Brighton, England, UK – Sir David Attenborough, one of the most credible names in the world is celebrated for his successes as a conservationist and documentarian.
He’s given society a glimpse into the natural world for 66 years, letting all experience the planet’s beauty – north to south, desert to rainforest, ocean to ice.
This year, he turned 94 years old. As his potentially final large project, Attenborough’s new reflective documentary A Life on Our Planet is his witness statement and vision for the future.
The documentary, produced by the World Wildlife Fund, came out on Netflix last month.
It’s unique to anything Attenborough has previously produced.
In contrast to the usual magnificent animal stand-offs, migrations of vast animals and vibrant birds, this creation is a warning.
Sure, it still has jaw-dropping images one could only dream of seeing in person, but they support a bleak intent – to communicate how we need to stop exploiting the natural world.
The videos are accompanied by Attenborough’s narration, first-person accounts and statistics.
The entire production does a fantastic job of simplifying the ideas we as a society often see as abstract and impossible: the systematic and comprehensive destruction of our planet, how to stop it, and what will happen if we don’t.
It begins in Chernobyl, where one of the most significant examples of human-made destruction, caused uninhabitable life for our population. It then continues as a building summary of Attenborough’s history with the wild alongside old footage, making the audience appreciate all the greatness it has to offer and comprehend how we’ve destroyed it for the past 94 years.
As Attenborough discusses his experiences, he includes a timestamp accompanied by the world population, the parts of carbon in the atmosphere and the percentage of remaining wilderness.
Not only does this documentary tug at audience heartstrings with seeing orangutans searching for home amid a destroyed rainforest, seals falling to their deaths off melting ground, whale-hunting, and more, but it contains harrowing statistics that sent a chill down my spine.
“In the past 40 years, we’ve lost 40% of our sea ice.”
“In the past 50 years, fishing boats venturing deep waters have stripped the ocean of 90% of its large fish.”
“Half of the fertile land on Earth is now used for agriculture.”
All these statistics make it impossible to disagree: “Our blind assault on the planet has finally come to alter the very fundamentals of the living world.”
The second half of the documentary is about the steps we urgently need to take to halt disruption to our Holocene and prevent a fast-tracked mass-extinction.
Some steps are well known and increasingly practiced: use renewable energy, eat less meat and generate more social protest.
Others are original, beginning with Attenborough’s theory that widening opportunities for those in developing countries will decrease birth rates, as happened in Europe and Japan throughout history.
His second unique idea is the widening of marine reserves to refill the ocean with life and therefore food, as practiced by the Pacific Island nation of Palau which integrated this technique after overfishing resulted in a food shortage.
Attenborough ensures these techniques are communicated as achievable and sustainable, not only for the environment, but for society.
But he terrifyingly warns of our future if we continue our destructive ways in a doom-filled timeline:
2030s – The Amazon rainforest is cut until it can no longer produce enough moisture to sustain itself and becomes the victim of further wildfires until it transforms into a dry savannah, causing catastrophic species loss and altering the global water cycle. The Arctic is ice-free in the summer, meaning the Earth absorbs more energy from the sun as it cannot be reflected out to space, increasing the speed of global warming.
2040s – The frozen soils of the North thaw, releasing methane (a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon) into the atmosphere, causing irreversible damage and accelerating the climate change rate dramatically.
2050s – The ocean heats, increasing its acidity, killing coral reefs all around the world and drastically decreasing fish populations.
2080s – A food production crisis; soils become exhausted by overuse. Pollinating insects go extinct, and the weather is increasingly unpredictable.
2100s – The planet warms by four degrees Celsius meaning large parts of the Earth become uninhabitable, rendering millions homeless. A sixth mass extinction event is well underway.
Forbes has named A Life on Our Planet the most important documentary of the year because Attenborough’s call to action is necessary in order to sustain our species for centuries to follow. Back at Chernobyl, now overtaken by forest and rare wild animal species, Attenborough concludes, “The living world can endure, we humans cannot say the same.”
Ultimately through wisdom and will, we can choose to be a part of nature’s future or not.
Lili Connell is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.