfully done in Palau, and is being attempted on a much larger scale by the UN.
Eating less meat would reduce the demand for farmland and make reforesting possible. Dutch vegetable farmers have managed to increase production tenfold by using sustainable methods.
In Costa Rica, much of the rainforest has been re-established thanks to government grants. On a global scale, we could grow enough trees to absorb two thirds of the carbon we have emitted to date.
Can we still save the planet?
Some say, no: too many of us are short-sighted about climate change and only interested in getting rich. As long as there are profits to be made from destroying rainforests and burning fossil fuel, people will carry on doing so. And with powerful leaders like presidents Trump and Bolsonaro encouraging their activities, there is little anyone else can do to stop them.
Others argue that nobody deliberately sets out to destroy the natural world – we just need people like Attenborough to explain the problem and show us how to behave better. The huge amount of plastic in the oceans only became widely recognised a couple of years ago; as soon as it did, we set out to reduce it. If we come together to voice our concerns, governments will have to address them.
- What is the most effective way to make people change their habits and help the environment?
- Should the government ban food that is not produced sustainably?
- Vast areas of rainforest, Attenborough tells us, have been cleared to make way for palm trees whose oil is used in food manufacturing. Design a poster encouraging people not to buy products containing palm oil.
- In 1971, Attenborough met a tribe of hunter gatherers in New Guinea who had had no previous contact with the modern world. Write a story about such a meeting from a tribe member’s point of view.
Some People Say...
“Nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration.”David Attenborough (1926–), British broadcaster and environmentalist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that there have been five mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. The last one, which ended the age of the dinosaurs, wiped out 75% of the planet’s species. All involved a huge build-up of carbon in the atmosphere – and humans have produced as much in the last 200 years as earlier volcanic activity did in one million. Before the industrial revolution, global temperatures had hardly varied for 10,000 years; in Attenborough’s lifetime they have risen by 1°C.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether it is feasible to reduce intensive farming, which is encouraged by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Farm animals use up a huge proportion of Earth’s natural resources; half of the planet’s fertile ground is now farmland. Attenborough argues that we must rewild much of it in order to rebalance the environment, and many in the EU are keen to change the CAP. But they face opposition from member states in which the agricultural lobby is strong.
- A painting done on a wall. The most famous contemporary muralist is Banksy.
- Short for “synchronisation”, which comes from two Greek words meaning “together” and “time”. Machines are synchronised so that the different parts move at the right speed to work together.
- Cut down. For those who do not care about the environment, felling the rainforest is doubly profitable, because they can sell the trees for timber and the cleared land for agriculture.
- A possible situation. It originally meant the outline of a play.
- A landscape containing only scattered trees.
- Ground that has remained frozen for two years or more. Almost a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere contains it.
- A type of gas that is harmful to the atmosphere. The worry is that it would be produced by rotting vegetation which had been frozen until that point.
- A country in the Pacific Ocean consisting of 340 islands. The no-fishing zone allowed fish to multiply so much that they spilled over into the areas where fishing was permitted, providing catches as large as the fishermen needed.
- The Brazilian president, nicknamed “Captain Chainsaw”, whose government stands accused of undoing years of work to protect the Amazon rainforest.